Local Stories – Universal Stories?

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.

Recounting the Untold History of the Early Midwestern Pioneers


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?

14 thoughts on “Local Stories – Universal Stories?

  1. Part of the problem is that a lot of the Old Northwest “untold history” used to be standard issue US history. You were an ignoramus if you didn’t know about Tecumseh or the Coonskin Library, and you probably had to memorize Chief Logan’s Speech. Even when I was a kid, I had to learn a lot of this stuff in school in Ohio History in 8th grade, and later, for the AP History exam.

    So.it is more like “untold to all you kids who were not homeschooled, or fortunate enough to.grow up in the correct states.” (It also shows the wisdom of requiring a state history class.)

    1. And even then, for example, Texas history focuses on Houston-Ft. Worth-San Antonio-El Paso. It doesn’t get up this way, or into the Edwards Plateau, or Central Texas at all.

      1. Quite. I would say that at least 90% of the Arizona history that I have learned, I did not learn in school. (I’m not that diligent of a student in the subject, by the way; what I know are things that I’ve picked up here and there at random.)

    2. Two words: teachers unions.
      If the knowledge the students are exposed to isn’t carefully curated, who knows what lessons the children will take away with them?

      In Idaho Territory, the labor unions attempted to kick off a revolution over a century ago.
      There was not even a hint of that breathed in the mandatory Idaho History classes. In fact, the entire curriculum was deliberately set up to reinforce a repeated lesson of “nothing interesting ever happened here”.
      It’s been about three decades, and I can still tell you the oldest standing structure in the state, because that bit of trivia was one of the high points of the class. (Also, the state tree, the state bird, the state flower… And that the state flag was designed by a girl. )
      Bombings, bloodshed, assassinations, and martial law, not so much. Nor the fact that the state’s very name is a joke played upon self-important (but ignorant) Easterners.

      1. But of course! Why should anyone ever think ‘anything interesting happened here’?

        One of the more annoying conceits I’d ever noticed about attitudes to ‘local’ is ‘nothing ever happens here.’ *snort*

        I remember my mom being told by an older cousin who had come back ‘to the tiny village with one paved road’ with vast amusement that the inhabitants were like bats. Puzzled, she asked what he’d meant and he replied “Well, how else would they know that the person walking up the same road they’re on is from the other tribe, so they can start a punch up in the dark?”

        She realized that it was true: the village consisted of two tribes, who didn’t much like each other and punch-ups between the men of the village tended to happen rather spontaneously and at night. And back then there were no street lights, so it very, very dark.

        1. The blowing things up, I mean. Not the deliberate boredom.

          To be fair, it was mostly our Ohio History teacher, who loved to read gory historical accounts. It was junior high, so we loved it.

  2. That’s an excellent point, and anything ‘different’ especially by historians is going to upset the applecart. Even moreso, when it’s not written for the tenured holipoli! 🙂 Clearly Familiar was an excellent read, and a fun couple of hours, thanks!

    1. Agreed on Clearly Familiar. I’m horrible at doing reviews, but this was gooooooood!

      (Contemplates a large-animal Familiar. Somehow, I don’t think it would come across like Mister Ed. 🙂 )

      1. I *so* want to see a “large animal” Familiar (and no, need not be bovine). Then, I’d be Highly Amused should a Mythical (*any* Mythical) suddenly turn up one memorable day. Of course, the strangest Familiar of all would be… human. How could that even happen?!?

        1. Those are interesting ideas. If you wanted a large familiar, you could go with a humpback whale.

          Going the other way, for a human familiar, you could have Familiar to Dragons, as an example, though pure mythical isn’t required. It does fit the usual ‘smaller than the mage’ structure.

  3. And the classic example of a professional historian writing for the public has still got to be Samuel Eliot Morrison’s history of the US Navy in WW2, either the 15 volume complete set, or the one volume “short” history. Yes, some of his facts were later superseded by further research, and he couldn’t really talk about Ultra, etc, since it was still classified. But the writing (which was for the public — he already had tenure and more honors):

    (Describing the end of the battle of Surigao Strait):

    Mississippi’s one salvo, fired at Yamashiro just after Admiral Olendorf ordered Cease Fire, concluded this major phase of the battle. SIlence followed, as if to honor the passing of the tactics which had so long been foremost in naval warfare. The Battles of Lowestoft, Beachy Head, the Capes of the Chesapeake, Trafalgar, Santiago, Tsushima, Jutland, every major naval action of the past three centuries, had been fought by classic line-of-battle tactics. In the unearthly silence that followed the roar of Olendorf’s 14-inch and 16-inch guns in Surigao Strait, one could imagine the ghosts of all the great admirals, from Raleigh and De Ruyter to Togo and Jellicoe, standing at attention to salute the passing of the kind of naval warfare that they all understood. For in those opening minutes of the morning watch of 25 October 1944, Battle Line became as obsolete as the row-galley tactics of Salamis and Syracuse.

    If that doesn’t bring you off to your encyclopedias to learn more …..

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