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.

I Fear the Future

 I fear for the future.

Teaching security, I’m often asked what I see as the biggest threat to the future. Most expect my answer to be some technological change or another state. But, what I answer is my biggest fear is we have a generation that is too easily offended and does not understand how rough the world can be.

This column will probably offend.

Fear component one. I teach at a major state university where you would expect that students have a grasp on history. WRONG! Almost anything beyond their attention span (the last 5 to 6 years) is outside their knowledge base.

Fear component two. Presentism is interpreting the past based on current attitudes and values and has become the standard for my students to the degree that Orwell could not have predicted. For example, a few years ago, I was talking about the role of the hegemon and mentioned that slavery was a universally accepted institution until the British, the hegemon at the time, decided that it wouldn’t. Unfortunately, some of my students interpreted this as my supporting slavery, so I had to defend what I said to my program director. Fortunately, he was a historian and said I was factually correct.

Fear component three. The assumption of universal values. This is especially a problem for students whose experience is predominately upper middle class. They don’t understand the appeal of populists, nationalists or any other value system that is not theirs. So, if I say that much of the world still does not accept same-sex marriage or homosexuality, they call them backward or ‘stupid.’ Far be it from them, in accepting diversity to accept that cultural and historical views are not in line with current points of view.

Fear component four. Failing to understand that hard power is the way for most of the world. Last year, I was teaching a conflict course, and students asked why I thought Putin would invade Ukraine (this was before the fact). I bluntly answered, “Because he can!” Europe could not stop him, and Biden had demonstrated that the US did not have the will when he said we would not send troops. I am teaching the same course this semester, and students still don’t understand that force is a necessary component of the world.

The bottom line is that the West has raised a generation of Eloi while the rest of the world is still the Morlocks, and no degree of wishing will change the eventual outcome.

A Writer’s Dilemma

See the source image

I’ve started to work on a story about the ‘Canaries‘ of World War 1. These were the female munition workers during World War 1. They were called canaries because the chemicals used in manufacturing explosives tinted their hair and skin yellow. This story is part of the series of stories I have written about the war. My goal is to have it accepted to the Northern Colorado Writers Anthology, Exception/All centered around the question of ‘What does normal look like? and ‘Is anything ever truly normal?’

Many of these women had never worked or had been in traditional female roles such as household service. Yet, they responded to a national need and were significant contributors to the war efforts. When the war ended, many were dismissed. Their jobs were given to returning soldiers as the country returned to ‘normal.’ However, they and others showed that women could serve in these non-traditional roles. Their mistreatment motivated many to join the suffragette movement and demand the vote and equality under the law. Vivien Newman examines these changes in Changing Roles: Women After the Great War. The changes in society, such as the role of women, are just part of my fascination with World War 1

So, here is my dilemma.

  • I have the characters. Anne and Carol are two housemaids that were dismissed when their house closed and had to find employment. They were able to find it as munition workers.
  • I have the dramatic narratives and history of women that had done this work to provide context and source material for the story.

In other words, I have all the components of a good story. What I don’t have is a story that meets the three-act structure of a five-thousand-word short story and also serves the goal of showing that society is constantly changing.

And this is my dilemma, which I suspect is familiar to many historical fiction writers. How do I tell an entertaining story that fits within the historical context and provides lessons for today?

I have until August 15th and any suggestions will be gratefully accepted.

POST SCRIPT – I finished the story in time to submit it. One of my Beta readers thought it had the makings of a longer story or short novel. We shall see.

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.