Time and Place

Techniques in writing popular history

Lecture/Reading given in Providence RI, 2009

Hello, everyone. I’d like to speak eventually about using a sense of place to heighten a sense of time in writing. But first off I’d like to say that there are many different ways to write history, but all come up against the same problem: the past is irrevocably gone. When a generational cohort goes, that is, when all the people who lived at one particular time are all dead, when events, sights and sounds of an era go over the horizon of living memory, the loss cannot be undone. So history, as a subject, is in many ways akin to an old man remembering his golden youth, or someone thinking of the happy days of a marriage gone bad, or even a parent thinking of a once darling, adorable child now grown into a standard-issue, garden-variety adult.

But history need not be about regret or nostalgia. The perky pragmatists among us think it can be useful, the old notion of the lessons of history. Santayana of course said that history teaches man that man learns nothing from history, but that hasn’t stopped conventional wisdom from holding that history is some sort of nanny telling us how to behave, like one of those cars that bleat at you to buckle your seatbelt or beep when you’re backing up too close to a wall.

I understand that but I sort of resent it. In the Anglo-American world, where often only the useful is deemed good, this reduction of history to a mere tool excludes all sorts of other aims of historical narrative. And that is what history is in the end. Narrative. Of one form or another. Even non-narrative history tells a narrative, for the type of history we choose to study tells a story. About ourselves. It holds up a mirror to our present concerns, to the zeitgeist of our generational cohort. David Hume said that the study of history is a succession of present days. For example, it is absolutely no coincidence that in the America that was set to elect Barack Obama the not-so-secret secret about Thomas Jefferson’s African-American descendants finally saw the light of day. That had been known for ages, yet historians like Joe Ellis, with their endless succession of books on the Founding Fathers, the Founding Brothers, the Founding Nephews… they never went there, at least not in any detail. The time was not ripe.

For me, as a professional writer, as opposed to a professional historian, the zeitgeist matters. I write books in order to be read, in order to make a living, sort of. I like sharing my enthusiasms of the moment, I like to entertain and to edify. I like putting my message in a bottle and throwing it out to sea. I write for the educated non-specialist reader, so therefore I must hold his or her attention, for no one is obliged to read me for professional reasons. So as a writer, or rather, “a writer of narratives about history”, which is my most accurate job description, I have to try to make the text compelling. This does not mean I can say anything – one has to be scrupulous and honest, unless of course one is unscrupulous and dishonest, which is the case of some popular historians. But you have to use writerly techniques, you cannot afford to bore people with a recitation of facts or arguments. And one of these techniques is a sense of place in the writing.

I’m going to read here from my first book for an illustration of what I mean. It’s not very interesting to theorize about writing, why don’t I just read it? I should preface this by saying that the book is called “Back to the Front: An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War One.” One summer, I walked the entire length of what was the Western Front, which stretches from the North Sea coast of Belgium, through Flanders, Artois, Picardy, Champagne, Lorraine and Alsace, to the border of France and Switzerland. The book is sort of a “What I Did On My Summer Vacation.” It’s about my walk and about the war itself. This passage explains how I came up with the idea:

“It was about this time that a friend and I took a winter weekend away from Paris to visit the barren fields of the Somme. He had let the worm [of history] gnaw all the way to the core of his apple: an Ohio Baby Boomer, he had somehow landed up on the Left Bank as a graduate student of French history. I, fresh from reading an account of the battles of 1916, was the dilettante, out for a field trip away from the city. Although I had lived for years amid the old stones and streets of Paris, I still thought of history, whenever I did think of it, as something that happened in books or, at best, on plaques affixed to buildings. My undergraduate education had led me to believe that the past existed in the stacks of the university library. My graduate student friend thought otherwise — for him it seemed to exist on maps. On the train ride north from Paris to Amiens, and thence to Albert, he unfolded for me a masterwork of anally fixated exactitude on which he had carefully shaded the positions occupied by the English, German and French armies on different days in July of 1916. If we didn’t see anything of interest, at least we’d know precisely where we were…

…The fields east of the town of Albert were newly plowed. It was a cold December day, clear and crisp, and no snow lay on the deep brown earth. We stood on the crest of a long ridge that sloped eastward, down to the village of La Boisselle about half a mile distant… From our vantage point atop the ridge, the gently rolling countryside between the Somme and Ancre Rivers stretched out like a dark rumpled blanket. There was a jagged pattern on it.

