October 2020: History as a Source Pt 2

In the last part of this article, I talked about why it was important for a creator to get their historical influences and sources right. I talked about the consequences of uncritically accepting potentially unreliable sources, the negative effects which such consequences have had in the past, and some of the common pitfalls which those with a casual interest in history often fall into. In this second part, I mean to talk about ways to research historical sources for a fictional narrative in a way which should, hopefully, be respectful of both the source material, and allow for an understanding of that historical source in-depth enough to be used as the foundation for historical and historically inspired settings and narratives.

To me, studying historical source material for use in writing fiction requires a similar process as that of studying historical source material for writing an academic paper. This is less an objective best practise as it is my personal bias: my academic background is in history, so a framework drawing on that background is the method most familiar to me. That means everything I’m going to talk about here is my opinion, and may not suit others as well as it suits me. There are methods of research which I am not familiar with (for example, oral storytelling as part of a folk tradition), have only been able to use very rarely, and do not feel comfortable dispensing advice about. They are, quite frankly, outside of my field of expertise, and I mention them solely to establish that there are valid means of research beyond what I mention, and that they should not be disregarded or otherwise dismissed simply because I am personally not trained in how to follow them properly.

As for my own process, the first step of basing any setting on a historical source is the same as the first step of writing a paper: choosing a theme, or in particular, a time and a place to draw upon for sources and inspiration. Personally, I would suggest doing this before you begin worldbuilding in earnest. Finding out that your initial assumptions about a given historical period are mistaken is a constant danger when writing any sort of narrative based on a historical source. It’s better to discover these misconceptions early, before you build a setting and plot on top of them and have to face the dilemma of either tearing up your entire previous efforts, or going forward with material you know to be wrong.

A general knowledge of history is a huge help here. This is because while a wide, but shallow understanding of world history is usually insufficient to rely on when writing a setting based on any specific period of history, having that wide breadth of knowledge makes it a lot easier to narrow down potential time periods and cultures which might potentially serve the story idea you have in mind. In truth, when it comes to history, it is far less important to know as much as possible off the top of your head as it is to know where to look for further information on a specific subject you want to know more about. It’s more important to be able to look at a picture, or a read a description of something or someone, and be able to intuit a rough understanding of when and where that picture was taken or that description was written than it is to be able to know every detail. While it is certainly not a bad thing to know a great deal about a very constrained time and place, it is more important for the purposes of worldbuilding and writing fiction that you be able to know just enough about as many times and places as possible so that you know where to start should you need to learn more.

And you will need to learn more. The thing about history is that it’s all connected. With very few exceptions, no culture exists in a historical vacuum, they traded ideas, goods, and immigrants with their neighbours, they took inspiration from those who came before them, and left new inspiration for those that came after. Political history has implications on gender history which has implications on economic history which has implications on engineering history and so on. The neat categories and historical periods we use to split up history exist mostly so that we can sort our reference materials neatly, when it comes to real history, these categories are very often a polite fiction.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t pick a time and a place or an environment to focus on. Even if it isn’t a discrete category by academic standards, the time and place you’ve chosen still existed in a moment of chronology and space, and once you’ve chosen the moment in time and space to base part of your fiction on, it is at last time to begin looking for research material in earnest.

Generally speaking, historical sources can be divided into two categories: primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are accounts written or otherwise recorded by individuals who witnessed the historical events or tendencies in question as they occurred. They are a direct line to the reality of history, filtered through the thoughts of only a single human mind. Samuel Pepys’ account of the Great Fire of London is a primary source, as is Caesar’s commentary on the Gallic Wars, as is Benjamin Harris’ account of his time in Wellington’s army, and Grant’s memoirs of the American Civil War. Primary sources are the closest thing we can get to physically being at an event which took place long before we were born, and as a result, they often convey the visceral feeling of being in the moment better than works with more distance or impartiality.

However, that closeness comes at a price. Almost everyone close enough to a historical event to write about it has their own bias regarding that event or tendency’s causes and outcomes, and in hindsight, these biases may perpetuate misinterpretations or even outright falsehoods. For example, following the Second World War, American and British military historians attempted to piece together events on the Eastern Front by interviewing surrendered senior German officers who had directed operations against the Soviet Union during the war. Naturally, these officers possessed a great deal of insight regarding military operations which they themselves had planned and carried out. However, this personal perspective also meant that the version of the war against the Soviet Union they recounted was heavily at odds with reality. Whether due to a desire to distance themselves from Nazi Germany’s crimes against humanity, to improve their own professional reputations, or simply out of the narrow perspective that comes out of seeing only one side of a war, these officers provided accounts which erased many of the war crimes which the Wehrmacht committed against Soviet prisoners of war and civilians, while similarly perpetuating the false narrative that the Soviet Red Army had only won on the Russian Front due to overwhelming numbers and a callous disregard for human life. It was only when the Soviet State Archives were made available to western historians following the collapse of the USSR that the accounts of these German generals could be compared with the Soviet perspective on the same battles and campaigns: ones which not only revealed that the hands of the German regular military were far from clean, but also that the “endless Russian hordes” which the Germans had seen had been the result of carefully planned operations designed to overwhelm individual German units, even if the Soviets themselves were at numerical parity or disadvantage overall.

