Saturday, May 16, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - the challenge of writing good history

In a brief discussion in another place, Kanani Fong asked if there were any specific models that I used in writing non-fiction. I wrestle with this question often. The short answer is no.

At one level, the way we write or should write depends upon purpose. A speech is not the same as an official minute or memo.

The way we write is also affected by context. I cannot write my newspaper column in the same way I write my blog posts. One I can edit, the other not. One is subject to a word limit, the other not. And so on.

Writing is affected as well by the intended audience.

In teaching communication as an element within management training, I use a simple diagram - two stick figures joined by a line. The first is the communicator. I have a message that I want to get across. The second figure is my reader, listener who takes what I say, present or write and interprets it in terms of their own perceptions of the world. The line is the communication.

This leads to the simple point that if you want to communicate well, you have to know what you message is, how you are going to communicate it, how it is likely to be received.

Writing for a general audience is far more complex than official or business writing because the audience is less well known. If I am writing an economics piece, I can reasonably assume that my reader is likely to be interested in economics or, at least, in economic developments. However, even here there are choices. In my case, I choose to write for a more general audience, trying to explain to myself and them what has been happening. To do this, I have to simplify.

I find the writing of history especially difficult because here I am writing for my own purposes in isolation to some degree from my potential readers. I write because I want to, but I also want to be read. I know that people interested in New England are the most likely group of readers, but I also want to make my writing accessible to those who have no knowledge of or perhaps no interest in the topic.

This brings me to my first challenge. How do I do this?

If you look at a lot of historical writing, you will see that a certain level of knowledge is in fact assumed. An act of parliament might be mentioned in passing. The writer assumes that the reader will know what an act of parliament is. This may well not be the case. Even if it is the case, the reader is likely to interpret it in a current context that may well be far removed from the actual reality of that past time.

The problem that now arises is that a history that assumes zero knowledge and therefore explains everything would become a dull and burdensome thing. This means that decisions have to be made as to what to explain and how. The key issue here is one of relevance. Does the reader need to understand, or can something simply be stated and let stand?

Take the act of parliament question again.

In my own case, individual acts of parliament are quite important. The Master and Servants Act of 1828 governed, as the name says, the working relations between master and those employed. If you look at local level and the cases that came before bench magistrates, this is an important act. But which parliament enacted it? You won't find it easily on the web, And what, by the way, is a bench magistrate you might ask? 

I use two main techniques to resolve this type of problem.

The first is context. Assuming that I am successful in my basic writing, the reader will be going along with the flow, reading the history as a story. This means that as I introduce new material, the reader should be able to set it in a context already created by my writing. The work becomes its own context.

The second is what I call link sentences. These are carefully written sentences that encapsulate an important idea in the simplest possible form.

Take, as an example, the transition that occurred in New England history when the long Aboriginal past was suddenly shattered by the arrival of the Europeans. How do I explain the vast incomprehension that divided the two in a way that will set a context for later discussion?

Well, thanks to a post by Will Owen on the Australian anthropologist W E H Stanner, I have finally boiled this down to just two sentences.

To the Aborigines, the present was an extension of a living past. To the Europeans, the  first stage to a still to be defined future.

I will fiddle with the sentences, but I think that I have the concept right. The reader should get what I mean, and carry the idea forward.

In writing history, I try to avoid standing between my reader and the story.

Opinionated writing has its place, but is not (to my mind at least) history. Obviously what I write is affected by my own views. I am, after all, deeply involved with New England. It is a dream, a concept, as much as a historical place.20090503-17-27-03-kempsey-road--macleay-river

Take, as an example, this photo by Gordon Smith of the Macleay River at sunset. It's a pretty scene, isn't it?    But it's more than than that. This is a scene between New England's past and present.

That thin line of road that you can see against the cliff on the top right of the photo is in fact, in historical terms, the second road from the Macleay to the Tablelands.

This was the route that the Dainggatti, the Aboriginal language group occupying the Macleay Valley at the time the Europeans arrived, followed to reach the Tablelands. They followed the river and then climbed the escarpment you can see in the background.

In modern European times, this is the main route between Armidale and the Macleay valley. Now named the Slim Dusty Way after the Australian country singer, it is still dirt. 20090503-17-23-45-kempsey-road--single-track

The next photo, again by Gordon Smith, shows the road as it is today. This is what all the roads to the coast were like when I was born. The fight for better east-west communications forms one of the themes in the history of European New England.

