David McCullough is one of the popular historians working today in the US. He’s a leading voice for keeping history where people can read, discuss, and enjoy it. He’s released a new book about what used to be called “the Old Northwest,” Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, and the stories of the frontier days there.
It’s gotten a mixed reception from professional historians, in part because McCullough calls the stories “untold.” People who spent their careers writing about that same region chided him for that.
One of the complaints about (and sometimes by) fiction writers is that we don’t tell new stories, or that our stories are too new and outre. “I want more of that, but different,” is the cry, leading to us poor writers trying to sort out what hallmarks, beats, and details readers absolutely have to have, and where we can apply some creativity. Historians, at least popular historians and those of us who lean that way, face a similar problem.
People want an entertaining read. It should be about something new-to-them, or familiar and told in a new way. If new-to-the-reader, it ought to follow a pattern the reader knows. Happily for McCullough, the Old Northwest had that, with explorers, Indians, fur trade, pioneers, and other “beats” that we associate with the settlement and exploration of the American West. Yes, there have been a number of books written about the area already, some of them excellent and highly specialized monographs. For example, I read and reviewed a splendid environmental history of the mid Mississippi River and the fur trade, entitled Land of Big Rivers. But it only includes a little area called American Bottoms. There’s plenty of room, literal as well as metaphorical, for other titles that cover a broader span. Or for more detailed case studies.
We see the same in fiction. It’s easy to say, “A new epic fantasy centering on destroying a cursed thing? Yawn. Tolkien did it. That should be enough.” Or the ever popular with Big Five “vampires are dead,” even as people started writing new twists on the vampire romance.
We have to keep the idea fresh enough to pique interest, and familiar enough for readers looking for “comfort reads.” In the Familiar Tales series, I start with your basic urban fantasy world of mean streets, magic workers who know about magic (as does the rest of the population), and then toss in Familiars that are anything but the standard issue cat. And different classes of magic worker, who don’t always get along. Stir in a dash of the goth sub-culture, the “joys” of retail work and police administration, and the woes any pet owner can sympathize with. So there are elements that people are used to and enjoy, and something a little different and off-kilter. [No, I don’t think Tay has ever been on-kilter.]
It’s not quite the standard urban fantasy, it’s certainly not paranormal romance, but it hits enough of the UF beats that people are at least willing to take a nibble.
That’s what writers like McCullough do for non-fiction. Sure, other people write about the Old Northwest. He pulls a lot of new eyes onto the region, people who might not read a local historical association’s history of Ohio, assuming they could find a copy. No, he’s not an academic historian. That doesn’t seem to bother him. He writes for readers, not for the tenure committee.*
*There are academic historians who write like popular historians. Alas, they are few in number and small in market. Other complaints are that McCullough is very fond of the US and admires many of the people he writes about. Tsk, tsk.
Shameless self promotion:
Five short stories set in the Familiars world. From a barn-owl with a balance problem to the difficulties of a catfish on-the-road, this blend of new and known will keep fans of the series entertained, amused, and wondering: just what is F.X going to tell his mother, anyway?