Sunday, 28 October 2012

A piece of historical theory you need to know

The problem when doing any kind of history is deciding on what it all means. You have all these individual facts, but what's the story? What's the message? What meaning jumps out of them at you? If you don't have some kind of analysis... well, the only way you can do that is by making a dry list, which won't be much use to your novel or historical work.

Historians used to think that the meaning would just come out of the facts at them. That they would somehow understand the underlying truth of it all if they just stared long enough. There's a problem with that, which is essentially that the meaning you get is the meaning you bring with you. I'm not talking about bias. I'm talking about the simple division between historical fact, which happened, and what those facts mean, which is made up by the historian to explain the facts.

Every time you make a historical judgement, you insert yourself into the picture. Every time you find a pattern, you again. Every time you focus on one aspect rather than another, or decide that one thing is more important, that's you. Even if you think you aren't doing much with the history, just finding background details for a novel... well, which background details are important enough to include? What attitudes do you choose to show? What bits of history are you commenting on through their inclusion?

Accept that while facts are facts, the story at the heart of your history is made up. Now accept that there is nothing wrong with that. Life gets easier once you do.

1 comment:

Lauren said...

That's very true. It's hard to look at any situation without keeping the goggles of your own perceptions. The facts are like the dots in a connect the dot picture. The shape is constant, but your ability to draw a straight line, the color of your writing utensil and the thickness of the line drastically change what the picture looks like.