Taking it to heart

Fellow blogger Dimitri Rotov picked up recently on a previous post I’d made regarding my research methods prior to writing.  Dimitri has been writing recently about “narrative strategies,” and I think he’s right on the money. 

Regarding my previous post, I’d written about my personal desire to exhaust every source I can lay my hands on prior to writing on a subject (say, more often, for an article), and constructing the story from scratch.  Dimitri likens my method to that which would also apply to a reader:

As readers, we make topics of interest “ours.” Once that happens, the attraction of narrative fades, its entertainment value falls away, and the idea that this form could transcend entertainment to deliver History becomes improbable.
For all those who tell me, “I came into this by reading Battle Cry,” let me suggest you are different. You escaped the pool, leaving many times your number wandering aimlessly through sludge.
Sentimental loyalty to an author in repayment for a good reading experience is misguided.

I think he’s right.  If I’m reading one of Dimitri’s points correctly, it’s that the student must go far beyond popularism when it comes to history.  And, the reader must constantly test the historian.  Forget that McPherson, for example, is this or that.  Or me.  Or Eric Wittenberg.  Or anyone else.  When it comes to reading any new writing, give it the extreme bullshit test.  Blunt and simplistic way of putting it, but I think you get the idea.  And perhaps this is how, as another example, McPherson ran into a bit of a brouhaha over his endorsement of one of Dave Eicher’s tomes… and I’d also liken it to his endorsement of an even more festering pile by Tom Carhart.  Even the McPhersons of the world would do well to learn the lessons that Dimitri is talking about.

Back to the writing angle, it’s probably why I go to the lengths that I do prior to putting pen to paper (okay, fingers to keys).  Honestly, I’ve turned down some projects simply because I knew I couldn’t devote the necessary time to getting to “know” the subject as well as I demand of myself, or the interest wasn’t there to begin with.  When I previously posted that I only begin writing once I feel a topic is “mine,” I was describing a feeling that only hits me when it hits me. 

The deeper I go into a topic – the more I disregard secondary sources.  Secondary sources can be useful to getting an initial understanding of a subject or event – especially one with which I may not be very familiar – but they have to take a backseat to the primary sources the deeper I go.  Let’s just take an example like the June 26, 1863 skirmish west of Gettysburg between Gordon’s Confederate brigade and Pennsylvania militia forces.  Little has been written about it.  You’ll find some secondary writings such as in Coddington, Nye, and some modern Gettysburg-specific tomes, but nothing too detailed.  If you dig like hell, you’ll find the primary sources are there – as scant as they are.  Then, I’ve found that the story changes a bit.  This particular event is one that I’m feeling is becoming “mine,” one that I can easily write 6,000 words or more about, whereas previously it’s garnered perhaps a paragraph from others.  But it’s already taken several months and a hand-dig to China with a plastic spoon just to get to the writing point.

It’s frustrating, irritating, time consuming, nerve-wracking, heartbreaking, and you often spin your wheels to get nowhere – sort of like marriage.

But boy, is it fun along the way.  And in the end it’s so worth it you’ll take the road all over again.

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Published in: on December 28, 2006 at 5:43 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. JD,
    Excellent points by both you and Dmitri. It brings me back to a relatively simple question that’s been causing me a good deal of frustration: where can one find primary sources other than in DC or Carlisle? I’ve managed to find a few published ones (that digital website is treasure trove!), but other than private collections the majority of it would seem to come from those two locations.
    I agree completely with your techniques of research, it leads to high quality products. There would seem to be a point of diminishing returns, but that feeling of mastery that you mentioned should kick in before then. Incidentally, I realize that I still owe you that 2d Dragoons piece. But I keep finding this tidbit and that, and then there were two works I just turned up on that digital site….

    Don

  2. JD:

    I share your insights and opinion. Especially this:

    “The deeper I go into a topic – the more I disregard secondary sources. Secondary sources can be useful to getting an initial understanding of a subject or event – especially one with which I may not be very familiar – but they have to take a backseat to the primary sources the deeper I go…If you dig like hell, you’ll find the primary sources are there – as scant as they are.”

    I had pretty much the exact same experience in researching and writing, “Stonewall Jackson – The Black Man’s Friend.” Another blogger had criticized the lack of “secondary recourses” (although quite a few were, in fact, noted and others were consulted), but your thoughts are right on. Frankly, I look at secondary sources, especially recent ones, with a very skeptical eye, due to the pc mindset and revisionism that is so rampant. Depsite our best efforts, we ALL bring a slant to our writing and this is especially true when it comes to writing about the Civil War.


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