In some fields the soil gave way to skittish traces of white, slashes of brilliance against the dun landscape of Picardy in the winter; in others, the chalk had completely taken over, changing what should have been a long swatch of moist dark earth to a blinding rectangle of whiteness. We looked at the fields stretching to the horizon in front of us, then back at the map. Then back at the fields. There was an uncanny similarity between the shading on the one and the splotches on the other. Wherever the fighting had been heaviest, the shelling hardest – wherever the murderous standoff of trench warfare had taken place – the ground was bleached with tiny chalk pebbles plowed up from its shattered subsoil.

The earth had not yet recovered from the Great War. This angry band of white snaked across the land as far as we could see, as if someone had taken a styptic pencil to an immense wound. The chasm between us and the past vanished. We were looking at the Western Front.

I was stunned. This slice of history was not the safe, irrelevant stuff that gathers dust in some archive. This was staring me right in the face…”


So obviously I’m cheating a bit here, by selecting that particular passage, because the book from which it is drawn is all about time and place, putting the two together. And I may have contradicted what I said earlier about the past being irrevocably gone. But consistency is overrated anyway, just like matching socks.

Anyway, my subsequent books were not about time and space, so I’ll turn to them to demonstrate how I use a sense of place to create a sense of time. After the World War One book, I took to writing about the Middle Ages. Now that is a truly irrecoverable past, a foreign country for us moderns. Therefore to make a text compelling and vivid you need to use all the techniques that you can.

Now I say the past is a foreign country, and it is. If you’ll allow me to use an analogy here, reading or writing history is like visiting a country whose language you do not speak. Now there are advantages to visiting those countries… suddenly you assume that everyone is intelligent and is holding interesting conversations. Like the non-French-speaker in France who thinks that the two slinky Parisiennes at the next café table are talking about existentialism, when actually they’re just discussing last night’s episode of CSI: Miami.

But there are big disadvantages to not speaking the language, because all of a sudden you have lost two senses: hearing and speech. You don’t understand what’s going on around you, and you can’t influence anyone. With me, I’ve noticed that when I’m in a situation like that, say in Istanbul or Damascus, suddenly food becomes very important. The most important moments of the day are mealtimes. I obsess about it, say, “God! This is the greatest stuffed grape leaf that I have ever eaten!” I believe this happens because I am compensating. I have lost two senses, hearing and speech, and I am compensating by focussing on another, taste.

Now to hold the reader’s attention in the foreign country of history, you have to appeal to his senses. This is the challenge of writing history: you have to keep the reader at the table. You do this through prose that appeals to the senses. And you use a sense of place.

And to do this, I, as a writer, like to visit the places that I am writing about. I have a superstition about visiting places. I think I need to see the lay of the land, the color of the sky, or even hear the wind whistling through the cypress trees. Even if it only gives me a subordinate clause in a paragraph, that subordinate clause may be enough to keep the reader with me. I have been criticized for doing this, but that’s just the way I write. There are of course a couple of disadvantages to this travel. The first is the temptation to fall into the trap of what I call blogger snark. That means going for the easy wise-crack, the cheap irony, as in, “Across from the tomb of the great king, there is now a… wait for it… McDonald’s.” It may seem clever at the time, but it really never stands up in the long run and it won’t hold the reader’s attention. No, you have got to tease out other, more vivid and more solid associations.

