Hints on History Writing
By Mark G. Dziak
“Write it down.”
That’s what I tell people when they say they experienced something amazing or learned something nobody else knows. The sad fact is that memory changes and fades. Stories told verbally are often misinterpreted. In my mind, to really preserve knowledge, you should write it down.
Around 2004 I became fascinated with local colonial history, particularly the Battle (and Massacre) of Wyoming. It took months to gather enough sources to help me really understand the topic. At that point I decided to write a book about it, to bring together all this knowledge and make it easier for people to access and understand in the future.
Writing a book is a very long and challenging process. Still, I’d recommend it. It was fun working with a topic that appealed to me. It was interesting to learn new skills. And it’s gratifying today to look at the finished product and know that it can transmit this fascinating story to anyone who wants to read it, and help preserve it for future generations.
I think it’s important to write about history, whether you studied it or lived it. If you know something important, I strongly encourage you to write it down. If you decide to do so, here are some hints based on my experiences that you may find useful:
It doesn’t have to be an epic. You don’t need to write a thousand pages. You can help preserve history with any kind of writing, from a simple journal to a scrapbook with captions under the pictures. Every word is important.
Find your strength. You may be good at writing, storytelling, reading, researching, teaching, editing, or remembering. All of these are useful skills for documenting what you know. Find your strengths and focus on them. If there is a weak spot, you can try to improve your skills, or ask others for help.
Be confident. If you say “I’ll never be a writer,” you won’t be. The truth is that anyone who can write can be a writer. If you can write one sentence, you can write multiple sentences, and if you do that long enough, you’ll have a book. It may not be a bestseller, but it’ll be something of value to you and others.
Get organized. Any substantial writing project is a large undertaking. I’ll usually use many notes and resources for every page of finished writing. It can seem overwhelming to juggle all that material, but if you stay calm and organize what you have, you’ll be okay. In time you’ll find your “writing process.” I generally do best creating detailed “blueprints” of chapters and topics and then filling them in sequentially. Whatever works for you is what you should do.
Check your references. All good research needs reliable references. Back up what you say with evidence, especially if you’re talking about something controversial or something that could cause offense. Over the years a few people have contested statements from my Wyoming book. In response, I quickly point out the references I used, many of which were first-hand accounts by people who were actually there.
Acknowledge uncertainty. It took me years to understand that people interpret historical events differently. At times, it seems like there is little actual “truth,” only a balance between interpretations. Because of that, I never presume to know the “truth.” Instead, I try to share the most common and feasible theories, and acknowledge uncertainty and differing viewpoints.
Be patient with publishing. Publishing is a very tough business. Even great writers with great ideas regularly get rejected by publishers. Luckily, there are many options today in self-publishing. I recommend that route for first-time writers, particularly when writing about local history. It isn’t glamorous, but it gets the job done, and it will give you much faster results and more freedom of choice.
Choose love over money. There’s generally not much money in writing. There’s far less than that in history writing. Maybe you can buck the trend (good luck!) but I’d recommend that you do your history writing for love—the love of accomplishing something, telling a good story, honoring great people, and preserving knowledge for the future.