It’s been quite a while since my last post, but I have been learning the frameworks of a blog while I balance work at a museum and conduct research in my off hours on a 19th century bark. For a writer and for the subject of all things historical such a blog needs to focus on writing, research, recent discoveries in different disciplines that compliment history, author interviews and thoughts on both fiction and non-fiction. I love to read and write both. For the purpose of this blog, it’s important to look at both and understand the genres.
For example, what is historical fiction? That’s a good question.
According to the Historical Novel Society, a novel “must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research)” in order to be considered historical fiction. Sharpe’s Rifles is historical fiction, Cold Mountain, Prince of Foxes (an old favorite), Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Ice Reich, Atonement, The Wet Nurse’s Tale. All historical fiction. Then there is historical mystery, historical thrillers, and historical fantasies. All of them required some homework to create a believable world.
Non-fiction book on the history, on the other hand, is much more exacting. I was trained as an historian and did my undergraduate work at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. One of the requirements for my degree was to write a thesis. I had earlier been an intern for the Anthropology Department at the Smithsonian, flipping carefully through early 19th century American magazines on the lookout for graphics of Native Americans. Later, I wrote a thesis on the Comanche Indians as prisoners of war. I read saddle reports on microfilm, old magazines and letters which hadn’t seen light in over a century. When I wrote the piece, I could comment on the weather and quote what someone had recalled about the event, all backed by further research from different points of view and materials.
The Rule of Three
I was always trained that in writing the history about some event or person, I would need a minimum of three resources to support whatever I was writing about. For example, I am currently researching a 19th century bark. For years, historians reported that the bark was in a certain place at a certain time. I thought it was too early. It’s taken more than half a year, but I found the owner and a newspaper article about where the bark was located. So far, I have a pretty idea that the information about said bark was wrong. All I need now is some ad, some shipping intelligence report or a customs citation to firmly state my case. Then I can say with certainty what the new finding is. All this from 1850 materials.
Historical non-fiction has to be as true as one can discover. David McCullough is a good example of someone who knows the type of research that is required. It can take years, but with a good nose for records finding and a way with the pen (and computer) and prose, you can have a wonderful, informative read such as John Adams. http://www.neh.gov/whoweare/mccullough/biography.html