Perils of Research
If you’re like me, you get a great idea for a story, do a bit of research, and promptly get so lost in the research that you forget to write the story (I’m still irked over the loss of that novel about Byzantine iconoclasm. Maybe I’ll get it back. Someday).
But that’s only one of the perils of research, and in this post, I’d like to focus on the ways a writer can be tripped up by the research itself, particularly in historical research, since most of my (limited) experience is in that field.
• Bad/missing primary sources- You’ve heard it before, but I’ll say it again: Primary sources are a great way to learn about a period in time. These are first-hand accounts of an event, and though they’re not perfectly accurate, the reader can be assured that the material has passed through only one filter- that of the writer or artist. Secondary sources can be useful as compilations of primary source material, but that material has been filtered through an editor or writer who brings their own biases to the table. That person is likely to leave out an important detail, simply because he thinks it’s not important or he had to shorten the chapter and dontcha know, the birthplace of the third wife of Philip II of Spain was the least important thing in the chapter, so it got the axe. (For those who would like to know, the lady in question was Elisabeth de Valois, and she was born at Fontainebleau. And yes, I went down the rabbit hole of research when I looked it up.)
Primary sources aren’t perfect. Even if the writer is trying to be accurate and unbiased, they often show an incomplete picture of an event- accounts of battle are notorious, since the witness can’t be everywhere at once. One hundred fifty years later, we’re still trying to piece together exactly what happened at Gettysburg.
One way to get around this shortcoming is to read many different primary sources, preferably from people who have opposite opinions on other subjects. Just like in writing, if three or more commenters independently come to the same conclusion, their opinion is probably worth a second look. The key word here is ‘independently’. If commenters talk to each to each other before writing their accounts, they are likely to muddy the waters. Unfortunately for historians, the human memory is very suggestible.
And of course, there are periods of history for which no primary sources are available or the sources are so obscure that useful information is found only by accident. Writing has only existed for a few thousand years, and any time in a society’s history before the advent of writing is considered prehistoric, even if we’re referring to American Indians living pre-European-contact in the early 1600s. Prehistoric peoples left us artifacts that can technically be called primary sources- for example, the Lascaux cave paintings- but we have so little context for studying them that their meaning remains a mystery. (Cave paintings can, however, provide useful information about the animals living in a particular area and the materials available to the painters (and therefore, the scope of their trading networks), so even obscure sources can be helpful.)
I’ve also found tangential primary sources to be useful- diaries, letters, and the like. Unofficial accounts, if you will. The average Joe will record information that’s important to him, and while he’s subject to bias (more on this later) information can be gleaned from around the edges of the writing. Sometimes the details that were unimportant to the writer, can be wonderfully useful to a researcher. Samuel Pepys, writing in the late 1600s, certainly didn’t mean to give historians an account of ladies’ fashion, but he did leave us a rather pervy description of Lady Castlemaine’s undergarments, which he spotted from a distance as the items were hung out to dry on wash day. His gratification becomes our insight into an obscure area of domestic history. Laura Forster, a Victorian lady, wrote in her memoirs that her childhood nursery had four shelves, one for each child’s toys, which sounds completely normal until we realize that she had four brothers. It never occurred to her that she had no shelf on which to display her possessions, even though each of her brothers did. One bit of evidence isn’t enough to make generalizations about the way the Victorians treated their children, but it certainly says something about the Forsters’ parenting methods. And neither of the above examples meant to tell us about ladies’ undergarments or Victorian child-rearing, but the information that crept in by accident is no less useful than an official account.
• Secondary sources that pretend to be primary- People lie. They pretend they were present, when they weren’t. On purpose, by accident, it doesn’t matter to a frustrated researcher attempting to reconcile Grandpa’s story of storming a Pacific island in WWII with the other accounts. And the resulting yarns are subject to the same pitfalls as secondary sources that admit to being secondary sources.
• Political spin- Everyone has biases. Modern journalists went through a stage of pretending to be unbiased, and got away with it because of technological limitations, but that façade is cracking open, mostly due to the advent of the internet and blogging.
