How To Write A History Book

How do you write a history book? Well, you seek out the source material, figure out what happened, and tell the story – right? Right, but to make the book as truthful and accurate as possible, each of those steps requires a great deal of diligence.

Right now I’m working on the third chapter of Finding Amelia – The True Story of the Earhart Electra. The title of the chapter is “The Realization of a Dream” and it covers March through July 1936. This was the period during which the deal with Purdue University was finalized including initial plans for the world flight; the order for the Electra was placed with Lockheed; and the airplane was constructed and delivered to Earhart.

The first step is to make sure you have the best primary source material available. Books don’t count. Books are secondary sources. The information they provide is useful only to the extent that they cite primary sources, and then you have to go and check the primary source to make sure the author got it right. Sometimes, the source cited is “interview by author” which is a euphemism for “anecdotal recollection.” Human memory is notoriously unreliable. Oral history is history the way somebody remembers it. There is no way to know its accuracy without corroboration by contemporaneous written or photographic documentation.

Fortunately, for this subject, there are some excellent primary source materials available.

  • Earhart’s own writings and newspaper stories about her and the Electra are readily available, but they’re a record of what was said publicly, and private sources often tell a different story.
  • Purdue University Special Collections has extensive correspondence between Earhart, Putnam, and various Purdue University officials, and also internal Purdue correspondence, much of it available on-line via the excellent Purdue e-Archives. There are some drawbacks. The correspondence is not reliably chronological and the images are often scans of carbon copies, fuzzy and hard to read.
  • The FAA has a fairly extensive file of official correspondence and inspection reports relating to the Earhart Electra, but it’s far from complete.
  • The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum archive has the research papers of Doris L. Rich, author of Amelia Earhart – A Biography (1989, Smithsonian Press). The file includes copies of extensive correspondence between Putnam, Paul Mantz and Lockheed relating to the selection and construction of the Earhart Electra.
  • Photographs can be important primary sources of information if they can be reliably dated. The best way to do that is to find original copies with the dated news service captions and credits glued to the reverse side. TIGHAR member Larry C. Inman has assembled the finest collection of original Earhart-related press photos for his Remember Amelia exhibit and has graciously given TIGHAR full access to his collection.

Once you have identified the available primary source materials the next step is to integrate them into an accurate comprehensive chronology. This is especially important in this case because it has never been done before. Doris Rich did not reference the Purdue material. Susan Butler (East to the Dawn [1997, Addison Wesley]) covered the Purdue connection but didn’t have the Putnam–Mantz correspondence. None of the Earhart authors has had the full story.

Once you have the chronology you then have to carefully wade through the material to get an understanding of the sequence of events and what was going on. This is the most interesting part because it’s where you often discover that the true story is quite different from the traditional story.

Finally, you start writing. This is the hardest part because now you have to interpret the raw data. You have to look at the whole picture and present the trajectory of events in such a way as to allow the reader to draw insights into why things happened the way they did. You can’t dumb it down or over-simplify, but it has to be fun to read or no one will read it. Good history might be the toughest writing there is, but it may also be the most important.

One thought on “How To Write A History Book”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *