The Witches: Finding Narrative in History

I recently had the task of reading Stacy Schiff’s The Witches (full title is The Witches: Salem, 1692). I write “task” instead of “pleasure” for two reasons. First, I can’t honestly say I enjoyed reading 400 pages about a mass hysteria that turned into tragedy and gross injustice, in which 20 innocent people lost their lives. Second, I wasn’t really sure if I liked it while I was reading it.

I think Stacy Schiff had an incredible challenge: Bring the reader into Salem, 1692 – introduce them to all relevant characters – outline what happened in the order that events occurred – and give appropriate backstory/information whenever needed. Considering the cast begins with 20 victims (to say nothing of accusers and judges), that’s a lot of people to wrangle.

Now that I’ve finished, I’m on the positive side – I liked Schiff’s The Witches. However, I do feel that it has an interesting battle, and that is narrative vs. history. Throughout the book, I felt the two were constantly at war with one another in Schiff’s writing. She would attempt to give each chapter a narrative, but in the end most felt bogged down by superfluous information.

It was great for historical relevance but not so much for storytelling. So I want to write about that: How does a nonfiction writer balance the battle between history and narrative?

The challenge of finding a narrative

To begin, it depends on what you’re researching. Schiff begins her book by stating that the puritan settlers of Massachusetts were studious record keepers…except when it came to 1692. This means that she had to fill in a lot of gaps. To give contrast, I’m reading another piece of nonfiction right now called Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation (quite a topic change, I know) and, not only is this book discussing much more recent history, the author had the ability to actually interview most who were directly involved.

So, right away Schiff’s writing must rely heavily on inference and intuition, which can blur the line between fiction and nonfiction. This may sound like an advantage when it comes to establishing narrative but think again. Most historical nonfiction authors have two priorities: Get it right and make it interesting.

Schiff was immediately challenged with the first priority. When the information isn’t readily available, more research is needed. She had to expand her scope – bring in tangentially related information. When developing a narrative, widening your scope is the last thing you want to do.

A plot is often a very simple thing that is then dressed up by character, setting, and other elements. For example, Star Wars can be boiled down to “hero saves galaxy” without losing its essence. The plot of the Salem Witch Trials is that innocent people were wrongly accused and convicted of an impossible crime – but how do you get there when many details (in some cases whole defenses) have been omitted or destroyed.

A weak plot begs for outside help – but that outside help can overwhelm and distract from the initial goal of writing the story. You see this in fiction – certain authors can fall more in love with “world building” than with telling a story. If too much attention is paid to details – or supplemental information – without enough devoted to core knowledge, the story can fall flat. In short – it won’t be interesting.

But with a topic like the Salem Witch Trials, is that even possible?

Does history need a narrative?

It is difficult for me to write about Stacy Schiff’s The Witches without getting lost in the history. This is, to me, essential knowledge for every American (or at least my fellow Massachusetts residents). Today, my state likes to hold itself up as a land of reason, science, and logical debate (…and sports teams), so it is an important reminder that we have come a long way, and that there were serious consequences when we abandoned our better senses.

Schiff The Witches
This monument sits in Danvers, Massachusetts – which used to be known as Salem Village.

So, which such a packed slice of history – does narrative really matter? Isn’t simply recounting the trials enough? I would say no. Schiff’s biggest triumph is that she brings her reader into the mindset of the 1962 puritan. Through this lens, we are better to understand truly what happened – beyond the simple order of events.

Saying that innocent people died in the Salem Witch Trials is like saying the Holocaust happened. It loses a lot of its resonance and meaning without discussing the “how” and the “why.” These events cannot be made simple by vague summation. Even growing up, I thought that disasters like these happened because of “evil people” or something like that.

Evil people don’t exist and believing they do only opens the door for more bigoted leaders to come to power. In what narrative she can salvage, Schiff presents Salem as a dark place in more ways than one. The people they are constantly afraid. Real world dangers such as disease and Native Americans mix with supernatural ones like the devil and demons. Add to it a poor understanding of science and a constant persecution complex and this community was ripe for disaster.

But even that isn’t the whole picture. There were grudges to be settled, opportunists doing whatever they could to get ahead, teenage women suddenly thrust into a position of power, wrongs to be avenged, and simply matters of colonial politics.

Again – it’s a lot. What happened over a couple months needs the preceding years to explain it in proper context.

