On the use of history and writing historical fiction

In my other job (the one that pays), I always caution students about using history.

The first issue is selection bias, defined as choosing your case on what you are trying to prove (the dependent variable). Given over 5000 years of recorded history, it is almost always possible to find a historical case or cases that will make your point. This is why I caution them about when anyone ever starts an argument with the term, “History shows . . .” For every case that students present, I can and do present a counter-example. This has been evident in the justifications by the Russians for their invasion and the Ukrainians for their sovereignty.

The second issue is interpretation. Even if there is agreement on which case, what that case means is subject to the analyst’s worldview. For example, when I was still a graduate student researching my dissertation, one of my cases was the Cuban Missile Crisis (or the Caribbean Crisis in Soviet/Russian journals). In 2000, I found over 130 peer-reviewed journal articles in the political science literature. As a friend in the history department told me – history told the first time is glorification, the second time it is told is revisionism, and the third time you are starting to get to the truth.

Although this is a problem in the social sciences, at least there are criteria and tests that are applied to fix both problems.

For a writer of historical fiction (my third career), it presents a challenge – how do I write an entertaining story with fictional characters and still present a true account for what happened? This is why caveats and history notes become so important.

And remember that as long as we have done our research, we are probably no better or worse than historians.

Images in the Future

My collection of photos, postcards and stereoscope pictures have served as a reference and inspiration for my stories about the Great War. I also have a collection of my own time in the service, which I regularly look through. At the same time, the thousands of pictures I’ve taken with my digital cameras and phone are rarely looked at unless I am searching for a specific image.

With everyone carrying cameras with their phones and chronicling their lives with social media, there is the possibility of recording almost every moment of life. This is the premise of Dave Eggers’ two novels, The Circle and The Every. According to my students that are veterans, the same occurs in combat zones (creating an operational security nightmare, I’m sure). I asked if they ever looked back at the pictures (which they can access on their phones at any time), and most said no. Not because of the images’ subject matter; it just doesn’t occur to them.

Changing phones, computers or just memory errors can lose all these photos. Even if you are backed up to a cloud account, change accounts or subscription to a backup service, and you may no longer have those pictures.

More important is how few people catalog those photos. I’ll admit that I don’t catalog outside of downloading after hikes or events and labeling the folder; I don’t catalog. I suspect most people don’t. Even in my family, it is not done except for my son, a photography hobbyist. Meanwhile, I can look at the shelf of my photo albums. Each is labeled with dates and pages with flat memorabilia like programs, tickets, and photos. I can remember going through my parents’ albums and telling me the stories of their lives.

This brings me to the question – will future historians and writers have this treasure at their fingers when recounting the past?

That is why I leave you with this suggestion. Do what you did when you were younger (if you are my age) or what your parents did – print the pictures, label them and put them in an album.