Here's another lesson that becoming a historian taught me. There really are no right answers. You can never know the whole truth. And just by making those statements, I'm opening myself up to colleagues who will jump in to say, "No, there may be a right answer" or "There are absolute, knowable truths."
I used to drive my students into utter frustration by doing this sort of thing to them. I'd ask them an obvious question, like, "What did you eat for lunch?" Then, armed with the answer, I started the historian's routine. "Is that all you ate? Just peanut butter? Was it on bread? Did you have sugar? How about honey? No? What kind of peanut butter was it? Jif? Really? Did you read the label on the jar? Did you know that Jif has honey in it? And did you have any preservatives? Not even in the bread? Did you read the label?"
"Where were you born? How do you know? That's what's written on your birth certificate? How do you know your mother didn't lie when she filled out the form? She never lies? Really? Did she ever tell you about Santa Claus?" The Easter bunny? The tooth fairy?"
You get the idea. Historians always look for evidence, of course, but they never stop looking for evidence to the contrary. That's why, even after 150 years, historians are still arguing about whether slavery was the real cause of the Civil War.
Yesterday, I wrote about Braudel's theory that the grain people raised influenced the society in which they live and I ended by suggesting that the necessities involved in wheat farming helped explain Europe's advanced development. Almost immediately I received a comment on Facebook from a former colleague. Our discussion went something like this:
Another friend tried to pick a fight over my use of Braudel. In the comments, she wrote, "And then there was the horse harness..." That was a reference to a famous historical debate that proved Braudel was wrong about a number of his facts. However, as I remember the fuss, it was not a horse HARNESS that caused the trouble, but the horse STIRRUP. I didn't pursue the discussion.
The upshot of all of this is that, while I use my historical training to inform my writing, the most important lesson I have learned is that one should never be too sure of anything. Historians find that realization upsetting at times, but for a novelist, it is strangely reassuring. The lack of certainty offers free rein to fiction.