I’ll leave these thoughts with this question. What is more interesting, saying Giles Corey was executed for witchcraft, or this:

The final impact of Stacy Schiff’s The Witches 

In the end, I feel that Schiff’s The Witches is a weak narrative saved by its historical significance. Given her obstacles, I think she did the best she could. Much of the real procedure has been lost, letting us only speculate as to the true nature of this delirious period of history. We have an incomplete picture but, through her supplemental research, Schiff goes a long way to fill in the gaps.

I just wish it didn’t derail the main action so much. It also doesn’t help that each chapter is roughly 40 pages – or that one of her asides was to mention Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series (in the same chapter that discusses alleged sex abuse in 1692 Salem – I’m not kidding).

How to Strengthen Setting

Imagine living in colonial times, stepping off your ship and onto the new world. Out from the brush comes a tribe of people you have never seen before. They are mostly naked, wearing only the skins of animals. Their most advanced weapon is the bow and arrow. Compared to you, in your shining metal armor and with a musket in hand, they appear positively primitive. Clearly yours is the advanced race… or maybe they didn’t even have the horse until around 1600… maybe it has more to do with that.

This is why history matters when composing setting.

Continue reading How to Strengthen Setting

History vs. Storytelling: The Monuments Men

At last year’s Academy Awards ceremony, Ben Affleck’s Argo took home “Best Picture”. The film was widely entertaining but had historians and certain former members of government crying foul. I know: a major Hollywood movie not being completely factual – blows my mind too. Anyway, there is a point to keeping historically based movies somewhat similar to the actual events. However, when Affleck defended his film, Argo and the changes he made, one message was obvious: it was his first job to make the movie good. It won “Best Picture” so… Mission Accomplished!

Fast-forward to the present day and George Clooney‘s film, The Monuments Men. Like Argo, Monuments Men is inspired by actual historical events. This film centers on the end of World War II when the Allied Forces (namely the United States of America) sent in art experts to try and save historically famous pieces from the hands of the Nazis. Wow, there really is no better villain than the Nazis: not only were they a genocidal death force but even the paintings weren’t safe. Seriously, is there any area of life where these guys weren’t villainous?

I have never read the book but, from what I've heard, it has similar narrative problems.
I have never read the book but, from what I’ve heard, it has similar narrative problems.

So, in terms of storytelling; there is the fish-out-of-water protagonist(s) – Clooney and his men – entering World War II Europe (great setting) to recover priceless pieces of art in the name of safeguarding both history and culture. That is a great setup. The comedy, the moral questions, the championing of art as a vital piece of mankind to be saved. Problem is: The Monuments Men is not that story.

George Clooney has directed many quality films including Good Night and Good Luck.
George Clooney has directed many quality films including Good Night, and Good Luck.

There is great strength in documentary-style storytelling. Experts and eye-witnesses reconstruct events while adding important evidence and insights. This style provides an excellent vehicle to attain the general knowledge of a topic. The Monuments Men is not set up like a documentary. Instead the film plays like flashes-from-life. There is no flow, no constructed story structure of any kind. Scenes simply happen, some humorous, some inspiring, some very tragic. But they all just happen.

Neither Matt Damon or Cate Blanchett feel needed for this film. They spend the majority of the movie on their own, making no significant addition to the story.
Neither Matt Damon or Cate Blanchett feel needed for this film. They spend the majority of the movie on their own, making no significant addition to the story.

The result is there is no way for the audience to easily connect. The film follows nine individuals (Clooney’s team, French Cate Blanchett and a US-German interpreter). That’s a big central cast. Don’t worry: they’re split up most of the film and they’re so interchangeable that it doesn’t really matter. Even George Clooney and Matt Damon disappear for significant stretches so the film never feels like it has any one character to follow. There is a reason why I’m not naming any of the actors in this movie by their character names: there really weren’t any characters.

Never have so many great actors had so little to do.
Never have so many great actors had so little to do.

What is on screen feels accurate to history (I have yet to extensively fact-check the movie so I cannot say for certain). Everything in this film is akin to a World War II highlight real. There’s the shots of the Nazis being evil, the shots of the Russians being antagonistic (but not so much so that they were not part of the Allied Forces), the shots of Europeans resisting Nazi rule, and the shots of men dying for a cause they believe to be greater than themselves.

Ben Affleck’s point now is made valid by this movie. As an audience member, I feel like I learned more about the world, history and human nature from Argo (fictitious attributes aside) than I did from The Monuments Men. Next time George Clooney directs a movie, he had better remember that he is a storyteller first and a historian second.