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What's the Best Way to Write about History?

Biff Barnes

I have recently read two excellent pieces of historical fiction. They raise some interesting questions for those of us want to write about history or family history. The first is Graham Moore’s The Last Days of Night. The second is Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon’s Moonglow.

The two books are stylistically quite different. Chris Schluep, writing for The Amazon Book Review describes The Last Days of Night in this way:

Great inventors take the stage in this historical fiction/legal thriller based on the lighting of New York City in the 1890s. The story is told by Paul Cravath, an attorney hired by George Westinghouse to take on Thomas Edison in a battle over lightbulb patents. The setup may sound dry, but Graham’s pacing keeps the story driving forward. There are crimes. There’s a mysterious woman. There’s a mad genius in the form of Nikola Tesla. And it’s all sets against the backdrop of the glittering Gilded Age.

Moonglow is much more literary in style. In 1989 Chabon visited his mother’s home in Oakland, California to see his terminally-ill grandfather. Under the influence of powerful painkillers and impending death his grandfather told him stories about the family that he never heard before. These stories became the basis for Moonglow

  1. The result is a sprawling, yet intensely personal, paean to his grandparents, their lives together and as individuals. World War II and its atrocities cast long shadows, as does the Space Race and the titular moon, which hangs over the story as a bright dream of escape and a dark reminder of failed aspiration. - Jon Foro, The Amazon Book Review

Different as they are both books work, re-creating a time and place and capturing the drama of unfolding events. Isn’t that really the essence of writing history?

Of course not say most historians and family historians. The historian’s duty, they would say, is to gather the facts, document them, and report what happened. And that’s a valid point of view. However, even among the most professional of historians the search for truth is not always completely pure. Historian David Lowenthal in his essay The Frailty of Historical Truth on the American Historical Association website observed, “Every historian makes things up while writing—selecting, omitting, and reshaping data to make an argument clear, a point vivid, a conclusion indubitable.” That reshaping is often in service telling the story of what happened well, for as Pulitzer prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman has said, “Narrative is the lifeblood of history.”

The degree to which an author may reshape history runs along the spectrum. Chabon’s approach lies at the completely fictional end of the spectrum. He completely reimagines the world described in his conversations with his grandfather to produce what his publisher described as, “A lie that tells the truth, a work of fictional nonfiction, an autobiography wrapped in a novel disguised as a memoir…”

Moore’s work is much more rooted in historical fact. He explains in an author’s note:

As a work of historical fiction, this novel is intended as a dramatization of history, not a recording of it. Nothing you’ve read here should be understood as verifiable fact. However, the bulk of the events depicted in this book did happen and every major character did exist. Much of the dialogue comes either from historical personages’ own mouths or from the tips of their prodigious pens. Yet many of these events have been reordered and characters appear in places they may not have. I’ve frequently invented situations that very well could have happened but were certainly not documented. This book is a Gordian knot of verifiable truth educated supposition dramatic rendering, and total guesswork.

Tuchman moves a step further along the spectrum. Limiting herself to what she can prove through primary source documents, she explains that her goal has been, “to write history so as to enthrall the reader and make the subject as captivating and exciting to him as it is to me.” She employs many of the elements of fictional in the process. The result is what many would describe as creative nonfiction or narrative nonfiction.

At the furthest end of the spectrum lies academic history. Reportorial and analytical it concentrates on organizing and interpreting the facts of history, often with little regard for the story behind.

All are valid methods of writing about the past. Which is best? The answer depends on your inclination and the audience to which you want to appeal. When you set out to write about history or your family’s history it’s best to consider all of the possible methods you might employ before choosing the one you actually should employ to create your book.