Pros and Cons of Primary Sources – diaries/journals

Diaries and journals are wonderful, except when they’re not.

Diaries and journals are frustrating, except when they’re not.

I’m working with a couple of journals for my current major work-in-progress. Both are travel accounts, documenting their authors’ adventures (or lack thereof) while going across Texas in the middle of the nineteenth century. Now, one of the many hats I wear is that of historian. And as a historian I love primary sources because they say a lot about people and the times in which they lived.

So it’s not a surprise that I also love them when writing historical fantasy. Interestingly, some times the same things frustrate me in the same ways.

For one, very rarely (as in, oh, never?) do they include exactly the kinds of information I’m looking for. It’s always something different–which makes work for me because I have to figure out how to make it fit. On the other hand, this can lead to more complex and interesting passages …

The ones I’d like to write reams, because their observations are so on-point are, of course, the ones who wrote very short entries. The ones who enjoyed the sight of their thoughts transcribed on paper tend to write alot about topics I’m not so interested in or find less useful. (The law or rule of perversity tends to apply.)

And then there are the attitudes and ideas that may have been culturally acceptable to the author but are not to me. I have to put up with it while searching for useful information, and then go find something to take away the sour taste. Here’s one area where my responses as a historian and a historical fantasy author differ. As a historian, the attitudes are something to analyze, to show how things have changed or remained the same. As a historical fantasy author, I can choose which elements of the past I include in my worlds–and if I include attitudes I find personally repugnant (and, apart from all other reasons, if I’m trying to be close to reality, I have to) then I can also search for ways to have the characters recognize, respond, and change so that they address them in a different way.

So . . . onward I go.

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