We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
- T.S. Eliot

Welcome to Ten Roads! This blog is intended to be a place for me to share my (generally Civil War-related) thoughts and experiences. I try to update once a week at the very least. All comments and readers are greatly appreciated!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Writing about history

It seems to me that writing about history is one of those things that one would think would be easy but it winds up being an incredibly long and arduous process. I am simply amazed by all of the historians who have written multiple books, especially since quite a few of them have other full-time jobs (Eric Wittenberg comes to mind, especially).

When I was in 8th grade, I wanted to write a historical fiction novel set during the Civil War. I did quite a bit of research, stayed after school to talk with my history teacher about Gettysburg around the time of the war (fun fact: he was the one who actually got me into the Civil War in the first place and is both an amazing teacher and a battlefield guide), and found out about the set-up of the town, the people who lived there, and some basic military history. But every time I began writing I would start worrying that I wasn't being accurate. It bothered me having to make up things that didn't actually happen. Now that I am a more serious student of the war and hang out with more historians who seem to know about everything imaginable, I've realized that I'd only skimmed the very surface of my subject in 8th grade and that I wasn't too far off thinking I was going to wind up being inaccurate. I would have been sort of disasterous, I think. Maybe hilariously so, but disasterous nonetheless.

I believe that anyone who is able to write about history successfully, whether it be in a creative or academic form, has accomplished something great. My desire to write about something the way Gabor Boritt does, or the way Doris Kearns Goodwin does, or the way Michael Beschloss does, is strong.

Though I am faced with several obstacles including my age, lack of experience, time and resources, I am deciding that I am going to begin that long and arduous process of researching for hours on end and maybe someday something material will come out of it. Any advice you have for me would be much appreciated, even if it's "Stop right there, missy."

In other somewhat related news, you can expect a book review from me relatively soon.


Daniel Sauerwein said...


I would wait on trying to write that book, as while I do not want to discourage you, I also want to stress patience. Get through college and learn the basics of the profession, as you will need them to be taken seriously in our profession. Writing a counter factual history book may be something you can consider, as accuracy is somewhat important, but you are allowed a bit more freedom to craft your story.

You will learn, as you get further along in the profession, that it is publish or perish. If you work in the academy, you will be expected to publish articles and books. You are still young and have plenty of time to find your area(s) of interest and learn about them to prepare your own research. What I would suggest is that you start small and work with your teachers to write short stories and short research papers. Writing history is definitely an arduous process, as I am finishing my thesis, which is the culmination of over four years of research and work since my sophomore year of college.

Book reviews are a great way to learn how to write history, as they are shorter and are an often easier way for you to get your foot in the door. If you would like me to proofread it, as I have written several reviews for publication, email the review to me.

Take care and you are more than welcome to post your review on Civil War History.


Eric Wittenberg said...


Thanks for the compliment. In my case, I don't especially enjoy my job, and writing is my escape, how I keep my sanity.

You just have to roll up your sleeves and do it. There's no magic to it. Writing is like anything else--the more you do of it, the better you will become. That's certainly been the case for me, and I'm sure it will be for you.

Just stay after it. You will undoubtedly do a fine job.


Don said...


The best way to learn to write is to start writing. And practice everyday. Don't worry about the book yet, it will come later. For now, just research and write.

Research, i think you will find, will take a LONG time. Identifying sources, hunting them down, reading and processing them --- all of these things take time. And you'll find that one fact leads to story, which leads to a source, which leads to more facts, stories and sources...you get the picture.

No, absolutely don't quit now, you're just getting started. And you're fortunate enough to be living near a treasure trove of information in Gettysburg and nearby Carlisle.

How to go about it is really up to you. I'd recommend picking something specific to start your rearch and writing on, then expand from there. I think you'll be amazed at the different places that "little thing" will lead you.

I'm looking forward to watching your discoveries here. Best of luck.


John David Hoptak said...

Write. Read. Be Patient. These are three key ingredients to becoming a better writer. Remember, too, that writing is not a product, it is, rather, a process, an incredibly time-consuming process, especially when writing history. I was told long ago that for every hour historians spend writing, they spend at least four researching. I've found that to be the case entirely. Write a little bit every day. It can be about anything, the Civil War, your day at school, current events, overheard conversations, et cetera. What you write about is not the most important thing; the important thing is that you write, and that you find the time to do so. Writing requires great commitment, and remember, writing only gets accomplished by, well, writing. I know all too well that it can be terribly frustrating, and doubt often takes over. But always, always keep after it. With practice, perseverance, and patience, you will prevail.

Chuck said...


You have seen my site in the past (http://www.encounteratgettysburg.com). About a month ago, I added a wiki for short write ups of monument history or history of Gettysburg in general. When I did this I was hoping I would be able to connect with students (high school and otherwise) who could do small research projects and put them up as wiki entries. I would be happy to help you or anyone else learn wiki syntax to write wiki entries. Wiki syntax is pretty simple, and it is nothing you cannot learn very quickly, probably less than an hour. I doubt it is much harder than learning to write a blog.

I also think that things like a wiki are to some degree the future, and it would not hurt to learn to write short, focused articles. This is always a useful skill, or so I have been told. I am just a "history-buff", but an Engineer by training and experience, I am not really one to talk.

Today I have also started work on a Civil War Time Line which I would be thrilled to have help organizing and providing information for. Having seen other Time Lines, and seeing what Nick Rabinowitz did with Simile and Google Maps, I simply could not resist.

Check out my site again sometime, and see if you might be interested in doing small research bits such as wiki entries.

I will try to stop by the train station some Saturday and say hi.

Chuck Kann