14 August 2023

What was, what could be, and everything in between.

One reason I love reading history is it’s already happened.  No need to fear impending catastrophe; we already know how the story turns out.  At least in the opinion of the historian, who may differ from others in the field.  And some historical commentary is energetically revisionist.   But generally, you’re safe from new, alarming events suddenly cropping up.  

I especially enjoy history where things worked out well for us, an outcome that at the time was seriously in doubt.  The big daddies of these stories focus on the American Revolution and World War II.  In fact, you could start reading books on these subjects when you’re ten years old and never live long enough to exhaust the supply. 

I like reading about all the stress and worry flooding the nervous systems of people like George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower, whom we think of as implacable, irresistible over-achievers, fully confident that things like crossing the Delaware River in December, in open boats, to attack a bunch of well-trained German mercenaries was a swell idea that was sure to work out just fine.

Eisenhower wrote an apology for the failure of his planned Normandy invasion and stuck it in his pocket the night before D-Day:

"Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone."

It’s powerful reading, also poignantly written.  I’ve never undertaken anything close to what he faced, though I’ve had plenty of moments when I prayed to a God I’m not sure I believe in, “Oh please, Lord, don’t let me f**k this up.”   

I also like to learn that something we all thought had happened one way, has turned out to be something entirely different.  This results from either fresher, better research, or the historian re-examining an event unblinkered by the prejudices of prior commentators.  Or both. 

Despite the fulminations of people unhappy about academics rethinking American history, since much of it throws treasured, self-congratulatory tropes overboard, I’d much rather know.   A good example is the Revolutionary War. Historians like Rick Atkinson are explaining that it was really bloody and awful, with plenty of gruesome excess on both sides of the conflict.  Well, yeah, all wars are like this.  And rather than making our success ignoble it should instruct us that it was one hell of a fight, one over which our ancestors gave their all.

Another benefit of reading history is it reminds us that our humanity hasn’t changed that much, if at all, since people started writing things down.  While technology has evolved, the thoughts, feelings, anxieties, hopes and dreams are all pretty much the same for the Mesopotamian grain merchant as the Wall Street Master of the Universe.  The grunt hauling stones to the pyramid or the slob on the subway trying to make his way home.

How is this germane to the fiction writer?  First off, history has a steadying influence over creative writing.  Things that have happened provide the context for what could have happened, even in science fiction.  Especially. 

Plausibility, credibility, believability.  Some writers hate the notion of being pinned down by the reality of human experience, but any editor will tell you that otherwise promising fiction can be utterly thwarted by flights of fancy launched from unsteady moorings.  You know when you’re reading it that the author is confusing invention with absurdity.  The great jazz musicians knew their scales and classic harmonic relationships.  Joyce, Pound, Stravinsky and Picasso never said abandon all prior structure, but to adapt, modify and innovate within established forms. 

Listeners and readers know this instinctively.  It’s an agreement with the artist.  Know your history, and trust the creators to know it as well.  And it goes both ways.  New Journalism was premised on describing real events with the flair and artistry of fiction.  The historians we love today understand this, and eagerly employ novelists’ techniques to power their tales of the past.  

Everyone’s better for it. 


  1. Chris, this post came at a poignant time, as I am immersed in Egyptian and 1920s history, researching for the WIP (third book in the Merry Widow Murders series.) I can't tell you how important it is to me, to get my facts straight. Maybe it's all the years in academia, but more likely I fear the label of being called 'lazy' - smile.

    1. The best historical fiction is cemented in the reality of life at the time being written about. The art of it is knowing when a deviation serves the story without breaking the inviolability of the context.

  2. I'm troubled by moral revisionists, those who believe the socially conscious of today are superior to all beings who've come before. That belief has blinded people in a certainty they'd never make the same mistakes, they'd never slaughter Indians or annihilate Jews or casually accept slavery despite all evidence to the contrary. The true believers don't realize their own arrogance, which leads to the worst of revisionism. Even worse, it's trendy.

  3. I'll refer you to my Sleuth Sayers bit on book banning. We can revise our understanding and commentary as we go, but should never go back and adjust prior texts. It's part of the record, and for better or worse, we need to know. Historical context is just that. I agree. Moral revisionists are self-satisfied imperious scolds.


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