Infodumping in history writing
Last week Kate Carpenter, the host of the excellent podcast Drafting the Past, posted on twitter about the problem of working backstory or context into a first chapter of a history book without losing readers. This sounded to me like the same problem that fiction writers face, especially in science fiction and fantasy where worldbuilding is key.
One concept that comes up a lot when you read SFF writing advice is infodumping: when a story veers off into a long exposition, usually explaining some piece of character backstory, world history, politics ... you get the idea. This is generally considered to be a bad thing, though there are some (published) writers who can get away with it, especially in epic fantasy.
The most common tip I've seen to avoid the dreaded infodumping is to only dole out context in bits as it is needed in the immediate scene. If you need to lay the background for a later part of the book, find a way to make that piece of information relevant to an earlier scene, so that it can tie in to the plot or character motivation. Another tip I've learned from listening to many hours of Print Run Podcast's critiques of (mostly fiction) first pages is that a particularly intriguing bit of plot or character-building can earn a bit of leeway with reader attention or missing backstory.
Kate's tweet made me realize that this advice can apply pretty directly to history writing--narrative and argumentative. The opening of a first chapter should hook your reader, by setting up a conflict or character (narrative) or raising a question (argumentative). Identify the minimum historic context critical for understanding that setup, and find a way to tie it in to the core of the chapter. The rest of the backstory can come later, once your reader is more committed.
One other piece of advice I see a lot on Print Run is to notice when you're struggling to cut background from your opening, and to consider whether you're starting in the right place. If all of your background context is necessary, maybe that's where your story (or argument) should open.
Part of why this is so interesting to me is that I struggle constantly as a history writer with the problem of background and context. I work in a tech-heavy corner of history, so I am always worried I am under- or over-explaining technical concepts. There isn't a clear historiography of my topic, so even when I'm talking only to other academics there isn't a shared sense of narrative arc. I've been pushed to take my project in approximately 100 different directions, most of which sound interesting to me, so I'm always veering off in some direction or another to write 500 words about wiretapping, or Bill Clinton, or the history of the FBI, or 'zines, or model train culture, or media studies, or sexism in tech, or any number of other topics.
It's hard to know what's actually relevant to your story, especially in those early stages when you don't really know your own point yet! This is why for me, almost all of this happens during revisions. I mostly ignore this problem during drafting, and then split and move around big pieces of historical context in Scrivener until I find the right spot for it.
To be clear: I am not good at this yet. I'm working on it!
I've been reading a lot of old cypherpunk mailing list emails from the mid-1990s this week. It's always a trip, going into old mailing lists. It's not anything like a stable archive. You can only sort of tell who people are. Threading was ... not great, so conversations are fractured and fractal. And, like all historical sources, there's content in the emails that obviously date them to the 90s: the debates over specific news items (right now I'm looking for emails about Clipper chip), the language (they're still talking about "cellular phones"), the technical context mentioned (AOL! I feel old!).
But a lot of the language is eerily familiar, especially the language used in flame wars, rants, and speculation--or the Devil's trifecta of all three. I tweeted some examples this week:
It’s really wild how constant online conspiracy rhetoric has been for close to 20 years. Worrying about “deep and disturbing links” to government. Paranoia over banning cash. “Commie Terrorist Drug Dealer” as a catch-all insult. Using “creative speculation” to sow doubt.— Jillian Foley 🗝️ (@jillianefoley) October 26, 2022
I suspect (but haven't done any research to back this up) that this type of rhetoric has become more mainstream; i.e., I suspect I'm seeing it in the cypherpunk list because they were on the fringes of tech politics online in the 90s, not because everyone on AOL chat rooms in 1994 talked about the Commie Deep State trying to take your guns and your cash (although--maybe! email me if you want to talk about this more!) But a lot of these fringe politics are less fringe these days, and the conspiratorial language probably came along with it. Not great, Bob!
I'm ... writing an academic job letter this week? A thing I swore I'd never do? I have zero hopes, but when a bizarrely tailored position was posted, it felt a bit like a sign.