History writing: side details

Discussion in 'Historiography' started by Chris C, May 10, 2019.

  1. Chris C

    Chris C Canadian Patron

    I've been reading one book which stuffs in a lot of side details about individuals in a way that can distract from the main direction of the prose.

    Since then I've found that I am having the instinct to include more information than is maybe strictly necessary as I write about Archers at the Marecchia and Rubicone rivers in Italy (September 1944).

    For instance, on September 20 I know some Archers were held in reserve for support for 2nd Armoured Brigade and around 1pm were sent to try to take shots at some Tigers (which they never spotted).

    I know this was the attack on Ceriano Ridge, and the Bays lost many tanks to enemy anti-tank guns. (Interestingly the British anti-tank war diary I have says they lost "many tanks" and then "many" is crossed and replaced with "some".) I am trying to provide enough context that the reader gets an idea about what the Archers were doing there but do I need to mention the attack was a failure? Or that the Bays lost a lot of tanks?

    Just a little later, on the night of the 22nd, 43rd Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade crossed the river, ended up in a salient with very fierce fighting. The Archers don't come into it until the morning of the 24th, when they made a night move and were in their gun positions by 0600. (To support against a counterattack, is my intuition.) So I wonder about whether I need a short decription of the fighting the Gurkhas went through or if I should gloss over it in a sentence.

    Anyway that's something I've been thinking about.
  2. Waddell

    Waddell Well-Known Member


    Some thoughts from an amateur writer.

    Generally speaking background is important and I wouldn't gloss over it too lightly. Always good to add more in your draft and cut it down in the edit. You could also add some details in the footnotes as well, which will keep it away from the main body of the text, or possibly include as an appendix.

    I finished my first book last year and found editing the toughest part. With a story like the one you have outlined above and are obviously very familiar with the details I found it useful to run the draft by a few people who were also familiar with the subject. Readers unfamiliar with the subject material are not likely to know you have left things out, however, the experts may pull you up on points. It depends on who you think your target readers will be.

    Finish a good draft, leave it for a while and come back to it with fresh eyes.

    Hope that helps.

    Chris C likes this.
  3. idler

    idler GeneralList

    The general advice I've seen somewhere may be to include it now while the facts are in your head - it can always be editted out/down later.

    For the first point, the detail of the Bays' battle might be worth a mention to set up the situation regarding the Tigers - were they in the German line needing to be sniped out or were they counterattacking after the Bays' failure? I'd argue that is very relevant. The second scenario is accepted usage if the Archers are going out to block the Tigers. The first is arguably inspired misuse and might be the sort of thing you want/ought to talk about.

    As for the Gurkhas, you probably don't need to say much more than you have here, but I think it's worth saying, even if it's only to point out that Archers could do what towed guns couldn't, for example.
    Chris C likes this.
  4. Chris C

    Chris C Canadian Patron

    Ooh, well, I would say I am somewhat familiar with the situation but not in great detail. I picked up on the damage to the Bays when I looked at Douglas Orgill's The Gothic Line; the autumn campaign in Italy, 1944, but I have no idea if there really were Tiger tanks or if they were misidentified Panzer IVs or if the report was based on 88mm fire from AT guns. Trying to run down that detail seems like jumping down the rabbit hole!

    I think the advice to include the details while you remember them is good, given how I have come back to a section and find I have forgotten things.

    Idler, your point about towed guns is good, actually... I don't think I will use this exact quote, but in the WD of 60th ATR it is noted on the 20th that heavy rain "glued everyone to the sticky Italian mud". "Rain continued and all wheels definitely bogged." The Archers didn't actually engage in targets when they moved up to support 43 GLB but it does seem likely that an FAT would have become bogged.
  5. idler

    idler GeneralList

    That's one of the traps... If you were writing the history of the battle you'd feel obliged to find out if they were Tigers, whose they were, what were their orders and so on ad infinitum. As you're looking at the Archers you can justifiably accept details that don't really affect what they were asked to do and word things accordingly.

    I admit I'd sort of assumed that there would be some comparison with towed guns, particularly given the terrain.

    Afterthought: 'write freely then edit' might also help if you get halfway through and form a new opinion, theory or query, like 'what were the towed guns doing'.
    Charley Fortnum and Chris C like this.
  6. riter

    riter Active Member

    I wrote a book where there was one chapter filled with relevant and interesting information that could not be woven into the narrative. The editor looked at it and saw sidebars/text boxes and gutted the entire chapter and spread it throughout the book. That still is a novel concept to me.

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