Friday, July 22, 2011

History Detectives

There's a PBS show called History Detectives, which I find riveting. (The only trouble is what it shares with all PBS shows: a tendency to play hide-and-seek with the viewer, disappearing just when I get used to finding it on a certain channel at a certain time.) In the show, researchers meet up with people who have objects that are supposedly of historical significance, and the researchers do what they can to find out the true stories behind the objects. Usually the objects are family heirlooms, handed down along with family stories, or else they're objects the current owner bought at a yard sale or found in the trash. A scrap of old film: What movie was it from, who are these actors, and what does this tell us about film history? A piece of cable found on the beach: Was it really part of the trans-Atlantic cable? A WWII-era dagger handed down through a family: Did it really belong to Mussolini? These are the kinds of questions they research.

My husband has done a fair amount of genealogical research, and he has discovered something that the history detectives find as well: Oral histories are unreliable, especially when they've gone through a few generations of story-tellers. What we think we know about our family heirlooms and our families' pasts may not be what really happened. And yet, there is usually at least a thread of truth, and sometimes more than that.

History Detectives is a great show for writers to watch because it deals with story. It takes a concrete, specific object and uses it to make larger points about society, history and culture. If the detectives are researching something from, say, the Prohibition Era, we find out all sorts of little-known facts about Prohibition, in addition to learning about the object in question. From the show, I've also learned about historic events that I hadn't even heard of before, such as the Black Tom explosion of 1916, in which spies blew up two million pounds of ammunition in New York harbor.

The unexpected, the garbled, the sort-of-true, the not-true-at-all; the larger story behind the small details; the roles real people play in major historic events: this is writers' material.


  1. What a cool job, to be a history detective! Writers can definitely have fun with researching history! Hmmm... I've never heard of the Black Tom explosion, either.

  2. Ooh, interesting! I've been thinking about exploring how stories are passed down, too. Would love to write a book with parallel narratives: one of what actually happened, and one of how the story is known, generations later. I guess a lot of fairytale retellings do this.

  3. Alexia: Yes, history is something we have to keep rediscovering and reinterpreting.

    Linda: That sounds fascinating! I love stories that do that, where you can see how reality gets twisted and blurred.