The first three of five tips on writing a historical novel focused on primary sources – Tip #1 family stories (oral history), Tip #2 historic sites, and Tip #3 archives. This article encourages you to sort through and mine valuable secondary sources. If you write a historical novel using secondary sources alone, recognize that you’re reading through the lens of how another author has selected, organized, and interpreted primary sources. You would be a step removed from rich, authentic sources. However, secondary sources still have great value. As a cultural historian, I offer this distinction between the two:
Primary source -A surviving record of past events created during the time period under study by someone who participated in, witnessed, or commented upon the historic events, such as photographs, diaries, artifacts, or oral history.
Secondary source -Books, articles, essays, and lectures, often created using primary sources, that describe and interpret a time period after events have taken place.
In the case of island author Nicole d’Entremont, secondary sources – particularly Peter Englund‘s “The Beauty and the Sorrow: An intimate history of WWI”- complemented her use of primary sources in writing “A Generation of Leaves.”
Swedish historian and journalist Englund describes his book as “a work of anti-history,” in other words, not a book that strings together noteworthy events, but “a book about what it was like.” Nicole explained to me how it influenced her:
“The Beauty and the Sorrow” features 20 people of several nationalities who were caught up in World War I. A young German girl. A Scottish woman. An Italian trooper. Forget the dates. It’s the people. This is their story. It’s not about the generals. I read this book twice. As a “non-historian,” I had doubts about how I was approaching the subject, but Englund, a noted historian himself and university teacher of WWI history, gave me confidence that I could follow my novelist’s inclination without fearing the wrath of historical rectitude.
I wrap up the 5 tips on writing a historical novel with the next article: Tip #5: Can we understand the past?
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