Friday, May 25, 2007


History & Plagarism

Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, both prominent popular historians, have suffered through plagarism scandals. Ambrose, it seems, just brushed it off without any apology. Goodwin, on the other hand, acknowledged mistakes, attributing them to a flawed system of note-taking. The History New Network provides an extensive survey of the unfolding controversy at .

This controversy underscores the urgency of proper note-taking and footnoting. I'm guessing that this controversy will have spawned some instruction essays about how to do it correctly. I'll try to track those down.

The HNN review alludes to Harvard's Associate Director of Expository Writing Gordon C. Harvey and his Writing With Sources. HNN further reported that "on Saturday morning, April 13, members of the Organization of American History (OAH), attending their annual convention in Washington, D.C., crowded into the Renaissance hotel auditorium to hear Robert Caro, Nell Irvin Painter and Goodwin talk about the secrets of vivid writing. Goodwin, however, was a no-show. Sitting in her place was Richard Smith, who'd been drafted on Monday as a last-minute substitute." This symposium was carried on C-Span.

In another article about Goodwin, this time about her book about Lincoln, HNN writes: "
In 2001, in a review of McCullough's John Adams titled "America Made Easy," Princeton's Sean Wilentz denounced a series of big-selling biographers for supplying "pleasant uplift" instead of reality and rigor."

Further along in the article, HNN reports that "
Wilentz dismissed popular historians as purveyors of what he disgustedly called "narrative, narrative, narrative." But that is Goodwin's natural element. Lyndon Johnson, she once argued, equated votes with love; in her own life a connection got made early on between love and storytelling. In the late 1940s, when her father would get home from work, young Doris would reconstruct the Dodgers games she'd heard on the radio. As she explains in her memoir, Wait Till Next Year (1997), her recitations instilled in her the "naïve confidence that others would find me as entertaining as my father did." A "Note on Sources" to No Ordinary Time delights in her "favorite details" of the Roosevelt saga, and for a historian she uses the word "incredible," at least in conversation, to a peculiar degree. Her editor seems finally to have broken her of a tendency, notable in the Kennedy and Roosevelt books, to dapple the page with exclamation points, but even so, enthusiasm remains evident in the mature style she's achieved, one that's unpretentious and companionable...." [SOURCE: ]


History News Network

I've just discovered the remarkable website History News Network at , sponsored by George Mason University. It offers an RSS Feed, which I'll subscribe to. I expect this site to be enormously valuable, as I write my own historical account.

Saturday, May 12, 2007


Telling History by stage plays

I stumbled across an interesting entry on another blog, talking about writing a play about a historical subject. The post also refers to an article about Truth and History. Worth checking out.

The link:

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


More about "The Path to 9/11"

The ADB docu-drama "Path to 9/11", written by Cyrus Nowrasteh and broadcast on September 10 & 11, 2006,  created some interesting commentary about the obligations to "tell the truth."

ABC originally billed the drama as an objective re-telling of the story, based on the 9/11 Commission Report -- a "dramatization," it said, with "fictional scenes."   Several times during the show itself, ABC ran acautio us disclaimer that the show was indeed a docu-drama, based on a variety of sources, including the 9/11 Commission Report.  The network even made a few last-minute re-edits, but not enough to calm the storm.

For example, the Think Progress blog received 522 comments within days of its original message about the docu-drama.  On the day before the broadcast, Washington Post film reviewer Tom Shales wrote that the mini-series "falls clumsily into traps that await all those who make fictional films claiming to be factual. Except this time, the event being dramatized is one of the most tragic and monstrous in the nation's history, not something to be trifled with."

Sunday, September 10, 2006


The ABC 9/11 Docu-Drama Flap

The ABC docu-drama about the 9/11 attack hasn't aired yet, but it is getting lots of attention. The point of discussion is one of the points of major interest to this blog: how free can one be in "improving" history to make it better viewing -- or better reading?

I'm pleased to see that most commentators are almost outraged that ABC's original version has scenes that are absolutely inaccurate. The point these commentators are making is that this story is too important to trivialize by such tampering. Moreover, the scenes subject to criticism depict real people, in a real story -- and these scenes present a picture that is directly contrary to the facts on public record.

David Gurgen, in comments on CNN's Reliable Sources, made a distinction between writing about real people and fictional characters. Writers must, he suggested, be very careful about accuracy when dealing with real people. On the other hand, he suggested, writers have more freedom with fictional characters placed in the midst of real events. This distinction, in my view, is significant.

Gurgen did not, however, address one of the questions writers face: how free can one be in writing about real people when the facts are NOT known? Is one free then to make them up, in an effort to tell a good story, or maybe, to illuminate a real event with well-considered supposition?

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Report from Santa Barbara Writers Conference

I travelled up here to Santa Barbara with two main objectives: to test fly my book concept with agents and to expose my first chapter to practiced writers for critique. I've gotten good news and bad.

