On Writing History

There are no contradictions for me when writing in different genres, be it poetry, children’s stories, novels, or scholarly history books. It all requires good thinking and writing. Actually, I’ve learned a lot about how to write a historical novel from my history books and my novel has used techniques I learned from writing picture books, i.e., keep the action going. And picture books? Well, like poetry, every word must count.

Professionally, I am a historian. I have loved every stage—going into the archives, where I always find something astonishing (once Ida B. Wells’s letter of advice to her daughters, another time an unknown play by an African-American activist in the early 1900s); reading the secondary literature and questioning, seeing how I might contribute something new; starting to write the chapters, all the while keeping the 400 or more sources in my head. And then there is the endless revising. I once calculated that each of my books averaged 8,000-10,000 hours from start to finish. And yes, I loved all of those hours.

For those of you unacquainted with historical writing, it is grueling. We follow each lead until we can’t find any more information. But we don’t end there. Much of our thinking is inductive so we look for threads of evidence. We triangulate our sources. That means we don’t rely on one source but multiple ones. After all, diaries and autobiographies must be read with caution and source materials generally have their own social contexts and nuances. It’s much like reading literature, looking for subtexts, different meanings, and piecing it all together into a reliable set of arguments with sufficient evidence.

Sometimes conclusions are evident. But other times, they are not. So we might conjecture and ask good questions. Here our language must reflect why we think a certain way. We must also address counterfactuals, that is, material that doesn’t agree with our arguments. Why do we think differently? In some cases, the other historians looked at different sources or had a different ideology. And our perspectives are indelibly guided by our experiences.

It gets complicated but it is exhilarating. It is especially gratifying to hear from readers who thank me or to ask further questions, or in a few cases, mention that someone I wrote about was their relative. And one thing that also makes me happy. Many history books have a long shelf live. If you go into a good university library, chances are good you will find history books from fifty, a hundred years ago, even longer. I like the idea that someone might be reading one of my books one hundred years from now.




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