Fate in Fact

Should historians be more honest about their intuitions?

Take the example of how historians imagine their subjects as characters. In his book Poetry in the Making, Ted Hughes tells a story about how the novelist H.E. Bates was in the habit of making up biographies for people he came across:

Some of these little fantasies he noted down, to use in his stories. But as time passed, he discovered that these so-called fantasies were occasionally literal and accurate accounts of the lives of those very individuals he had seen. The odd thing about this, is that when he first invented them, he had thought it was all just imagination, that he was making it all up. In other words, he had received somehow or other accurate information, in great detail, just by looking – but he hadn’t recognized it for what it was. He had simply found it lying there in his mind, at that moment, unlabelled.[1]

Many historians would be justifiably suspicious of the mysticism of receiving ‘somehow or other accurate information’. Try getting that into your methodology section and past the anonymous reviewers.

Yet what historian hasn’t had this kind of experience of intuitions confirmed, whether they concern a subject, or an event, a detail, whatever it is that the researcher is focusing on? I don’t believe in a mystical basis for these flashes of insight, but there are historians who wonder. Carlo Ginzburg, for instance, has written of his suspicion that:

the document was there waiting for me, and that my entire past life had predisposed me to find it. I believe there is a nucleus of truth in all this absurd fantasizing.[2]

The point I want to make is not that historians have some kind of extra-rational powers. I would find that hard to defend as an explanation of doing good research. Against what benchmark would we measure the intuited but unknowable?

What allowance could we make for false positives? Of course I remember when I sensed something that was later confirmed by evidence, but how many hunches fall by the wayside of good research?

The point is that if your attention is trained on history as a form of writing, rather than in terms of research, intuition is indispensable. Intuition is what turns known facts into a story. It is the process that we cannot help but engage in. If you are suspicious of this, there is no solution better than making your intuitions explicit to your reader, throwing up your hands to say, ‘Here I am, guessing this into the shape of a story. I can’t help myself.’

Intuition is the high road to connecting with imaginary readers. This is the basis for the underlying joke in Alexander Master’s book about an unknown, prolific diarist, A Life Discarded. By making his own (often wrong) guesswork into the story, Masters makes space for the reader’s own sense of curiosity and wonder. It’s the same technique that made the first season of Sarah Koenig’s Serial so powerful.

The author is not just studying the facts, but the process of making sense of the facts.


  1. Keep a diary of hunches.
    1. Revisit it towards the end of your project. Is there an evolution in your suspicions? Is there consistency? Which ones were borne out, and which disproved? What is the most surprising hunch you had… and was it right?
  2. Ask a friend who does not often read your work to read a piece you have written, writing down all the guesses they want to make as a reader, all the questions they have.
    1. Could you incorporate these guesses and questions?
    2. Could you include your own process of guessing into this piece or a future piece?
    3. How does this change the piece?

[1] Hughes, Poetry in the Making, p.121.

[2] Ginzburg, Threads and Traces, p.222.

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