Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Barbara Tuchman's Nonfiction Research Advice


Fun reading at the moment is Barbara Tuchman's classic The Guns of August, about the opening month of World War 1. The trick of research, she said, is knowing when to stop. 'One must stop before one has finished, otherwise one will never stop and finish... Research is endlessly seductive, but writing is hard work.'
Too true on both counts. I have just located a new cache of Haldane material in Oxford, so get the treat of a run out there next week. And my list of books to seek out at the British Library already exceeds the allowable daily quota. But in truth, my J.S.Haldane research is enough to get the first draft written. I'm stuck at the base of a mountain at the moment, and must haul my crew up there this afternoon if I am ever to get beyond the current chapter.
Meanwhile I note Barbara Tuchman 'tried to avoid all spontaneous attribution of the "he must have" style of historical writing: "As he watched the coastline of France disappear, Napoleon must have thought back over the long ..."'
I've not consciously avoided that, but will now start to do so.
Tuchman had a spiked and vigorous style. I smiled at her one-sentence summary of the Czarina: 'Beautiful, hysterical, and morbidly suspicious, she hated everyone but her immediate family and a series of fanatic or lunatic charlatans who offered comfort to her desperate soul.' It is overblown, opinionated, and quite magnificent.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

God I hate the he must have school of writing- you have to stick to the sources- good article by the way about research its very true.

6:39 AM  
Blogger Martin said...

Yes ... i do see where the 'he must have' element slips in though. It does mean you haven't found the sources - but it can mean you have nothered to do a lot of field research - walking the route of your biographical subject, for example, working out what the weather was like on that particular day, fitting the pieces together into what then seems nigh on inevitable. I think then you can allow yourself a shift in grammar - can you? Am I right? Switching the 'must have' to the simple past tense?

8:22 PM  

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