When doing history, as with almost anything else, there is a specialised body of theory that goes with it at higher levels. This is a body of thought that can be overlooked by people looking for a simple historical setting for their novel, or just looking to include a few bits and pieces here and there. That’s fine, but there are still certain theoretical pitfalls to watch out for. Things that will, in historical terms at least, be the equivalent of a big neon sign saying ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’. Politicians are particularly prone to them, being particularly fond of the now extremely out-dated Whig view of history. Here are a few of my favourites, to avoid where you can:
Historical Inevitability. Please understand, the past did not inevitably lead to this point. It was not a neat progression along an arc defined by your philosophy, whether that is the Marxist view of a defined series of stages towards a communist state, or the Whig view of an inevitable progression towards parliamentary democracy.
Indeed, the whole notion of progress can be a bit iffy, because progress implies progression towards a defined point. What point? Also, we must remember that things can be, and have been, forgotten. China, for example, largely forgot about the mechanical clock for several centuries. Don’t assume an inevitable rise of civilization/technology/little fluffy bunnies.
The notion of a single, big, easily finished off history. Thank Lord Acton for this one. In the nineteenth century, he and his fellows mostly did big history of the kings and dates kind (or History, as people tend to call it). Working from that, he came to the not unreasonable conclusion that, since there was only so much History to go around, and since the job of the historian was to get to the truth, eventually, they would. Probably by the end of his century, as it happened, leaving the remainder of the millennium off for golf so long as you kept up as you went along. Postmodernist thought about a multiplicity of histories put paid to that one, I’m afraid. Also I don’t like golf.
That rather peculiar reading of said postmodernist thought that effectively renders all history no more than mere opinion, and suggests that we might as well all go home. Yes, every historian is interpreting, and occupying a point of view. They might even be creating any sense of meaning for themselves, but that doesn’t render everything impossible. Nor does it render every interpretation of the evidence equally valid.
The idea that big history doesn’t matter. I made fun of Acton above, but there’s a danger in going to the other extreme, as some cultural historians do, and ignoring History of that type in favour of very small things that just happen to interest them. First, without an understanding of major events going on around them, it is impossible to understand those smaller points. Secondly, I happen to take quite a narrative approach to history, and I believe that it only becomes relevant as an act of communication. So if you’re doing something no one will ever want to listen to, it defeats some of the object. Worse, it can create a distorted picture of the past, where the deliberate examination of the less important can appear to reduce the place of a more important aspect (of course, there’s a whole argument about the notion of importance there).
So what does all this theory mean for writers? Possibly not a huge amount. As I said before, you can go a long way without ever touching on this stuff. There are some broad lessons to draw from it, though. My hatred of the notion of destiny in novels stems from the problems with inevitability, for example. Perhaps you will, at least be better placed now to spot one of these ideas if it should crop up in your writing.