“Nothing to See Here!” – Getting at the Facts through the Interpretations
You would think that assembling a bibliography was the task only of a scholar. When you’re writing an historical novel, however, the only way to get to the reality of earlier times, places, and ideas, is:
1) to read the written records left to us from those times, the “primary texts” (preferably in the original language),
2) to read “secondary sources,” the works of others who have studied those primary texts,
3) to go to and examine what is left of the sites in which the events in question took place, and
4) to examine available artifacts from that time and place.
Thus, the writer assembles a bibliography. He goes to the places about which he will write, and he examines the artifacts.
That’s just the beginning. Second, you have to attempt to interpret and understand this collected evidence and create your own impression of the characters, places, and events of importance to your work, as well as creating a timeline during which these factors operated.
My initial step, then, is to create that timeline: i.e., to make a calendar. The calendar, then, provides a sort of roadmap of the events and places to be considered.
But, of course, you can’t make a calendar without doing the research outlined above – unless someone has conveniently done it for you. But here’s the rub. History books and biographies may be no more reliable than what you see in your inbox or social media feeds every day.
You would hope that conflating histories into a single timeline would be a simple task.
Wishful thinking. No one writes history in a vacuum. We all live in a time and place, collaborate with people who hold opinions like our own, assimilate ‘reality’ through the grid of that time and place and those opinions, and express ourselves – knowingly or unknowingly – on the basis of our acceptance of ideas we believe to be true.
Thus, it pays to understand both when the books you choose as sources were written, and something about each author. What are his/her biases? And, yes, what are his/her politics.
Most history is written with at least the intent of providing an accurate overview of what happened with whom at a particular time and place. But no history is written solely for that purpose. Stories about the past are conveyed in order to bring about a result in the present. It is highly unlikely that such a purpose will fail to color what is included, what is omitted, and the interpretation given to the presentation of specific events.
Narrations of a single event vary considerably. Assertions concerning the importance of a single event vary considerably, as well. In many cases, events not mentioned by one author are considered extremely important by another. Thus, “Nothing to see here.” No. Nothing seen, either. Or seen through entirely different lenses.
So there’s the first dilemma of the historical novelist: finding out what happened, as close to reality as possible (which you will never know for sure), and determining the importance of each person, place, and occurrence for what you want to do in the story you are writing.
The painting above, a public domain representation of George Washington speaking with his French counterpart, General Rochambeau, at Yorktown in 1781, was actually painted by Auguste Couder in about 1836, some sixty-five years after the event – if there was such an event. Some of it may be accurate representation, some of it may not. We simply don’t – and can’t – know.
You may have no interest in checking out the resources I’ll be using. But in case you are, here’s a bibliography of some of only the book-type resources available. I’m also using many more online and on-site resources, maps, paintings, re-creations, etc. That’s the fun part!.
Allen, Thomas B. Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War. New York: Harper, 2010.
Allison, Robert J. and Bernard Bailyn, eds. The Essential Debate on the Constitution: Federalist and Antifederalist Speeches and Writings. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2018.
Berkin, Carol. A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution. New York: Harcourt, 2002.
Berkin, Carol. A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism. New York: Basis Books, 2017.
Bernier, Olivier. Lafayette. New Word City, 2017.
Bramblett, Reid. Philadelphia Day by Day. Frommersmedia LLC, 2019.
Burns, James MacGregor. The Vineyard of Liberty: The American Experiment, Vol. 1. New York, Open Road, 1982 (2012).
Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin, 2004.
Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2010.
Coffin, Charles Carleton. Sweet Land of Liberty: Old Times in the Colonies. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1880 (2018).
Davis, Kenneth C. America’s Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women, and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.
Davis, Kenneth C. In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives, New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2016.
DiLorenzo, Thomas J. Hamilton’s Curse. New York: Crown, 2008.
Dunbar-Oritz, Roxanne. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2014.
Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency. New York: Borzoi, 2004.
Ferling, John. A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic. Oxford: University Press, 2003.
Fleming, Thomas. Liberty! The American Revolution. New Word City, 2016.
Gaines, James R. For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutions. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007.
Hogeland, William. Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion That Opened the West. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.
Hogeland, William. Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.
Hogeland, William. The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.
Holton, Woody. Unruly Americans and the Origin of the Constitution. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.
Klarman, Michael J. The Framer’s Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution, Oxford: University Press, 2016.
Lancaster, Bruce. American Heritage History of the American Revolution. New Word City, 2014.
Larson, Edward J. The Return of George Washington: Uniting the States, 1783-1789. New York: William Morrow, 2014.
Lefkowitz, Arthur S. Eyewitness Images from the American Revolution. Gretna: Pelican, 2017.
Meacham, John. American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation. New York: Random House, 2015.
Mee, Charles L., Jr. Genius of the People. New Word City, 2016.
Rappleye, Charles. Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.
Richards, Leonard L. Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
Roberts, Cokie. Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.
Russell, Francis. American Heritage History of Young America 1783-1860. New Word City, 2018.
Schiff, Stacy. A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. New York: Henry Holt, 2005.
Smithsonian Institution. The American Revolution: A Visual History. New York: DK Publishing, 2016.
Warren, Mercy Otis. History of the rise, Progress, and termination of the American Revolution: From the Stamp Act to the Ratification of the United States Constitution. Plymouth Ma, 1805. From www.digitalhistorybooks.com. N.D.
Wood, Gordon S. The American Revolution: A History. New York: Modern Library, 2002.
Woodward, Colin. American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, New York: Viking, 2011.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: HarperCollins, 2015.