Thursday, January 4, 2018

Writing On History

There's no doubt I like writing about history as the past 5+ years of this blog demonstrate.  I strive to tell stories in an interesting way with a fresh perspective, hopefully spurring some reader thoughts while providing a few nuggets of new information.

It's also provided me with some unexpected pleasures.

Discovering fascinating "small"stories that have taken me down alleyways I'd not explored previously.  One of my favorites was the story of Henry Lafayette Dodge, who I came across as a one-paragraph walk-on in Hampton Sides' saga of Kit Carson and the American move into the Southwest.  When Sides wrote that American-Navajo relations were strained except for the time when Dodge was the Indian agent, it spurred me to find out more about the man.  I'm currently working on a piece about a lawsuit that might have been a second Dred Scott case; litigation I only became aware in a brief mention in a book I'm currently reading.  It's taught me to always keep an eye out on those brief references in text and footnotes that might prove to be stories that can stand on their own, so make sure you read about the Republic of Texas Archive War when that post comes out!

It turns out stories were everywhere once I started looking; even in Elbert Hubbard's Scrap Book, the 1939 New York Giants scorecard my Dad gave me many years ago, and in common expressions we use, but don't think much about, like The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread.  It has also helped fulfill one of the aspirations of Things Have Changed; demonstrating The Value of Useless Knowledge.

The act of writing about historical events also made me understand better than simply reading or watching.  I retain more and for longer because of the exercise of writing.  I think the act of writing forces you to organize your thoughts in order to tell a compelling and coherent story.  In turn, that mental organizing effort leads to a deeper understanding of events, people, and themes than casual reading or watching.  Or else my memory is getting better as I get older!

Understanding events better through writing has had another unexpected benefit - I inquire more deeply, undertaking more extensive research than I initially imagined I would.  In trying to tell a story logically and coherently I often find myself questioning as I write.  Perhaps its a quote or a paragraph just composed and I find myself wondering, "is that really correct?" or "doesn't that contradict something else I've already written?" or "the chronology the author sets out really doesn't make sense because I can't seem to write about it in a way that makes sense, what's going on?", or even "that is just too perfect, did it really happen that way?" If I can't answer those questions, I usually stay away from using the material, though I must remind readers that when faced with certain choices this remains the official policy of this blog.

In my recent post on Darkest Hour, the movie about Winston Churchill in May 1940, I used John Lukacs book 5 Days in London, May 1940 as a major source.  While I quoted liberally from it there were some things I chose not to use because they just didn't make sense to me or they seemed questionable and I could not verify them anywhere else.  Interestingly, I was initially going to use a quote Lukacs had in a footnote from Churchill's The Second World War but when checking the footnote against my first edition of the six volume set I realized the Lukacs footnote was not accurate, though the mistakes were not material its meaning.  It happens more frequently than you would think.

I also get a charge when I make connections between historical events during the writing process.  In Darkest Hour, I found a quote from a English citizen to the effect that Mr Chamberlain was a nice man to live with, but in the event of a shipwreck Mr Churchill was preferable to have on hand.  As I wrote it, I remembered a similar sentiment about the Ernest Shackleton, the English Antarctic explorer about whom I'd written, so added that quote to the piece, which was appropriate since it was Winston Churchill as Lord of the Admiralty who'd given Shackleton permission to proceed with his most famous voyage in 1914.  The more I write, the more often that happens.

Another example is when writing on HR McMasters' book Dereliction of Duty, on how we became enmeshed in Vietnam from 1963 through 1965.  In that instance I was able to use research I'd done previously about FDR's wartime leadership to contrast President Johnson and President Roosevelt in how they utilized the military chiefs of staff.  LBJ did not come off well in the comparison.  Before beginning to write this blog I would not have been able to make the connection.

It's also prompted further readings on history.  I'm now fairly well read on the history of Southern Italy between the 8th and 11th centuries, a result of writing Part I of The Song of Jan Sobieski, speaking of useless knowledge.   And I'm reading in new areas in anticipation of future writing, including two books on the Taiping Rebellion in mid-19th century China, one of the most violent revolutions in world history, led by a figure who considered himself to be the brother of Jesus.

New material constantly comes to my attention that's relevant to posts I've written; either as additional information or sometimes indicating I made a mistake in the original post.  While I might write a new post, often I choose to simply go back and make the change in the original (if it corrects a mistake I will highlight the info as an update).  The result is that there are some older posts that are now considerably longer than when originally published.

The joy of learning never ends, and I've found the act of writing enhances that feeling.

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