Friday, April 30, 2010

The Problem of History

(May 6, 2009)
There's been debate recently in some of the blogs I follow over the issue of accuracy in historical fiction. Since I've said before that realism and historical accuracy are important to me in my writing, I'm not going to rehash that debate. My purpose in this post is to discuss the difficulty entailed in achieving that historical realism.

The catalyst that got me thinking about this comes from my work on my second book. The protagonist has been kicked off the land where he was squatting illegally, and now he needs work of some kind so he can support his family. I've been trying to reason through what type of work for hire would be available for a man on the frontier in the early 19th century. I decided it would be helpful to know more about the town where this story is supposed to take place (it's an actual place). So I went by the "local history" section of the public library.

The trip proved to be an exercise in frustration. Granted, I didn't have a lot of time to look (had to pick up the kids after school), but all I found were two articles in the state's historical quarterly and two books written in the 1940s and 1950s by the same man. The thing that was frustrating about those sources was that they were written in such a subjective manner that I'm not sure I can trust the information in them to be true. The standards of academic research that I've had drilled into my head through my profession were nowhere to be seen in these articles; there was no citation of sources and little effort to corroborate stories that were given. I found one story that I thought was probably of dubious origin (kind of a "wise old Indian" fable) that was repeated in a later article - I'm guessing the original article was the source.

Beyond the lack of objectivity in the sources, I had another problem - the content was all rather vague. There were some tantalizing tidbits about a store owned by a man named Saugain, and mention of twin villages on opposite sides of the river (Indians on the north, whites on the south), but none of it gave anything specific that I could tie my narrative horse to.

Fortunately, my sister dabbles in genealogy. She and I had been talking about my writing over lunch (bless her, she always lets me talk about it and acts like it is SOOOO interesting!). When I got home in the afternoon, she had sent me a link to the Government Land Office website, which had surveys dating back to 1820. It was a wonderful site! It doesn't tell me everything I need to know, but it did solve one plot problem I was anticipating.

The thing is, I guess I will have to piece together a picture of the history of the area from sources like the old surveys, census records, the records of the territorial government, and accounts from the one newspaper in the territory. There are apparently no surviving diaries or personal letters. I guess the people on the frontier were too preoccupied with trying to live to worry about leaving a record behind for later generations. I know that I don't consciously leave "records" for future generations; I don't really think of the time I'm living in as "history." I'm sure it was the same for those early pioneers. Thank goodness for government red tape, or there wouldn't be anything to give us insight into their lives!

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