When we write fiction, we have a lot of choices in narrative voices. At my workshop earlier this month, I broke down those choices into six different parameters and discussed examples of each choice.
However, much of my recent writing has been nonfiction—specifically, the history of the American Revolution in New England. And when writing history, especially scholarly history, we have a much more limited set of choices.
In some respects, a historian’s narrative voice is omniscient. Historians combine information from many different sources. Sometimes they accumulate knowledge of an event that no single individual at the time was able to know. With hindsight, they know how events turned out and which people, choices, and actions were really significant.
On the other hand, good historians stick close to their sources, which necessitates a limited point of view. No matter how much research we do, we’re not really omniscient. We can’t be sure what historical figures were thinking and feeling, even if we know what they said and wrote, what their friends and family believed, how they acted. Every historical source is limited and potentially misleading. For that reason, historians always evaluate their sources of information and tell readers, either in the text or in notes, what those sources are.
In writing The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War, I took advantage of historians’ apparent omniscience by, for example, arguing that John Hancock and Samuel Adams were not actually in danger of being arrested in Lexington in April 1775. They and their colleagues believed they were in danger, to be sure. But today we can look in the British general Thomas Gage’s files and see he wasn’t collecting information on those men and gave no orders to search for them.
Yet I also had to be explicit about the limits of my point of view. One central hypothesis of the book is that Gen. Gage ordered troops out to Concord to find stolen cannon before his superiors in London learned that Patriots had spirited them out of Boston on his watch. But that interpretation rests on the lack of any report from Gage about those missing cannon. If that document exists and I simply haven’t found it, then the whole thesis would collapse. So my theory has to remain tentative.
To make The Road to Concord read as much like a thriller as scholarly history can be, I borrowed storytelling techniques from fiction. For example, some chapters end with cliff-hangers. Since it’s easier for us to identify with a single person than with a crowd, I narrowed the point of view at those moments down to one major figure.
For example, the end of chapter 1 focuses on Gen. Gage as royal governor of Massachusetts on September 1, 1774. His soldiers had removed cannon from Cambridge and gunpowder from what is now Somerville, thus keeping that weaponry away from potential rebels. He was probably pleased with how things had worked out, I wrote. Yet that chapter ends: “The governor had no idea that the news of redcoat activity was spreading west from Cambridge, becoming more wild and incendiary as it traveled.”
Later, the end of chapter 7 narrows in on Dr. Joseph Warren, the leader of the Patriot resistance in early 1775. That chapter has related how Boston Patriots secretly moved two cannon from a militia armory to the forge of a Patriot blacksmith named Obadiah Whiston and from there out to Roxbury. I shared an anecdote of Warren acting bold and confident. But the last sentence is: “A few days later, however, the doctor heard unsettling news: the blacksmith Obadiah Whiston was switching sides.”
Chapter 1 puts readers close to Gage and then spotlights vital information he didn’t know. Chapter 7 brings readers even closer to Warren and then throws new information at him. In both passages, the book invites readers to view the conflict through particular eyes, then shifts the situation through new information. Using point of view that way, I hope, makes readers want to know what will happen next.
—J. L. Bell is an author of both fiction and nonfiction, as well as a former book editor. As a historian he is the author of The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War, as well as numerous articles and a book-length study for the National Park Service. As a literary scholar he wrote the first study of a manuscript by the American fantasy novelist L. Frank Baum and an analysis of the first thirty years of the character Dick Grayson. For young readers he has published short stories, historical articles, comics with various artistic collaborators, and a book of science experiments. Bell has taught several workshops at writing conferences in New England.