In writing, my own passions and interests inform my work. However, in writing as an historian I have to try to be professional and to give my readers direct access into the past. The first means documenting so that my work can be critiqued, the second means standing back a little to avoid becoming a distraction from the story.

I have used the word story several times.

As with other forms of writing, the approach adopted to writing history depends upon purpose.

In my case, I am writing a general history of an area. This is where story comes in. I don't have a thesis, I am not trying to prove a particular point. I am telling the story of a broad region over a 50,000 year period.

In writing, I think of my story as akin in many ways to a biography of the area.

If you look at good biography, it brings the subject alive as a person through the detail of life. We see the subject as a human being with all the virtues, faults and personal quirks that we all have. The very best biographies capture us so that we become, for the moment, entrapped in the subject's world.

I do not pretend that I can write to this standard, although I would dearly love to. What I can do is to use detail selectively to bring people and events alive in some ways.

In my own mind, I describe this as texture. The Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey is remarkably good at this. He presents general ideas with great clarity, then uses examples to illustrate. Alternatively, he gives examples and then clarifies them to present a general statement.

Very few of us will ever be able to write as well as he does. Still, we can try!   


Kanani said...

Very thoughtful piece, Jim. I'm going to have to reread this several times to take it all in.

Different types of writing take much different approaches. Blogging, for instance, is (for me at least) all opinion pieces --or worse, the stuff just on the top of my brain. Fiction is more difficult because the story isn't even apparent to the writer when he or she starts. It reveals itself, and it's led through the characters. Non fiction, especially what you're writing, seems to me to be almost impossible in scope. What to put in, what to leave out --it's all how you want to sculpt the presentation, and what will lead the reader to make discoveries.

A really, really great piece. I very much enjoyed it and I think I'll send it over to an editor who visits my blog who calls himself The Word Mechanic.

Legal Eagle said...

To the Aborigines, the present was an extension of a living past. To the Europeans, the first stage to a still to be defined future.Brilliant. That says it so well. I look forward to further excerpts.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Kanani. Glad you liked it. On what's in and what's out, I find that length is one discipline.

Say you are going to limit yourself to 100,000 words but its a sprawling type of topic. Then when you do a rough break-up by section, you find that you have only so many words for a particular topic. You have to write down to the length you have.

Take, as an example, the cedar cutters on the New England coast. The rough word limit I have set myself for colonial New England is 40,000 words. Again, quite a lot, something over 100 pages. However, those pages have to cover more than 100 years.

I could easily write 10 pages or more on the cedar cutters. It's a fascinating story full of risk and law breaking on the edge and beyond of the moving frontier. A bit like the trappers in a US context.

My feeling at the moment is that I am going to have to squeeze them down to perhaps 650 words.

I am glad that you liked the lines, LE. I get an enormous sense of pleasure when I feel that I have got a key sentence or sentences right.

Kanani said...

I do see the strategy involved, and find your approach interesting.
650 words isn't a lot. The writing will have to be highly descriptive, factual, dense and keep the reader involved so they don't glance over it.
Now, this is what I find fun. It's like poetry.

Jim Belshaw said...

I think that's right, Kanani. It is like poetry.

I write a lot of official style stuff. Even then, I like it to read well. But to write for myself is wonderful. Then I can experiment, compress.

I wrote something for an official newsletter and the person critiquing commented that it was written as though it were meant to be spoken. She was right. I often read my writing aloud to hear how it sounds.

History is especially fun to write because of the story element. If I am writing a manual or training course I am obviously much more constrained. Then I have to think not just about the words, but about page structures themselves.

Lexcen said...

Hi Jim, sounds to me like you could benefit with an editor. That's not a criticism btw. Many great writers have benefited from the assistance of an editor.
I find your desire to write history that is both academic and popular (entertaining?) a difficult but not impossible task.
I think my favorite example would be Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Lexcen. I think that an editor is a good idea. As a family, we have been talking about this for Clare (youngest). She now has two completed books!

Kanani said...

Jim, I read almost all my work aloud. It's the only way. I have a 500 page manuscript I'm working my way back through, and I've read every paragraph aloud. I think I'm driving my children crazy.

For me, editing is a wonderfully fun. Changing the words around, compressing sentences, searching for clarity --all time consuming but rewarding.

I have a rewrite job coming up from an author in NYC. I suspect I'll spend most of July in her apartment in Manhattan just sorting. The rewrite won't come until September.

But I have to say, 100,000 words would REALLY make me take a lot of deep breaths.

Jim Belshaw said...

I find editing less fun than you do, I suspect, Kanani. There comes a point where I just want to move on. The rewrite job sounds interesting.