Sunday, 8 April 2012

H is for...

Historical Theory. If you’re writing historical fiction, researching history for pleasure, doing some kind of historical study or anything else related to the past, you need to understand at least the basics of some of the arguments that have done the rounds when it comes to history. There isn’t time to cover all of them, but here are some of the key questions with very brief answers, at least.

1. Can we actually know anything about the past? Assuming we can know anything for certain about anything, possibly. We have evidence about the past. That evidence points to things happening or not happening.
2. Is what we write as history an accurate representation of the past? Can we tell? We’ll never know for sure, because we don’t have access to the past. We can tell if an explanation is consistent with the evidence, though.
3. What did event A mean? Facts are facts, but meaning is a layer of interpretation inserted afterwards by historians. Or made up, if you prefer.
4. Is it possible to be objective? Are you a robot? Then no, regardless of what certain nineteenth century historians may have felt.
5. What about metanarratives? Metanarratives are large stories about the sweep of history (such as the inevitable rise of Marxism, the Whig view of the inevitability of British Parliamentary Democracy, or the general notion of progress) like all meanings, they’re added afterwards. They’re generally something to avoid.
6. Which bits of history are worth researching? Which bits do you feel like? The point is that you’ll automatically make selections based on what you feel is important/interesting, which is part of why you can’t really be objective.
7. Do we just tell stories when we write history? Quite possibly. The narrativist school certainly thinks so. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
8. Can I apply my theory/technique to historical research? Maybe, and if it lets us genuinely interpret history in a new way, it might be useful. Or it might be made up nonsense, like the psycho-analytical approach to history.
9. What is history for? Since I’m largely a narrativist, I’m going to go with ‘all the things that stories are for’ and leave it at that.


Creepy Query Girl said...

I find myself pondering things like this too. It's hard to know exactly the way things were before recorded history. Works of art help us try and fill in the blanks. Great 'h' word!

Dawn Embers said...

Interesting. I don't know much about historical approaches or historical fiction but enjoyed reading the post. Well done.

L.G.Smith said...

History is written by the winners too, so you have to expect that the story is always going to be slanted one way or the other in certain instances. I love history, but most of what we read is another person's interpretation of events. It's good to keep that in mind and read with a critical eye.

Yay history!

Arlee Bird said...

I enjoy reading history especially if it is written in an entertaining narrative style. I hope what I read is accurate, but it is difficult to say unless you become a student of a particular historical era and read many accounts from that era or from those who were closer to the era. The more recent an account, the more it is apt to be tainted by modern interpretations and comparisons to the current age.

An A to Z Co-Host
Tossing It Out

Deniz Bevan said...

I like thinking about these questions a lot, especially since I write historical fiction, and so I always wonder - am I being anachronistic? how much vernacular speech can I use? And so on...