Mary Catelli has an excellent post about using primary sources in research. It makes many points that I've often thought about when reading history books and historical fiction. For example, she says: "Everyone who writes, writes for a purpose. Discovering that purpose is not only part of learning about the era, it's also necessary to read between the lines."
Writers have a point of view, an agenda. They may lie,
misremember, propagandize, use false flattery. They may make careless
mistakes or may deliberately cover something up. They may omit things
that are common knowledge at the time.
They have opinions.
Imagine polling 100 people about any US President. You are likely to get
wildly divergent and contradictory opinions about who that person is,
what his intentions are, and whether he's been good for the country. Now
imagine if only one of those people wrote down his feelings about the
President, and that became the primary source document for a researcher
of the future. It's instantly apparent how many facets of a person and
an era can be missed.
Also, we have social customs that we all
follow, but we rarely write about them and don't formally acknowledge
them as rules. This is one of the hardest things for someone to discover
and adjust to when moving from one culture to another. To me, the best
general example is the speed limit. It's a legal limit, and you can be
fined for exceeding it, but 99% of drivers don't follow it and are not
punished. In fact, the social pressure is on drivers not to follow it. Those who do obey it are tailgated, honked at, cursed at, cut off in traffic.
an example of a society-wide custom that someone relying only on a
"Speed Limit 55 mph" sign as a primary source document wouldn't know
about. In The Map of My Dead Pilots, Colleen Mondor wrote about
bush pilots in Alaska flying with loads whose weight was routinely
underreported on the paperwork. According to her book, everyone in that
subculture knew about it: the paperwork was not reliable. But a person
coming along 100 years from now, reading the paperwork, might not know
that. Even now, a person from outside the subculture might not realize
This same "reading between the lines" skill is one that we
can apply to novels. What's the narrator's agenda, culture, point of
view? Is he reliable? What's unspoken here? What is he leaving out?
Where is he mistaken, and where is he actively trying to deceive, and
A brief note in closing, for those who are interested: My second book, Try Not to Breathe, will be coming out in paperback on Jan. 24. Preorders are available now through IndieBound, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books a Million.