On Writing: Narrative History Requires More Than Getting the Facts Right

I just finished an article for The Pioneer Museum Quarterly on Fred Bottler, a pioneer rancher in the Yellowstone River’s Paradise Valley north of Yellowstone National Park. Bottler built the first ranch in the valley halfway between Bozeman and Mammoth Hot Springs. That made it an ideal stopping point for early expeditions exploring the park so dozens of park journals and reminiscences mention Bottler’s ranch.

Gustavus Doane

Bottler knew the Yellowstone Park area well because he had prospected for gold in there 1860s. That made him an ideal guide, and he accompanied several people who visited the upper Yellowstone in the 1870s.

My article provides Bottler’s biographical information and recounts stories about him. One of those stories, told by Bottler’s son, Floyd, concerns a pair of needle guns, which were an early type of repeating rifle.

Floyd said his father won the guns in a card game with soldiers at Fort Ellis, an army post near Bozeman. Although Bottler knew the guns technically were government property, he thought they would be handy if Indians attacked his isolated ranch. He decided to keep them.

An officer at Fort Ellis, Lieutenant Gustavus Doane (who had a remarkable moustache), heard that Bottler had the guns and decided to retrieve them. Floyd said that when Doane arrived at Bottler’s house, the rancher invited him in and seated him where he could see the guns hanging on a wall.

Floyd said Doane would look at the guns, then look at Fred, and then back at the guns. Finally, Doane told Bottler that a man living on the edge of Indian country needed such guns and he could keep them—but only if he kept them out of sight when he visited the fort.

Then, Floyd said, “Their eyes met again and held for a long moment. Then both men rose and the hands met in a strong clasp”

I couldn’t resist quoting that directly in my article. But when I asked Ann Butterfield, the Pioneer Museum Associate Director, to read a draft of my article, she objected.  She said she liked what I had written, except for that “gazed into each other’s eyes” stuff. “Men just don’t act that way,” she added with a scoff.

I immediately checked my source and confirmed that I had quoted Floyd accurately. I assured Ann of that, but she was’t really  mollified. That made me think.

It’s my job to present old stories for today’s readers. I want people to read straight through my stuff and say: “That’s interesting.” I don’t want them stop and say: “This just doesn’t sound right”—even if it is right.

I also like to quote exactly what people wrote because their word choices make personalities and emotions shine through. It’s always a balancing act to decide when modern sensibilities might collide with old fashioned ways of saying things.

When I turned in final draft of my article, it didn’t contain the “gazed into each others eyes” quote. Writing narrative history is not just about getting the facts right; it’s also about getting the reader’s experience right. If it distracts, it’s got to go.

The Pioneer Museum Quarterly will publish my article on Fred Bottler in a few weeks.  I’ll let you know when it’s available.  Then you can decide if I made the right choice.


— Photo detail from the Yellowstone Digital Slide File.

— You can read an excerpt from my article on Fred Bottler here.

— To see related posts, click on “Narrative History” under the Categories Button on the right side of this page.

3 thoughts on “On Writing: Narrative History Requires More Than Getting the Facts Right

    • I didn’t react to the quote the way Ann did either, but the point of my little essay is that it doesn’t matter. If something disrupts a person’s reading, then it’s a problem. If I thought there were only a few people who would react as Ann did, I would have retained the quote. I thought there might be a significant number so I dropped it. Perhaps I was wrong. Thanks for your comment.

  1. Mr. Miller, as a preacher in the Lutheran tradition I am always trying to balance the literal translation with what we call a “dynamic equivalence”. Glad to know modern historians have similar, at least analogous, decisions to make. I don’t know if this pertains, but I’d like to share an anecdote that I don’t think I’ll forget easily. In David McCollough’s “John Adams” there is a scene in which Benjamin Franklin and John Adams share a bed in a roadhouse. I imagine that scene disturbs many readers, even if it has nothing to do with the reasons for which male bed-sharing is currently disturbing to many of us.
    Then again, it’s my job to disturb people…
    Nels Flesher
    Orland, Cal.

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