There is a collateral danger to the commitment that many historians share to telling the truth about the past: is there only one story to tell?
The historians’ options might at first might seem limited, especially when compared to the fiction writer. How would a historian follow James Scott Bell’s advice for planning?
To find the best plots, you need to come up with hundreds of ideas, then choose the best ones to develop.
The historian cannot simply conjure plots of all shapes and sizes to suit a topic. But what they can do is choose which true stories to follow.
Think of the example of the revolutionary decade in France, from 1789 to 1799. A historian today, writing under the weight of one of the densest historiographies that there is, is unlikely to change the major outlines of the story of how France went from monarchy, to republic, to the Consulate of Napoleon Bonaparte, the future Emperor.
But within this huge field, the possibilities of which story the historian follows are close to limitless. Successive or competing historiographies – the economic collapse, the rise of the bourgeoisie, the influence of the radical Enlightenment, the crisis of language itself – could all be seen as different choices of what kinds of plot to follow, which heroes and villains were chosen, or what timescale to study. Colin Jones, for instance, has recently turned his focus to one day, the day Robespierre was overthrown. It implies a different story to see events in this immediate rhythm, rather than the lofty distance that historians so often assume.
There is a balance to negotiate between being sure, and being inspired. Many historians instinctively plan their research and their writing with absolute precision. A plan is a defense against the unfiltered chaos of the past, and at every stage of planning and writing, the historian struggles to impose order.
Are there times in this struggle to tame the unruly material of history when it might be better to lay down your tools? If you plan too rigidly, you may find yourself excluding the very things that drew you to a topic in the first place. As the poet Ted Hughes puts it, if you are stuck, this is a ‘sign that the story has led [you] outside [your] genuine interests, it has lured [you] on over the boundary into country that [you] have no real feeling for.’
At every stage in a writing project, it is worth asking yourself if you need to plan more, or perhaps plan less.
- Write out over a hundred different ways to ‘plot’ one of your current writing projects. Think, for instance, about whether you could write different stories by choosing different protagonists or timescales. Maybe start with the most obvious plot to you, the one you think you would write if you started tomorrow. Think of other plots that are as different from this as possible
- Keep adding to your list.
- Freewriting is always a good way to access the more impulsive and intuitive aspect of your interests. Try making a habit of regularly freewriting about individual projects, or about your interests in general.
- On the other hand, there are plenty of techniques that work to focus your skills of planning. Plan better by learning about your own planning. Cal Newport suggests a three step process for any piece of writing. Step one: what are the key points you want your piece to say? Step two: what do you need to do to get these points across? Step three: did it work?
- Step four: why did it work better or less well this time?
- Step five: what will you do differently next time?
 Bell, Plot and Structure, 35.
 Colin Jones, ‘9 Thermidor: Cinderella among Revolutionary Journées’, French Historical Studies, 38 (2015), 9-31.
 Hughes, Poetry in the Making, 97.
 Newport, Deep Work, 173.