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Meanwhile, back at the ranch, part 2: setting

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[This second installment in a four-part series on writing historical narratives focuses on the importance of setting and scenes in nonfiction storytelling. The series is based on a lecture given by Adam Hochschild at Vanderbilt University in February 2011. To start at the beginning, read part 1, a call to bridge the divide between academic writing and narratives intended for the general public.]

An essential ingredient of any writing that is going to reach out and grab the reader’s attention is evoking where the story that you’re talking about takes place. It’s something worth spending a lot of time figuring out how to do.

I’ll give you an example from my last book, “Bury the Chains,” which is the story of the anti-slavery movement in the British Empire. There’s a crucial meeting that takes place in that book, May 22, 1787, when the first interdenominational anti-slavery committee was formed in London. It marked a real landmark in the history of human rights, I think, and took place in a Quaker bookstore and printing shop in a little courtyard, which is still there today in London’s financial district – although unfortunately the printing shop is not – called George Yard.

I was trying to evoke this moment, time and place, and trying to describe what the scene was like. We know what happened at the meeting, because we have minutes that were taken, but we don’t have a description of the scene. However, there are building blocks that you can use to put together a scene like that. I spent a lot of time scanning newspapers of the time. I began to see advertisements for other businesses in George Yard. There was a pub there. I saw an ad from a fellow who gave dancing and fencing lessons. These were some of the things that took place right in this little courtyard where the printing shop was. I could not find a description of this particular printing shop, but there is a vast amount of material on what 18th-century British printing shops looked like – and also a great many paintings and drawings. I spent some time studying books on the history of printing.

That enabled me to construct a scene. And I said, in effect, “This is not a description of this particular place, but it’s what a printing shop of 1780s London would almost certainly have looked like.” We know a lot of things about it. We know that the compositors would be working at slanted wooden tables with big trays on them with compartments, one little compartment for each letter of the alphabet, large and small. We know that it would have been lit by tallow candles, and that the ceiling would have been blackened by this candle smoke over time. We know that in every printing shop, there were wooden racks overhead and a special tool, sort of a long pole with a clothespin-like gizmo on the end, that was used to take freshly printed sheets that had many pages of a book printed on each side of them and lift them up and put them on these wooden racks so that the ink could dry. We know, therefore, that these sheets of paper would be hanging down from overhead.

We also know what a printing shop of the time smelled like. We know that because printers used a woolen pad at the end of a pole to clean the ink residue off the press each time before the page of type was disassembled. The ink residue got onto the woolen pad, and the best thing for getting it off the woolen pad, because it has a very high ammonia content, was human urine. There would be buckets of this sitting around the edge of the room.

So we know what the place smelled like. From all these things, we can really assemble a picture – sight, sound, smell – and I’d like to think that that is something that carries the reader into the scene, the setting where the story took place.

Whenever possible, when I’m writing history, I like to go to the spot where a particular episode took place. I did a book some years ago about how Russians were coming to terms with the legacy of Stalinism. In terms of the actual reporting and research, it was the most fascinating project I’ve ever worked on. A lot of it involved interviewing people who’d been prisoners in Stalin’s vast gulag, or people who’d been secret policemen or guards in the gulag, and then talking to Russian historians, schoolteachers and other people today, trying to figure out how they were coming to terms with this period. I wanted to see what these old gulag camps had actually been like, to try to better imagine what it was like to be a prisoner in one.

Well, it turned out that although there had been several hundred such camps all over the Soviet Union, any of them reachable by road today had long since been disassembled and stripped for building materials. There were only a few in a distant corner of the country, an area called Kolyma, which is right across the Bering Strait from Alaska, that were so remote that they couldn’t be now be reached by road. The only way you could get to them was by helicopter. I was able to get a ride on a helicopter from a guy who normally made his living taking around bear hunters. We went to some of these camps.

It was just extraordinary, even 50 or 60 years later: these old wooden watch towers were still standing there; barbed wire, now rusted, was surrounding them. Those buildings which had been wood for the most part had collapsed, but those that were made of stone were still there, and the one building that was certain to be made of stone in each such gulag camp was the internal prison within the prison, for prisoners being punished for some infraction. And standing inside one of these places, its wooden roof long since gone, but crosshatched iron bars still on the cell windows, looking out through these iron bars at this barren, desolate landscape that looked like the other side of the moon, partly covered in snow, even in June – it was an incredible experience. I hope that evoking it through having been there helped carry the reader a little bit farther into what the experience of living through that time must have been.

Sometimes when you go to a place, the absence of something is what’s interesting. For example, the book that I’ve just finished writing – it will be out in May – is about the First World War. There’s one episode in it where I’m quoting an Australian infantry officer who was in combat in France a couple of weeks into the Battle of the Somme. He describes seeing what must have been one of the very, very last cavalry charges ever to take place in Western Europe. A small group of horsemen came galloping up the slope, disappeared over the top of a ridge and were never seen again, never came back. I was spending a week traveling around the old front lines in France and Belgium, and I thought, “I’d like to see the place where this happened.”

