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History Into Fiction: The Writer's Art of Recreating the Past

Google Earth: A Versatile New Tool for the Historical Novelist

Last week, I needed to know precisely how far Robert the Bruce sailed from the Isle of Arran and what the Turnberry coast may have looked like during his invasion of the Scot mainland in 1307.

Once upon a time, I would have wasted valuable time driving to the library to search gazetteers with rulers and pore through guidebooks for photos of the southern Ayrshire coast. But after attending a demonstration on the capabilities of Google Earth by fellow author Paul Madison at a recent Los Angeles Chapter meeting of the Historical Novel Society, I accomplished the task in just minutes while sitting at my computer at home.

Most of us have played with Google Earth to zoom in on overhead shots of houses for fun. But as Paul demonstrated to our amazement, the uses of the program have expanded dramatically. Offering two examples—the ruins at Pompeii and a Roman battlefield in Syria–he dropped our jaws by flying us like a bird through and around several three-dimensional reconstructions of the sites.

The magic, in a nutshell, works like this: Modern visitors to the locations download their photos to Google Earth, and the program extrapolates these offerings into a realistic depiction of the selected place. Various angles are then made available, including street level, ground level, and touring-movement mode.

The program can even spur new historical interpretations. In his demonstration, Paul explained how, after measuring the terrain on the Google Earth download, he discovered that an account of a Roman retreat could not have followed the route described in accounts left from that time.

In addition to measurements, other uses for the new tools in the Google Earth program are legion. The historian or novelist can now zoom in on specific areas of a battlefield and find the outlines of lost bridges, ruins, or encampments. The “dials” on the program can also be manipulated and set to follow, on the computer screen, the routes across the terrain that armies would have taken on charges or retreats. Parallelograms and other figures can be drawn over the screen shot of the location to indicate troop or camp locations.

This ability to make a real-time visitation of historical sites has exciting potential for digital books. Imagine yourself reading a description of the siege of Constantinople or the slow climb up the slope of Cemetery Ridge during Pickett’s Charge. With a quick click of a hyperlink, you may soon be able to toggle back and forth from the written description to the real-time movement over the reconstructed terrain.

Feeding The Hand That Bit You: The Historical Revisionists of the Great Recession

History may not repeat itself, Mark Twain once quipped, but it rhymes.

Watching the recent GOP presidential debates, I was reminded of the many times through the centuries that nations in crisis–driven, apparently, by a primitive masochistic urge lodged deep in the DNA of the human collective unconsciousness–have embraced the same knaves and dark forces that hurled them to perdition in the first place.

Regrettably, many desperate Americans who have lost their jobs, health insurance, and homes are now turning to opportunistic politicians and media hucksters who promise that the cure for their disease lies in more medieval bloodletting: dog-eat-dog capitalism; slashed regulation; survival of the fittest and casting the weak aside to succumb to their own stupidities; and a Prosperity Christianity that rewards evangelical fervor with economic fortune. The latter, of course, can never be refuted; if a person, or even a nation, falls upon hard times, this affliction is cited as evidence of a lack of faith or a punishment for turning away from God’s commandments.

This sad but all-too-predictable scenario has played out before in the history of the United States. In his memoirs of the Thirties, historian and former Wall Street broker Matthew Josephson, who saw the collapse of 1929 from the inside, described this how this self-sabotaging phenomenon manifested during the Great Depression and its aftermath. Here is a sobering excerpt from his cautionary tale:

While busily propagating something known as the New Conservatism, they slated the liberals and radicals of the prewar era for their errors, follies, and even alleged “treasons.” . . . A Revisionist School of historians also appeared while the hunt for “un-American” persons and ideas was in full cry. Though the Revisionists were in no way associated with the McCarthian furor, they girded against the historical school of the thirties whose members had shown a strongly critical attitude toward the old establishment, with its “economic royalists” or “robber barons.” Such works, it was urged, should be rewritten so that the old moneymen and industrial captains might be represented, not as men who had helped bring us to grief and depression, but as the true “saviors” of our country. The story of our business society, one of the Revisionists proclaimed, was to be given a new treatment, no longer in an apologetic tone, but one of “pride” . . . in our dollars, our race to wealth, and our . . . materialism.

Infidel In The Temple, 1967

Be vigilant, those of you slumbering in the ranks of the Best. These days, there is an overflow of passionate intensity in the Wasteland. The Revisionists of the Great Recession of 2007-2011 are in full campaign mode.