Some of the projects I’ve recently started have gotten me thinking about what it means to be a historian working on something that doesn’t focus on original research. When I started writing for young adults as a callow eighteen-year-old this wasn’t something that bothered me much, but finishing my PhD and knowing so many people who’ve made original contributions to the scholarship, it has a little more urgency now. Most of what you learn in graduate school about professional courtesy – discuss the prior literature, cite your sources – doesn’t apply when you’re writing for markets that don’t want footnotes or bibliographies and where your readers don’t have access to more than a fraction of the books you might use in the writing process.
At the same time, the obligation to handle your sources properly is even greater than in academic work because so many of your readers will have no idea how that material was originally uncovered. Public understanding of how historians actually do their research is pretty much nil (or negative, if you count being portrayed as a an archaeologist and an instant polyglot as positively misleading). In the sciences, there is a whole genre of writing that deals with talking about science, how it’s done, and what it discovers, without claiming to be scientific work itself. Unfortunately, I don’t know anyone who considers themselves a “history journalist.”
As a result, I’ve gone with three goals that I’m going to try and keep in mind as a work on my new material.
1. Be gracious about sources. Some of the best general interest writing on history that I’ve seen has taken research process from invisible to visible, and along the way made the historians involved into people with personalities, agendas, and ideas. I’d like nothing more than to be able to put the historians whose work I’ll be relying on into the book itself and explain where their information came from. If that fails, I hope at least to…
2. Make the sources of information accessible. Writing for children means assuming that your readers probably can’t go out and read the books you used themselves, but I regret not providing more suggestions for further reading in my first few books. If I can’t direct them straight to the books that inspired me the most, I hope I can find enough works that bridge the gap between where I started and where I leave the reader.
3. Do something new. Whether I can do (1) or (2) effectively, I’m confident that I can stick to my third principle. I think all the projects I’m looking at have the chance to say something that hasn’t been said before, or put the research I’ve seen in a new perspective. It’s not the same as original research, but I’ll be happy if I can do something new with what I write.