The second biggest pitfall is that things, landscapes, cities change over time. I just mentioned the color of the sky… if I’m writing about an event that took place 800 years ago, the sky would have looked much different, given all the crud we’ve put in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. And then there’s even bigger change. A famous example is the Battle of Thermopylae, when the Spartans held off the Persians at a seaside mountain pass. Many of you may have seen that wretched movie “300” : that was about Thermopylae. When in the early nineteenth century the pioneers of the modern craft of historian took an interest in ancient Greece, many of them German scholars, a few went down to Greece to look at Thermopylae. But the village of that name there, and especially its surroundings, bore no relation to the descriptions given in Herodotus. There were mountains, yes, but no sea. So they concluded that that Thermopylae was not the Thermopylae of history. It was only when geologists took a look, and geology too was a nascent discipline back then, that the misconception was cleared up. The geologists told the historians that the sea had retreated several miles in the intervening two thousand years, so the landlocked modern place of Thermopylae was indeed the right place.

So there are perils for narrative in visiting places to be written about, but if you are careful you can get that subordinate clause or winning detail. I know, for example, that if anyone writes about the physical lay-out of Damascus and neglects to mention the Qasyun Hill that towers over it to the north, either he or she has not been there or the writer is pitifully unequipped to seize on a detail that can enliven a narrative. And it’s nice to know that I’m not alone in harboring this superstition about getting out of the library and into the world. One of the greatest French historians of the last century, Fernand Braudel, would write something similar, this time about the Mediterranean, a sea he would write many books about:

“The best witness to the Mediterranean’s age-old past is the sea itself. This has to be said again and again; and the sea has to be seen again and again. Simply looking at the Mediterranean cannot of course explain everything about a complicated past created by human agents, with varying doses of calculation, caprice and misadventure. But this is a sea that patiently recreates for us scenes from the past, breathing new life into them, locating them under a sky and in a landscape that we can see with our own eyes, a landscape and sky like those of long ago. A moment’s concentration or daydreaming, and that past comes back to life.”


Now I don’t know about the past coming back to life, but I do know that details about locales can bring a narrative to life, and that seeing things can fire your imagination. Having seen a battlefield, for example, sets you up for what I, and I alone, call the snicker-snacker part of a narrative, that is, the set-piece. That’s the point in your story where you can recreate an event or a battle, and use scimitars-slashing and horses-rearing prose. Of course you try to be truthful, you try to work out a narrative that fits the facts as you know them, but the simple fact of the matter is that you were not there — and the reader knows this. There is an understanding between the two of you. You cannot say, “‘The battle is lost!’ cried the king, his eyes blinking rapidly in despair.” Well, you can say that — you can say anything — but that kind of detail is for a novel. If I do that kind of thing too often, the reader will toss my book across the room. Though in some cultures, notably the French, that is allowed in popular histories. In our Angloworld, it’s not considered allowable, or we have to hedge it carefully, as in, “‘The battle is lost!’ cried the king, who must have been wincing inwardly at the loss of his lands and the favors of the buxom Guinevere.” Even then, you can’t do that thing too much; it strains credulity.

And another thing about snicker-snack prose, you just can’t do it for an entire book. You cannot write a non-fiction book entirely in that register. You’ll lose the reader, exhaust him. I try to vary the presentation, bring in other angles, employ other techniques. One of these is a sense of place. If you tell what a place looks like, how an event is remembered locally — especially the inevitably strange local legends — you’ve got the reader readied for the snicker-snack.

I’ll give you one last example, and then I promise to be finished. I’m going to read a passage from my latest book, “Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World.” The passage concerns the Battle of the Horns of Hattin, in 1187, in what is now in northern Israel. Some of you may know the battle from Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven.” We don’t see the battle, but we see its aftermath. We see the Crusaders march out of Jerusalem for the big fight, then we see the battlefield covered in corpses and swarming with vultures. Actually at the time of this great defeat the Crusaders all had kingdoms in the region and these were collectively known as Outremer, as in “outre” meaning beyond, and “mer” meaning sea. In other words, far from Europe. So Outremer is a name to retain.

