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Verify! The most chilling word for a historical non-fiction writer

Posted by on October 18, 2012

The most chilling word to me in historical narrative non-fiction writing is – Verify!   I find some pieces of my writing seem to end up having as large a word count in footnotes, citing sources and giving reasons for statements made that add interest and colour to the writing, as the historical story itself.

For my current project about the Flemish artists, it is not just the basic dates (although I can not find all of those) but trying to find anecdotes that give an insight into their beliefs and the emotional highs and lows they lived through.   I have such a vision of each of the brothers.   How they might chat around the breakfast table discussing the day’s work as they ate their way through a large breakfast of cold meats and cheeses, drinking a lightly brewed beer.  They seem friendly siblings, but I have no proof.  It is not verifiable – yet.

None of the brothers has left a journal so I have to rely on others’ eighteenth century diaries and letters, like Horace Walpole and George Vertue.    They write very little directly about the brothers, but they do write about others that help explain various incidents.  Vertue reported William Hogarth had drawn a satirical cartoon of Joseph’s funeral.  It made me question Hogarth’s motivation.  Was he jealous of Joseph van Aken?  A couple of months before his death, Joseph and Hogarth along with Thomas Hudson had been lauded in an article as the best painters of people and drapery in Britain.   Maybe he was angry that a friend and travelling companion had died suddenly.   However, it was further research into Hogarth’s other friendships that revealed he was not above drawing cartoons of artists he felt had been unduly recognised in an effort to undermine them.  Nothing is written verifying Hogarth’s thoughts about Joseph, but it helps unravel some of his raw, human emotions that help give a writer and reader some understanding behind certain actions.

I find visual images can help verify facts too.   I tracked down a double portrait of Alexander and Joseph van Aken belonging to a private collector.  The brothers are sitting at a table, smoking rather than eating, looking at drawings that are scattered across the tabletop.   So now I have visual evidence they smoked clay pipes, and, also can verify that they had deep dimples in their chins.   This is the third image I have seen of them both, all with chin dimples to rival that of the twentieth century film star Kirk Douglas.


One Response to Verify! The most chilling word for a historical non-fiction writer

  1. Margaret McAlpine

    Sounds a very high scholarly standard to aim for. So tempting to swap into historical fiction?
    Would endnotes make it easier on the eye than footnotes? Perhaps end of each chapter notes – so the truly academic could look up the additional sources? I have seen this done often, and found it useful.

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