Years ago I did historical research for the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. A coal-fired power plant run by the Northern Indiana Public Service Company bordered the park. Ponds for disposal of fly ash, a coal combustion product, were leaking onto park land, raising the water table. At issue was whether the seepage was destroying the original ecology or, as NIPSCO claimed, restoring wetlands that prevailed before farmers dug drainage ditches in the 1800s.
Young and foolish, I asked IDNL senior scientist Dr. Bill Hendrickson what to do if our drainage ditch findings supported NIPSCO’s claim. He replied, “We want to know what you find, not what you think we want to hear.” It was a learning moment for me. National Park Service scientists continue to command my respect, as Bill did, by their insistence in putting facts before policy. They did it again last week.
As a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, I relish creative imagination as well as verified facts. We can value both, so long as we know which we’re dealing with. Some historical novels and literary memoirs add a note telling the reader where fiction and fact diverge. That clarity marks the difference between tall tales and falsification. What are alternative facts, after all, but another name for fiction?
When I was five or six years old, my father used certain words only when doing carpentry. We children were not to use those words at all. In my mind, four-letter “square words” were related to carpentry and the four sides of a square.
Drafting a fictional medieval dialogue recently led me to Melissa Mohr’s delightful and instructive Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing. Starting with roots in ancient Israel (the “holy”) and Rome (the “shit”), Mohr traces the interplay of oaths and obscenities through centuries of English language and culture.
Swearwords serve an important linguistic purpose. Vulgar and offensive, breaking stringent cultural taboos, they are our most powerful words for expressing strong emotion. They increase heart rate, skin conductance, and tolerance for pain. They are stored in the brain’s limbic system and may survive brain damage or dementia when other words fail.
Cultural shifts change swearing over time. In the Middle Ages, when physical privacy was rare, body parts or functions carried little emotional charge. The power to bind or shock lay in religious oaths. Properly sworn, oaths underlay all the interpersonal obligations of feudal life. Misused, they could damage the physical body of God.
Human bodies are the big deal today. Powerful taboos surround the C-word (woman’s genitals) and the N-word (racial group). Milder terms like queer or pussy get reclaimed to make a point. Fuck is losing its power through widespread use. Click here to listen to Mohr or check out her book for a fascinating read.
Black Lives Matter. Martin Luther King’s Birthday observed. Race is a biological fiction but an ever-changing social reality. Shifts in culture, not DNA, transformed Jewish-Americans and Italian-Americans from non-white a century ago to white today.
How do we speak of race in our writing? Click here for helpful suggestions. There’s a slowly growing discomfort with assuming people are white unless otherwise stated. Workable alternatives can be tricky.
Fantasy: Cinderella or Santa Claus can be any color or none. Martians can be green.
Journalism: Associated Press style is to specify race or ethnicity only when pertinent, as in a racially motivated crime. Race could be part of a fuller description to identify a missing person or a suspect at large, but it’s meaningless without more detail.
History: Public figures in non-race-related U.S. history have been so consistently white that when they aren’t, race is part of the story. Stating that Barack Obama is African American doesn’t oblige you to specify that Millard Fillmore was white.
Fiction: Context and context clues--dreadlocks, igloos, or tortillas—may be all you need. Race may be irrelevant to your story. To clarify interracial interactions, provide indicators for everyone involved. Another way besides physical description is to put words in another character’s mouth: “What’s a nice Irish girl like you . . .?”
The biblical judge Samson, betrayed by Delilah, was blinded and imprisoned by the Philistines. John Milton, blind and briefly imprisoned for his politics, published the dramatic poem Samson Agonistes in 1671. (The Greek Agonistes means a wrestler or person engaged in a struggle.) George Frederick Handel, recently bankrupt and beginning to lose his eyesight, based his oratorio Samson on Milton’s poem. The oratorio premiered in 1743.
Milton’s and Handel’s take on the Samson story gives scope for endless debate on their views of disability, violence, and women. What struck me, hearing Samson on public radio, was how both men transmuted personal struggle into art through the words they put in Samson’s mouth. Milton: “Light, the prime work of God, to me is extinct.” Handel: “Total eclipse! No sun. No moon. All dark amidst the blaze of noon.”
It doesn’t belittle suffering to appreciate whatever beauty may emerge from it. In these months that have proved so difficult for so many, we can use all the art and beauty we can get.
Depending which tradition you follow, counting the first day of Christmas as Dec. 25 or 26, the eighth-day gift from my true love arrived either yesterday or today. Either way, those humble dairymaids deserve their hour in the spotlight. Maids a-milking are an apt image for the dairy farms and cheese factories here in Wisconsin. They’re the first human gifts in the holiday song, following a long series of birds and some rings. And they have done more for the history of public health than any drummers, pipers, leapers, or dancers I know.
In the 1700s, smallpox killed 400,000 people a year in Europe alone. A third of the survivors went blind. But previous infection by common, innocuous cowpox kept dairymaids safe. Using material from the arm of dairymaid Sarah Nelmes, Dr. Edward Jenner infected a boy with cowpox to protect him from smallpox. It worked.
Since then, vaccination—from vacca, Latin for “cow”—has prevented millions of deaths from measles and other infectious diseases, most of which have nothing to do with cows. “Maids a-milking” faded into folklore with the introduction of milking machines, but their legacy is an ongoing gift to us all.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.