The past is messy. Although we like to think the world is black and white, that everything that happens is the result of a direct cause-and-effect relationship, and that only bad people do bad things, history is not that simple.
Further complicating our already complicated attempts to understand what happened way back when (or even recently) is the interpretation of events through biased accounts. Records are limited at best, often unreliable, and seldom objective.
Then our individual biases enter the picture: the notion that, somehow, the people we choose to cheer for, be they pioneers or cowboys or soldiers or Indians or whoever, were altogether noble and brave and heroic. Our heroes could not possibly do anything nefarious or underhanded, and any unpleasant incidents they found themselves involved in were not their fault.
Unfortunately, the real world, then and now, is altogether different. All people—all people—carry with them the capacity to be both good and bad, and most do their share of both. Ignoring this reality results in simplistic, one-sided representations of history in both fact and fiction, from novels with a Roy Rogers view of the Old West to accounts that are purportedly nonfiction but painted with prejudice.
Writers and readers are capable of, and deserve, better. As writers, we must set aside our biases and dig deep to understand people and events in the past and give our readers more authentic, realistic stories. In other words, we should tell, and listen to, the truth.
To paraphrase a bit of wisdom I heard somewhere, we must be humble in the face of facts. We must accept history as it is, rather than—as we are prone to do—believe what we think happened, or what we hope happened, or, even, what we wish had happened.
All this is on my mind just now as I am in the middle of writing a book of history, each chapter of which covers an important, but somewhat obscure, incident in the history of the West. Lost Frontier–Momentous Moments in the Old West You May Not Have Heard Of will be published sometime in 2015 by Two Dot/Globe Pequot. I hope it sheds light on some relatively unknown aspects of history—and does so honestly.