The first agent I spoke with, a man who deals equally with book and movie projects, was immediately hooked with the storyline. "That's perfect for HBO or Showtime, with a special cast," he responded, with wide smile and bright eyes. "Do you write scripts as well?" he asked. When told the project would need a scriptwriter, he shrugged that off: no problem. "When can you get the completed book manuscript to me?" he followed up. GULP. Next spring, I ventured. OK, he said, "I'll be waiting for it."

The agent's response was exactly what I wanted to hear. I'd put him on my short-list because of his experience with film as well as books, and I was curious if he would himself suggest the story is ripe for a feature film or TV production.

The other agents I spoke with, either in one-to-one conversation or in a workshop wanted to hear or read a sample of my writing. "Dense," was the universal judgment of the chapter from the middle of the book. By that, I deduced they meant too academic, too burdened down with the details I've uncovered which slow down the pace of the story. "Extraordinary!" "Can't wait to read it!" These were the reactions to my Prologue, which uses detail to tease interest in the characters and circumstances of the story.

My challenge is reconfirmed: I have a great story to work with, but hobbled by limited first-person accounts. It's a difficult story to write because of the huge gaps in documented information. The temptation to invent scenes, flesh out characters from informed imagination is strong.

Yet, coming from my training long ago as a historian, I really yearn to share every detail arduously dug out of reluctant archives.

So, my dilemma continues...

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


The Continum of Written History

There are a number of different genres within the broad field of written history: academic history, popular history, historical fiction, family history, memoirs and perhaps others. I am beginning to see the virtue of dialogue among practitioners of these very different approaches to history: we have a lot to learn from each other.

Just yesterday, I was intrigued to learn about the North American Historical Novel Society, which held its first conference in April 2005 in Salt Lake City. The kick-off speaker on opening night was Jack Whyte, who admonished the assembled writers, “Just tell a story, Forget trying to write classic literature. Keep it simple.”

The Society's second conference, by the way, is scheduled for early June 2007 in Albany, NY.

Whyte's advice brings back to mind several conversations I had about six months ago with two friends with long experience in the book publishing business. Both knew about the three years of research I've done and the general theme of the story. And both told me, "Stop focussing on research. Write!" And they both followed up with advice: emphsize character and action; historical detail is less important.

I found that advice very unsettling. It did, however, come at a crucial stage, just as I myself was beginning to write the first draft of a book proposal and to undertake a search for a literary agent. Over intervening months, I've struggled with issues of "how" to write history.

Google led me to a few websites that mention the difference between academic history and popular history. My meanderings through bookstore shelves have put into my hands quite a number of books about seafaring expeditions, naval battles, shipwrecks, even medical history that fall into the same kind of territory I'm beginning to write about. Many of those books are clearly of the "popular" variety. I do not find them satisfying.

Nor do I find much of academic histories very engaging either.

I'm beginning to understand that I wish to occupy that space somewhere between the "popular" and the "academic." Nathaniel Philbrick, whom I've mentioned in an earlier post, is this kind of historian. Rigorous in research, faithful in his retelling of events, accurate in his quotations, yet very well written -- a genuinely good read. That's what I hope to accomplish.

One would think, with my lifetime of writing, teaching and fascination with cultural history, that I would not be fidgeting so much about the writing process I'm engaged in. At the core of my problem is inadequate documentation: while the timeline of my story is quite well documented in archives in Spain, the Canary Islands, the Caribbean countries, Mexico, the Philippines and even Macao, almost nothing is known about the characters themselves. While there are plenty of officials letters describing the highlights of events, there is no true first-hand account from any of the participants or their contemporaries. And, in many ways, the story becomes very repetitious and boring after awhile.

All of these deficiences in the record encourage one to "fill in the blanks" with invented description and dialogue, with characterizations drawn out of thin air. I'm not satisfied with that.

Consequently, my research has reached far beyond the story itself, searching out corollary information. For example, when my main character is caught in a frightening and destructive typhoon at sea, I've turned to a description of such a storm by a contemporary in the same waters. It took months and lots of patience to find that description. I've been writing up that section of the story over the past few days, finally with enough detail and drama to satisfy the demanding historian in me. Altogether, it amounts to little more than a page of single-space text. Whew! So much work, so few words to show for it!

Monday, May 29, 2006


Another Agent's View of History

A couple of days ago, I lamented the discovery that one of the agents I'm considering approaching one of these days has represented three recent books with historical theme that take great liberties with facts: invented scenes and invented quotes.

Today I searched out more detail about another agent high on my list. Now I feel better.

Robert E. Shepard represents only non-fiction. He's firm enough in his conviction to include a section in his website entitled "What Are Non-Fiction Books?" Here's his answer:

"When we speak of non-fiction, we are really talking about factual works. They may report on current issues or recount history, explore the latest avenues of scientific research or provide an in-depth examination of people, places, or events, or simply provide a great deal of useful information. But in every case, non-fiction works talk about what is, was, or may become real. Every 'character' who may appear in such a book will be a real person, identified by a real name. If dialogue figures in the work, the 'speakers' will actually have uttered the quotations."

Here is an agent looking for real history, not a book juiced up with fictional scenes to "bring the characters to life."

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