Ross Coen: A historian's disclaimer

Welcome and thank you to Ross Coen, our May featured author! 
A disclaimer right at the outset:
I am a historian and a writer of non-fiction. I don’t write poems, plays, short stories, or novels, and if I have a creative bone in my body it’s probably one of those really small ones in the inner ear whose proximity to the brain has no bearing on the functioning of either hemisphere.

And yet, I subscribe to the view most forcefully (and somewhat controversially) expressed by Hayden White, professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, that the historian and writer of fiction utilize the same basic compositional techniques, albeit in the pursuit of different forms.

The construction of a historical narrative, according to White’s thesis, requires the writer make numerous subjective decisions regarding not merely word choice, but also characterization, dialogue, ordering of events, and so on. Thus the discourse may be as much a product of the historian’s literary talents as his or her fidelity to the record and application of a suitable historical method.

In other words, historians and novelists both write stories—the difference is that the latter gets to make things up while the former has to remain grounded in the evidence.

I’m not complaining, mind you.

Being restricted by my source material is really the only thing that enables me to write. If all bets were off and I had the freedom to write whatever, even violate the laws of physics within the narrative if I wanted to, that bone in my inner ear, the one that heretofore only received and amplified vibrations from another source, would be hard pressed to make any sound on its own.

I once wrote a 25-page historical account of an old backcountry miner in the 1950s where the only source material was a ledger of mining claims, a few newspaper clippings, and the sourdough’s diary, all eleven pages of it. Far from being restricting, the experience proved strangely liberating. I could not step beyond the information in those documents, so I was forced to build the most engaging narrative possible within a limited factual space. Had I been writing a piece of historical fiction, the freedom to invent things would not have been freedom at all. I would have been paralyzed.

Perhaps it’s like haiku. When you’re limited to three lines, with five, seven, and five syllables per respective line, the restriction provides exactly the structure within which creativity, far from being stifled, can actually take form.

But that’s me.

Other writers, including many who have bookmarked this site, likely treasure the freedom inherent to the fictional form. And yet, I’m certain that poets, playwrights, and novelists are similarly bound by facts whether they realize it or not. You can’t, for example, write a short story in which a character rides the F train to the Bronx—it goes only to Queens and Brooklyn—or if you do, there had better be a good reason!

The historical approach appeals to me for another reason. It means most of my interactions are with papers and books, not people. I’m not a misanthrope, really, but I find the process of research so much more pleasant when I can sit quietly in some library or archive and work my way through a box of original documents. Interviewing people in the course of research, which, yes, I’ve done many times, can be such a messy business. Now you’re dealing with personalities and agendas and individual memories that, as we all know, are constructed, conditional, and highly suspect. At least historical documents don’t change over time. They can still lie, of course, but they don’t change the way our memories do. In fact, it’s sort of fun when documents lie and put you in the position of not merely interpreting them but solving a puzzle as well. Small victories for the history nerd, I suppose.

I’m very pleased to be this month’s featured writer. The process of writing interests me as much as the product, and over the next few weeks I will post additional thoughts on researching and writing historical narratives, especially as contrasted with other forms. I’d like to hear what you think, so please, post comments!

Ross Coen is a historian who writes about the social, political, and environmental history of Alaska and the Arctic. He is the author of The Long View: Dispatches On Alaska History from Ester Republic Press and Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil: The Epic Voyage of the SS Manhattan through the Northwest Passage from University of Alaska Press. He lives in Fairbanks.

1 thought on “Ross Coen: A historian's disclaimer”

  1. Lynn Lovegreen

    Hi Ross,

    Thanks for your post; I can tell I will enjoy reading more from you. I write historical fiction, which is a nice hybrid between what you write and the usual fiction. I also like the "restrictions" inherent in the form. If I'm writing about Skagway in 1898, for instance, I can't have Soapy Smith use a newer technology, or add people who weren't in Alaska yet. But there's so much I can do with the dramatic events from that time period that the challenge is a pleasant one. Like you said, it's a puzzle to fit the pieces together. But I can also make up some details that you can't.

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