After nearly thirty years, academic military historians in the west now have a much better grasp on the Soviet side of the war than they did before. However, the persistent myths spawned or perpetuated by decades in which the primary source memoirs of German officers were taken at face value still remain in the public consciousness. Common myths like Soviet infantry being sent into battle with only one rifle for every two men, or the idea that the Red Army’s most sophisticated tactic was a brute force human wave attack still persist today, much to the annoyance to professional historians and – one must assume – most residents of the former Eastern Bloc.

The second kind of historical source is the secondary source. These sources do not come directly from eyewitnesses, but from those who exist at some distance from the events they are recording. Most history books and documentaries exist as this kind of source. Likewise, any interpretation a creator makes based on their own research is by definition a secondary source. However, secondary sources aren’t entirely separate from primary ones. Most secondary sources will draw on primary sources to build their own interpretations. That being said, there is a very clear difference between primary and secondary sources since, instead of being recounted directly from someone who experienced the events or phenomena in question, secondary sources are interpreted by a second author, one which may come to different conclusions from the primary sources they are drawing on – especially if they are analysing multiple primary sources with seemingly mutually contradictory observations and perspectives.

This of course, doesn’t mean that secondary sources are necessarily more accurate or impartial than primary ones. The authors of secondary sources often possess their own biases, and their interpretation of primary sources may be skewed in a way which demonstrates those biases. Even in a case where the author of a secondary source tries their best to remain impartial, their lack of personal first-hand observations and a limited range of source material may result in mistaken conclusions and inaccurate interpretations.

Take, for example, the case of Sir Charles Oman, the source of one of the most pernicious and persistent historical myths regarding the tactics of the Napoleonic Wars. In his lectures about the Peninsular War, Oman came to the conclusion based on the primary sources he had available that French infantry during Napoleon’s reign always attacked in column, which is to say in a narrow “stack” of individual companies or battalions – as opposed to the conventional practise at the time, which was to fight in wide, thin lines to maximise firepower. This conclusion has been so commonly understood that it’s become part of the body of conventional wisdom about the Napoleonic Wars. Most people who repeat the myth as truth don’t even know where it comes from. They simply accept it as fact because everyone else does.

In reality, Oman, writing his history a hundred years after the events he was describing, had made a minor, but significant mistake in his interpretation of his sources: while his primary sources did repeatedly state that the French launched attacks in column, they did not state that once they approached their enemy, they would usually go on to deploy at least partially into line, to maximise their own firepower – they would only remain in column if they intended to carry out an immediate bayonet charge. It’s possible that Oman’s sources left this part out because to them, it was so obvious that it didn’t have to be described. Of course the French deployed into line before opening fire – it was the obvious thing to do, and anyone who was personally familiar with the way which battles were fought would have understood that.

-Except Oman wasn’t personally familiar with the way those battles were fought. He was writing a hundred years later, when machine guns and skirmish order had replaced muskets and line and column. The fact that he misinterpreted his evidence had nothing to do with his biases: indeed, Oman did his work on the Peninsular War partially to counter earlier, more Francophobic interpretations. He wasn’t a bad historian either. He simply made a mistake which even good historians sometimes make, when presented with incomplete evidence: he came to a conclusion which he believed was supported by his evidence, and it turned out to be the wrong one. It wouldn’t be until decades later, as more primary sources (especially more French primary sources) became available, that his misinterpretation would be seen as such.

The greater availability of historical sources over the Internet (especially through online databases like Jstor) have made it both more difficult and far easier to replicate Oman’s mistake. On one hand, the fact that it’s so much easier to find reputable primary and secondary sources means that with sufficient time and effort, a researcher can put together a more complete view of any given historical event or time period than ever before. However, this also means that the myths, misinterpretations, and intentional distortions are similarly easier to find. Any forum discussion or comment thread about a historical phenomenon with varied enough participants will almost certainly regurgitate erroneous arguments based on “popular wisdom” or “history” which have already been long debunked as either mistaken at best, or come from intentionally harmful conspiracy theory at worst.

There are ways, of course, to mitigate the latter while taking advantage of the former. The two most important are to cast a wide net and to approach each source critically. The two examples I’ve used for the pitfalls of primary and secondary sources have a few things in common, first among them is the fact that they were caused and perpetuated as truth because the evidence that contradicted those examples were unavailable or otherwise disregarded. The best way to avoid making a similar mistake is in trying to understand an event from as many perspectives as possible, and in not dismissing contradictory evidence simply because it doesn’t agree with what you think you already know.

However, that doesn’t mean all perspectives are equally valid, and this is where the second important point comes in: every historian and every eyewitness has conscious biases and unconscious blind spots caused by their own cultural or historical context. To evaluate a source critically is to understand how those biases and blind spots might distort that person’s own view on the events they are recording. In the example of the German generals, I’ve shown you how history can be distorted to serve a personal or an ideological agenda. In the case of Sir Charles Oman, I’ve shown you how a historian’s personal context (in this case, the simple fact that the historian in question was working at a time when the available information was still incomplete) might affect his conclusions. To sort out the erroneous conclusions and intentional distortions effectively, to separate genuine history from myth and conspiracy theory, a historian has to know not only the sources themselves, but the prejudices and circumstances of those who wrote them. Ironically, to be able to study history, one must already have some understanding of history.

Hey, I never said this stuff was easy.

By now, I’ve given you a basic outline of what to look for when doing historical research for your creative work, as well as some basic pointers on how to approach research material. In the third (and hopefully, final) part of this series, I mean to talk about how to implement what you’ve found in a way that fits your setting and story.

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