Here’s what happened. On July 3, 1187, a huge mass of Crusaders, almost all the armed men of Outremer, were camped at Zippori, in northern Galilee. For you Christians out there, you might be interested to know that Zippori was built by the Romans two thousand years ago, and it is thought that Joseph, Jesus’s father, sort of, moved the family to nearby Nazareth so he could find work as a carpenter in Zippori… Anyway, the Crusaders decide to march out the next morning, in the broiling heat, and head twenty miles east to lift the siege of Tiberias. A bad decision. Not just because of the heat, but also because their opponent was Saladin, the greatest Muslim military leader of the crusading period. So Saladin poisons all the wells, forces the Crusaders to march about under the sun and under attack, makes them crazed with thirst and eventually butchers them thoroughly — and then goes on to recapture Jerusalem from Outremer, which would be held by the Muslims until the First World War.

So in preparing for the book, I go to Israel, I go to the Horns of Hattin. The horns are a slight saddle-shaped rise at the edge of a field where the battle concluded. I had read much about Hattin — chronicles, other historians — so I thought I knew what to expect. But it was only when I got there and climbed the hill that I realized I had my narrative, which would be based on what others had mentioned before me — thirst — but would be heightened immensely by what I told the reader I saw.

So we won’t read the snicker-snack part of this chapter, just the plain old descriptive prose. You’ll see what I’m getting at and then we’ll be done. Hattin is now the property of a kibbutz, so I mention that:

“The kibbutzim tend pear, lichee and almond orchards; grow wheat, barley, sunflower and cotton; and, in a large workshop in the center of the residential complex, make furniture for synagogues throughout Israel. Asher Aldubi, the avuncular fellow who heads the kibbutz, knows full well the significance of the site from which his community draws sustenance. ‘We have tourists who come to the Horns,’ he says. ‘Muslims, mostly… The Christians, maybe they are ashamed?’”

Okay, so I throw in a bit of shtick. Anything to keep the reader at the table. But now to the purely descriptive part of the passage, and then we’re done:

“At the end of this gradual incline stands the unmistakeable silhouette of the Horns of Hattin, a low saddle-shaped hill with a pair of grassy brown eminences, resembling pommels, one at each extemity. Its height is not forbidding; approached from the west, through the grassland, a dirt track leads up the twenty meters or so to the summit ridge. There, between the horned peaks at each side, stretches a rectangular depression, no more than a half-kilometer in length. The grey volcanic soil supports a few prickly-pear bushes, cactus-like in their isolation, and gazelle droppings litter the burnt brown grass. Hoopoe birds pop around the expanse, letting out silly cries. Aside from the horns, the hill seems unremarkable, until one turns east and realizes how geology would torment the crusader.

The Horns of Hattin stand on the cusp of a great tear in the fabric of the earth. The Syro-African Rift, which stretches from the Orontes Valley at Antioch all the way to Mozambique, yawns open on the other side the hill, offering a perspective usually associated only with Romantic engravings or cockpit windows. The land falls away into a void, leaving just a view – north toward Lebanon, beyond a screen of taller and taller ranges, the snow-capped height of Mount Hermon towers on the horizon; directly east of the Horns, the great 300-meter-tall bluffs of the Golan rise in tawny majesty and the plateau itself can be seen stretching out to some indeterminate desert horizon. And between the Golan and Hattin, down steeply pitched grassy slopes interrupted by rocky chevrons forming themselves into cliffs, is the floor of the Rift, here occupied by the Sea of Galilee, an expanse of the deepest blue 213 meters below the level of the oceans. From the Horns, high up on the parched basalt, the Sea of Galilee is an immodest presence — not only is its color at odds with the surrounding rust and pale green of the land and its vegetation, but its enormous, inexhaustible volume of freshwater seems a calculated insult. Water, jealously hoarded on the upland, covers the rift valley floor, and a whim of geology allows the beholder at Hattin to take in the entire, maddening, vast expanse in a single glance. The crusaders would succumb to thirst in sight of a profligate display of precisely what they needed to save themselves. The men of Outremer were, indeed, beyond the sea.”

Thank you for listening.