One of the mental barriers that historians have to conquer is stopping an idea before you start. Haven’t you had a great person or event or trend that you wanted to write about, for instance, only to discover that the topic has been “done” to death, or that your idea has been thoroughly disproven by historians A-Z over the course of two centuries?
I’m here today to tell you two things, primarily. First, the chances that you will come up with an original thought, much less an original idea for a historical research project, are practically nil. Second, you shouldn’t let that stop you from writing what you think. In history, as in most forms of writing, it doesn’t matter who wrote it first so much as who wrote it best. Do you have something to contribute to the conversation surrounding a historical topic? Then, say it.
It might have been said before. It might have been said brilliantly by a historian waaaaaay more accomplished than you. But you have two advantages that brilliant historian did not have. You have his brilliant argument to start from, and you have a more modern audience than he did. You see, the historiography of a particular topic will always be there, whether you contribute to it or not (and you should). A book is a book. A journal article is a journal article. Those things, once written, remain static. They don’t change with the times. But, your audience does. Your audience is a constantly evolving entity which places emphasis on certain ideas and media that did not exist the day before, or decade before, or century before. A historian who can frame an observation from a certain point of view, and communicate that viewpoint to an interested audience, will always be a successful historian, even if his topic has been beaten into the ground.
There will always be someone new who has not heard the story you are writing about. Wide-eyed readers are a constantly renewing resource. Who will these people turn to, when they want to read the story of the Alamo, or the *USS Tang*, or the conquest of the Aztec Empire? They will turn the historian who reaches them first and speaks to them via the method and viewpoint that is most accessible to them.
Modern historians have the advantages of new media available to them. Blogs, self-publishing, podcasts, Youtube… the methods of reaching new audiences are so much greater now than in the days of Gibbon, Ranke, or Mahan. You’ve been given amazing gifts: the collected knowledge of the human race is at your fingertips via the internet, and you have the ability to reach millions from your living room.
Don’t worry if your topic is original or not. Bring a new take to it. Modernize an old topic. Bring new people to the old topic and give it new life again. If your topic is weak, don’t worry. As you write, it will change, and become strong. Trust the process and don’t kill your idea before it’s had a chance to live.
Copyright 2016 Copperkettle Media LLC