I went to the spot, and what was fascinating to me was that there was barely any slope or ridge that you could see. The slant of the ground was so gentle, there’s no way you could call it a hill. And that made me realize that all of these descriptions, these eyewitness accounts of battle I’d been reading describing what the landscape looked like, were all written from the point of view of someone who was either peering out of a trench, or if in no man’s land, was flat on the ground, trying to make as low a profile as possible. If your eyes are 3 inches from the ground, anything looks like a hill, and even the slightest rise looks like a ridge. So that was an important realization for me.

Scenes in storytelling

Related to the category of setting is the whole business of scenes, or episodes. To what extent can you tell a story in scenes? I’m always looking for these when I write history. I like to be able to construct a scene because that’s the way to reach people. Movies unfold in scenes. When you go to watch a feature film, you don’t expect a narrator standing there for 9/10 of the time telling you what’s going to happen, and then a brief scene and then more narration. No, you expect the whole thing to be in scenes. The same thing applies when you read a novel. And of course, life itself unfolds in scenes, episode after episode as we go through our days.

It’s sometimes quite easy to construct a scene historically. If several participants in a meeting have left an eyewitness account of what happened, that may give you enough data. If it was a public event, it may well have been covered by the press, and you may be able to get several accounts from journalists who were there.

Sometimes you can get everything that was said, verbatim. That’s why trials make such good subject matter, because if the court reporter was accurate, you have almost every word that everybody on both sides said. In Congressional or parliamentary debates, you’ve also got a word-for-word account. Those kinds of events are precious to a writer, because you’ve got back-and-forth dialogue.

From looking at the slavery debates in the British Parliament, I think my favorite moment was when at one point in the House of Commons they were arguing about a bill to ban the British slave trade. Somebody from the pro-slavery forces rose and said – and I’m paraphrasing: “This would be a terrible thing, because we’ve got tens of thousands of British sailors on slave ships who would all be thrown out of work, and the ships would have to rest idle in port and would have not work either.” Whereupon one of the abolitionists stood up and said that this was like saying, “I’ve got this stable of six horses here, and they are only suited for robbing gentleman on the highway and not for any other purpose. So therefore you should not make any laws against highway robbery.” I really treasure being able to find moments of dialogue like that.

Now here’s a problem I sometimes run into in constructing a scene, and I’m sure those of you here who have written history have experienced the same problem. You have rich data from which to construct a scene, eyewitness accounts, dialogue and so forth, the scene is colorful and dramatic – but it seems peripheral to what you’re writing about.

I had a couple such moments in writing “Bury the Chains.” One of them, for example, happened in 1798. The prime minister of Britain, William Pitt the Younger, fought a duel: pistols at 12 paces. It’s not every day that a prime minister fights a duel, so there were a number of vivid eyewitness accounts of this event.

It was fought at Putney Heath, outside London. It was a wild area, an area where hangings took place. As the duelists and their seconds and supporters went out to this area early in the morning, there was a corpse of a highwayman swinging in the breeze. It was also an area were furtive lovers crept off to meet out of sight, and some of these folks were disturbed behind some bushes by the people going to the duel.

So you have all this detail. Furthermore, there were the people dueling. There was William Pitt, the prime minster, who was extremely thin, thin as a rail. The member of Parliament with whom he was dueling – and this was over some alleged insult, the nature of which is long forgotten – was a man named George Tierney, who was extremely plump. So the joke of the day was that an outline of Pitt should be drawn on Tierney’s body, and only shots within it should count.

Unfortunately the duel did not have to do with abolition, but it was too good a scene not to use. So I looked for ways I could draw connections from this moment to the story, and I found some. William Pitt had been strongly with the abolitionists, but at this point in time, he was weakening in his support for the anti-slavery cause. And the duel greatly hurt his previously very close personal relationship with William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery leader in Parliament, because Wilberforce was an extremely pious man who was deeply upset not only that his friend Pitt had fought a duel but that he had fought a duel on a Sunday. So their relationship became strained. And Pitt subsequently completely lost his fervor for the abolitionist cause. Can we say that the duel was a cause of that? Not really, but it was a good moment to take stock of the decline in his support for anti-slavery.

Tierney, as it happened – the person Pitt fought – was a staunch abolitionist, as was his second, Gen. George Walpole, who I was able to make into a character in my book and introduce a little bit earlier. He had quite an interesting story. He had been an army general in the British West Indies and was sent to repress a rebellion of former slaves. He ended up so much respecting the people he was fighting that he became something of a lobbyist for their cause in England. So knowing that he would appear in the duel scene, I introduced him earlier in the book and then was able to bring in a little more information about him when we met him in this duel.

A former editor of Mother Jones magazine, Adam Hochschild has written several nonfiction books, including “Bury the Chains” and “King Leopold’s Ghost.” His next, “To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918,” will be published in May. Read part 1 of Hochschild’s talk, on the divide in writing about history for academic and lay audiences, or check out the third installment, which addresses the importance of characters in historical narrative. Or watch the hour-long video in its entirety.




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  1. [...] Skip to content AboutNieman FoundationContact UsNarrative DigestNotable NarrativesEssays on CraftSubscribeTwitter « What we’re reading: underground art, sleepy shrinks and killings by a CIA contractor in Pakistan Meanwhile, back at the ranch, part 2: setting » [...]

  2. [...] by Adam Hochschild at Vanderbilt University in February 2011. Prior installments have included a look at the value of setting and scenes in nonfiction storytelling and a call to bridge the divide between academic writing and narratives [...]

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