• Adam Ross

How Much Can You Know About Drowning?

Guest blog post by Colorado Author Erik Schmidt.


How much can you know about drowning?

Two thoughts on creativity in history.

Nonfiction history, for most of us, has never felt like the realm of unbridled creativity. Constrained by available evidence and precise judgment (at least in theory), most historians are more likely to be known for empirical rigor than inspiration or artistry.

Still, if you’re a history writer, you’re making creative decisions every time you put your fingers to the keyboard. This is true whether you’re aware of it or not, and your writing is probably better if you’re aware of it.

Here are a couple thoughts on listening to your inner creative without compromising the rigor.

You’re already inventing all kinds of things

History writers already know they’re being creative with things like imagery, scene, and how to structure the narrative. But it goes well beyond those.

Consider a few creative decisions that come up all the time, sometimes without the writer even knowing it:

  • What information to include, and exclude, in a given passage

  • How you’re personifying yourself, as the researcher-narrator, to the reader

  • Whose voice should convey a piece of information (yours, another researcher’s, the subject’s, etc.)

  • What to clarify for the reader and what to leave mysterious until later

These are novel-caliber creative decisions, and historians should consider them with just as much care and enthusiasm. Consider the last bullet. Omitting available information can be an important tool for propelling the reader through the page and engaging their imagination—as long as it doesn’t leave out an important part of an argument or obfuscate the truth. (The reader is trusting you to know what you’re doing here, but you’re up to it.)

Historian Gitta Sereny, for example, is a master at choosing what information to include, when. In The Healing Wound, she tells us about interviewing Franz Stangl, a German extermination camp commandant during the Holocaust. She doles out the details with a journalist’s comprehensiveness and a novelist’s strategy.

See, it turns out that Stangl had a “curious habit” of reverting to casual German speech when made to answer difficult or risky questions. Notably, Sereny gives us this detail almost immediately, whether or not she judged it to be notable immediately during the interviews, which she likely did not. This upfront revelation makes Stangl more human to readers, but also more suspicious. It conditions us. It is Sereny’s creative responsibility to discern what impact this move will have on readers, and how (or whether) it will get us closer to the truth of the man’s life.

You’ll need to be creative when you have no information

There are plenty of situations when historians lack data they would really like to have. So-and-so never addressed this topic directly in his life. We don’t know what kind of plane was he flying when he went down. I’ve seen writers avoid history for this very reason—the absence of certainty feels like a roadblock—but you really can say true and useful things about situations you know little or nothing about.

How? You can do it by discussing the lack of certainty itself, which I always find fun and valuable, or you can pivot to a related topic about which you do know something in order to shed light on the situation.

Sebastian Junger did this brilliantly toward the end of The Perfect Storm, a book about a shipwreck that nobody came back from. Obviously, with no survivors, you’re not going to have firsthand testimony to draw from. So when it came time for Junger to describe the climactic sinking, he shifted smoothly to a discussion about the human physiology of drowning. This made for a wonderful (if slightly uncomfortable!) passage that added to the story without making iffy truth claims about what happened out there.

The best historians show us not just the content of history, but the art of it. They have to make sure their artfulness doesn’t intrude on the truth—but if they know their way around the language, they can use it to bring the truth further into the daylight.

About the author

Erik Schmidt is the author of Black Tulip: The Life and Myth of Erich Hartmann, the World’s Top Fighter Ace, released in February 2020 by Casemate. He is a Denver-based freelance writer and senior marketing writer. Trackhim down at www.erikschmidtwrites.com.

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