Writing History

Angus Phillips on Richard Henry Dana’s classic Two Years Before the Mast:

Not that it’s a quick or easy read. Dana, son of a poet, made the choice that all who write about the seagoing life must make—whether to do so in the rich, exotic language of the ship and risk losing landlubbers along the way, or to dumb it down so everyone could breeze through. He took the hard way, keeping it real, as we say today.

The challenge of writing Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer was weaving a narrative that was equal parts local history, American Revolution history, and maritime history, bound by a tight 30,000-word limit. And, early on, I had to confront the same issue Phillips raises: whether to spend valuable verbiage explaining nautical jargon to readers or to proceed regardless and hope they speak salt as a second language.

I adopted what I call a History 201 approach, specifying recurrent themes or details but assuming readers knew the general course of events or customs (or at least could look them up). I rarely defined the differences between types of vessels, for example. If the reader really burns to know what a schooner or snow is, there are better explanations available elsewhere than I had space to give. In contrast I defined brigs and ships because Smedley’s Defence was both.

Another decision: I jettisoned the traditional measure of a ship’s size by tonnage, which involves a complicated formula interesting only to Age-of-Sail historians and model-ship builders, for a comparative yardstick by number of cannons. Saying a ship was 200 tons means nothing to a reader, but he will understand that a 16-gun brig was more powerful than an 8-gun schooner and dwarfed by a 64-gun frigate.

Otherwise, the West Country accent isn’t too thick. Any reader who knows her bow from her stern should enjoy it.

I delivered the manuscript April 1 and the copyeditrix and I are doing polishes now. Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer goes to press in early May and should be available by late June.

Lost States

Santa left a copy of Michael J. Trinklein’s Lost States under the tree this year, a book I’ve been wanting to crack for months. I recommend it if you too are fascinated by lost or forgotten geography — with the caveat that Lost States is more of a compilation of cartography paired with Wikipedia entries than a serious history book.

The full title and subhead of the book is Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It.

Here’s my true story: between 2005 and 2007, I shopped a book idea entitled The Lost States of America. My high-concept tagline was, “Everybody knows there are fifty states. But what about the ones that didn’t make it?”

I eventually abandoned the project, even though I wrote the first chapter (18,000 words!), due to lack of interest from agents or publishers and a growing realization that my energies were better spent elsewhere.

Along the way I accumulated a number of rejection letters, including my favorite from an agent who wrote a long reply about how he wanted to write a history of a lost-state endeavor near where he lived. He declined to represent my book, therefore, lest it interfere with his.

I chuckle just thinking about that letter. Of course, if he had wanted to write his book so badly, he would have done so already. But he hasn’t and he never will. I prize that rejection as the quintessential example of everything that’s wrong with big-name book publishing. Trinklein, an Emmy-nominated PBS producer, self-published the original version of Lost States. It seems publishers were just as deaf to him as they were to me.

My concept differed from Trinklein’s in that I planned to write a textual history book about ten different lost states (eight of which Trinklein includes). Trinklein opted for a more graphic presentation. Each of the 74 entries features a full-page chart crafted to resemble a map from the relevant time period — nicely done. A 300-word description faces it. And yet while Trinklein writes in a breezy style that is sometimes fun, sometimes flippant, his renditions are sometimes at history’ s expense.

Take Franklin, for instance. Trinklein cites Samuel Cole Williams’s History of the Lost State of Franklin as the source for his entry, a reference I also read while researching my 2004 Reason piece on Franklin. Trinklein disparages the whole idea of Franklin, even going so far as to assert that Benjamin Franklin, for whom the endeavor was named, was hostile to it. Not so; the Philadelphian was politely noncommittal. Trinklein also says that North Carolina troops crushed the Franklin movement militarily. Again, not true: Indian attacks in what is today western Tennessee caused North Carolina to walk away from the Franklin issue, eventually leading to the creation of the Volunteer State in its place. I caught several other errors throughout the book and the customer reviews over at Amazon list a bunch more.

Trinklein is also hindered by his lack of focus. The words “George W. Bush,” “Iraq,” and “quagmire” pop up a lot — even though the copyright on the book is 2010. He reminds me of my grad-school professors who, as late as the early 21st century, would spin themselves into a tizzy over Ronald Reagan and Grenada. A couple of entries (New Connecticut, Nickajack) go off on silly tangents, something a writer can’t afford when he’s jotting in eight-graf blurbs.

The scholarship of Trinklein’s hardbound gazetteer is very dodgy but it’s a good place to begin an inquiry. Enjoy the maps and follow the bibliography to more factual accounts of events.

Writing professionally, I believe, is like being a drunken lighthouse keeper: it’s lonely; and for every dozen vessels safely shepherded to their destination, you have a spectacular shipwreck on the rocks. Years ago, my reaction to Lost States would have been jealousy. Experience has taught me since that whatever enemies a writer may have, other authors aren’t among them. I may resurrect my old book idea, although with a focus on a single lost state and told through a biographical narrative, when I finish my current project. But more on that later.