Early Britain and Ireland were known for bards and travelling storytellers, but the idea of a king’s pet musician is a little less well known. Reputation was important, so petty kings and warlords hired storytellers to talk them up- sort of a one man spin doctoring business. And of course, the bard, wanting to keep his cushy job, made sure to praise his lord as much as possible. Since there was a tradition of intermingling history and legend within Ireland in particular, no one cared very much. Genealogies in particular were favorite points of stretching the truth. Every British king wanted to be related to King Arthur, even though there may not have been such a man and even if he did exist, he was hardly the savior of Britain. The Irish king Cormac mac Art has two different mothers, depending on which ancestry was more politically correct at the time. But who was going to contradict him? If the king was pleased, he paid the bard and chopped off the heads of anyone who dared to say nay.
A thousand years later, Shakespeare was a Tudor propagandist extraordinaire. If he hadn’t been, he could have been arrested for treason, which at the time didn’t only refer to ‘giving aid and comfort to enemies of the kingdom;’ treason in the late 1500s and early 1600s was more along the lines of, “You awful person! You said the queen is old and fat and is subject to death just like everyone else! Off with your head!” So dear old Will had a good reason for wanting to play nice with Elizabeth I and later James I, who was closely related to the Tudor family. As a result, historians spent four hundred years thinking Richard III was a hunchback (though he did suffer from curvature of the spine, it wasn’t severe enough to make him appear hunchbacked) among other strange fibs.
Political spin also pops up in modern scientific papers. This isn’t a political blog, so I’ll gloss over some of the gory details, but I will say: How many times have we seen two contradictory studies published at the same time? Studies on all kinds of subjects- homosexuality, mental disorders, even things like salt intake, have been discredited by later research, when they’d been previously venerated as the Holy Grail of truth by powerful people pushing an agenda.
But surely science is science, right? Not exactly. Science has become a matter of grant money. People make a living by designing and conducting experiments, and if the funding source wants a particular result, the pressure is on to produce that result. Scientists, like all people, are also subject to their own set of biases, and may unconsciously design an experiment to fall within certain parameters that confirm those opinions or, more innocently, make the best use of the equipment and resources available to the scientist.
• Lost in Translation- Many scientific papers are written in English, but archeologists don’t always follow that rule, as I learned when looking for information about the Sarmatians. These steppe peoples lived north of the Black Sea in Roman times, and since they’re not of huge interest to most of the world, a lot of the scholarship is written in Russian and Hungarian, neither of which I speak/read/write.
Poor translations can be worse than no translation at all, because the fact that a translation existed tends to make people think that it’s accurate. We see this in historical documents- translations of the Bible, for example- and in modern journalism.
Nicolas Sarkozy got into a spot of trouble in 2005 when he used racaille to describe a group of rioters who were busy burning cars in a residential neighborhood. Racaille is usually translated as ‘rascals’ or ‘riff-raff’, neither of which are horribly offensive, but certain papers translated it as ‘scum,’ which lent a much more perjorative cast to Sarkózy’s comments and led to various special interest groups accusing him of racism (hello, political spin!).
• Definitional drift- I talked about this a bit in A Brief History of English and Why it Matters. Definitional drift is the idea that a word changes in meaning over time. It’s a relative of poor translation. Jane Austen’s use of the word ‘condescending’ is one of the most obvious examples. We tend to think of it as a perjorative description, but Austen was writing at a time when it was only starting to take on that connotation. Another example is the Southernism, ‘Bless your heart’, which sounds very nice, but depending on context, can be a superficially pleasant way to say, “F*** you.”
The best way to get around definitional drift is to read secondary sources along with your primary sources. For most periods in history, at least one Ph.D student has done a dissertation on language during that time, and will be able to help. Books titled ‘Daily Life in …” can be useful for understanding those pesky changes in language and customs.
So what’s the point of all this? Am I trying to scare you away from doing research? No way. Research is important, and each of us has to find a style that works well with our writing style. I’ve found that I need a very brief overview of the subject to be covered, then I mark points of uncertainty within the text as I write, and look up the answers afterward. But I’m a pantser, and that works well for me. A plotter might take a crash course in say, ancient Greek textiles, before ever putting a word on the page.
Your method of research is less important than the doing of it. No matter what subject you write upon, at least one of your readers will have studied it in greater depth and will correct your errors (as I’m discovering while writing these posts. Thank you, all; you’re making me into a more conscientious writer).
Detail isn’t everything in a good story. Some writers make entire careers with scant attention to accuracy. But it does help, and if you do good research in a way that suits your style, your readers won’t be left wondering why a basketball just bounced through the hall of your medieval castle or your quail hunters are loading bullets in their shotguns.