It is an interesting thing being both a historian and a creative writer. As a historian, I want to represent the past and its complexities as accurately as I can. As a creative writer, I want my writing go where it needs to so the stories I tell are the ones that need to be told. I live in a complicated dance between the two, which is equally as aggravating as it is exciting and enticing.
Though history is fun to play with while writing and has a wealth of interesting people, events, and occurrences to draw from, it isn’t always the easiest thing to incorporate into a written piece. Sometimes it’s hard to find the balance, to decide whether history or the story must be sacrificed for the sake of the other. Whenever I get to one of these points of contention in my writing, I have to stop and decide which option does justice to both elements.
There are some people who believe accurately representing history means writing only truths and communicating a past we are familiar with, but I believe accurately representing the past means capturing the heart of history. This heart of history is in the people, in the way their lives were affected and the communal themes which remain consistent throughout even the most horrid pieces of our past. Capturing these aspects of history doesn’t always mean representing it as accurately as possible, sometimes it means breaking it. In the break from the familiar, we are jarred from expectations and forced to see the past through a different lens. Removing the rose-colored glasses helps us see the grey that is history as opposed to the stark black and white we’ve become accustomed to viewing it as.
But as it goes with writing, you have to know the rules to break them and you have to break them with purpose. The same goes for writing a history different from how it occurred, or what is commonly known as ‘alternative history’. You have to know how history actually unfolded in order to write an alternative history that captures the heart of the past.
This knowledge can only come from research. From careful study and understanding as well as the willingness to remain objective and research different perspectives. That’s not to say your writing won’t have a particular angle, every writer, whether it is a conscious choice or not, has their own goals and intent behind the story they tell between the pages, but it is to say you have a responsibility to write with your particular slant out of knowledge, not ignorance.
There is a weight to representing the past in story, but when it is done right and done with purpose, that weight has a strength behind it. The more we as writers, creators, and humans, lean into that strength and wield it wisely, the more chances we have of sparking something beautiful with our words.