1) Writing history questions in a way that makes it self-evident as to why a topic/area in history is important.
2) Executing (1) in a way that ensures questions are playable, i.e. they still have “buzzpoints” that people can buzz on, even if they aren’t familiar with the source you are getting the material from (this is key).
I’d like to start by bringing up some reasons that people sometimes find either old history or 20th century history challenging and/or boring to write about.
A lot of people have mentioned to me that “old history” to them can often seem like boring lists of kings, projects, religious figures, historians, etc. and they often don’t get why these things are worth knowing or are important. I’ve heard a lot of condescending opinions along the lines of “nobody really cares about that stuff” when discussing topics like British monarchs, Chinese dynasties, etc. Perhaps fewer people in academia study these things, but it’s worth remembering that academia is not the be-all, end-all of determining what’s worth caring about – these old monarchs and dynasties presided over very long periods of time across substantial populations, if perhaps not ones as large as those today.
I think this represents a failure of questions to inform people as to why they should care about these things: What made a particular ruler/period unique among his lineage? How exactly did some dynasty become so noteable as to be worthy of a question? How did everyday people interact with the government, and/or outside of the government? Essentially, questions on a 13th century European monarch or an old African empire will too often read like a contemporary court chronicler: lists of achievements, perhaps backed by the occasional anecdote or two. For the most part, I think questions on these topics should read like a modern survey book, or a modern documentary on those topics: highlight what’s noteworthy and exciting! (EDIT: this is why I highly recommend writing your questions using a modern survey book as your source)
Conversely, I struggled for a number of years to gain an interest in modern history in quizbowl (which I didn’t have a strong organic interest in before) because it’s often been written in a similar fashion, as if one is reading off an NAQT study list:
“In this country, Horrible Massacre M was perpetrated by Secret Police P during the reign of Dictator D.”
“In this country, Operation Neat Name occurred during the Crazy Conflict civil war”
“In this event, X people showed up at Y time in Z location” (this, to me, is the worst because in-depth details of particular events are rarely covered in anything except literally newspapers and other immediate accounts, and will rarely be encountered in general surveys that highlight why things had long-term impact or are noteworthy).
Questions like this are, admittedly, easy to write – they also lend themselves to flashcarding Named Things and other rather (important to quizbowl and often valuable but) de-contextualized and uneducational approaches to learning history. I don't mean to sound arrogant in saying this, but I sometimes find myself wondering whether authors of questions like this (or of questions like the above “list of accomplishments from obscure to easy” questions in old history) have any clue what they’re talking about! A question like this is like a Soviet style building: it’s perfectly functional, but other than the fact that you can use it, there’s little reason to care about it at all.
Answerlines and Execution
To me, there seem to be two main types of history answerlines: the “standard” answerlines (countries/regions, discrete events/conflicts, individuals, political parties, ethnicities) and the “creative” answerlines (common links, common words, answers that use the identifiers “these people” or “these things”, etc.). Below, I’ll provide some examples of questions by others that I think executed each kind of answerline well and/or questions I wrote with these approaches in mind, and explain why I think they did a good job and/or what my objective was with the questions
When using a “standard” answerline, picking a “theme” or “angle” is a good way of giving a spin to your question that makes it clear why your answerline is important for a particular region, group, etc:
MYSTERIUM wrote: Description acceptable. A traditionalist association of these people called the Gédímù (“ guhdeemu”) was later supplanted by the nationalist Yīhèwǎní. Dǒng Fúxiáng (“ fooshyong ”) organized a militia made up of these people called the Gānsù Braves. Three notable members of this religious group were collectively known as the Xīběi Sān Mǎ; those members of the Mǎ family were ethnically (*) Huí (“ hway ”) warlords. A subgroup of this religious group rebelled against the Qīng during the Dungan revolt. The eunuch and Míng dynasty explorer Zhèng Hé (“ junghuh ”) was a member of this religious group. An army of this religious group defeated the Táng dynasty at the Talas River. For 10 points, name this religious group that includes many residents of Xīnjiāng, such as the Uyghurs, which is associated with the independence movement for East Turkestan.
ANSWER: Chinese Muslim s [or Chinese followers of Islam ; accept Huí until it is read]
PADAWAN wrote: An 1804 decree regarding Jews in this country attempted to end their ability to use arrendas to serve tavern keepers and sellers of alcohol. In 1827, Jews here lost an exemption and had to send children to military schools as part of a system of conscription set up by the Cantonist Decrees. A committee concerned with the "Fundamental Transformation of" Jews in this country led to a special state-sponsored school system and the end of the kahal system. This country subjected Jews to temporary legislation called the (*) May Laws. Following the partitions of Poland, Jews in this country were restricted to living within the Pale of Settlement. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion originated in this country. For 10 points, name this country home to many tsar-sponsored pogroms.
The tossup on _Muslims_ cluing entirely from China is a pretty standard example of a theme-oriented question with a standard-ish answerline - it highlights a lot of the most important Muslims in Chinese history. The Russia question on Jewish history is similar, with an even more "standard" answer. The Milwaukee question, which Jordan wrote, explores the city's history during the early 20th century, particularly as it pertains to immigrant groups. The Australia question, which I wrote, is meant to explore to explore a country's history from a particular "angle" - focusing almost entirely on Australian interactions with the United States.SHEIKH wrote:In this city, “bundle brigades” distributed political pamphlets in seven different languages. This city was the main target of the statewide Bennett Law, which made the use of English in public schools mandatory. In 1917, Postmaster General Albert Burleson revoked the second class mailing privileges of this city's Leader newspaper. Cooperative housing projects known as “Garden Homes” were built in this city under Daniel Webster Hoan. A mayor of this city, Emil Seidel, ran as VP on the ticket of (*) Eugene Debs in 1912 and, with Victor Berger, was a leader of this city's public works-oriented “sewer socialism” movement. John Schrank shot Teddy Roosevelt in this city, prompting him to say “it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” For 10 points, name this city where German immigrants built many breweries, the largest city in Wisconsin.
The time the 1st Marine Division spent in this country led it to adopt a folk song from this country as its official one. The August 1908 visit of the Great White Fleet to this country inspired it to create its own navy. For a time, this country was part of a two-part security agreement with the U.S. since the alliance’s third member was suspended in 1986 due to its ban on nuclear powered ships and weapons. In a 1942 New Year’s message, the statement that this country “looks to America” was given by John (*) Curtin. Douglas MacArthur escaped to [emphasize] this country in a PT boat after saying that he would return to the Philippines. U.S. forces fought alongside those of this country during the Battle of the Coral Sea. For 10 points, identify this large Pacific nation that the United States defended from Japan during World War II.
ANSWER: (Commonwealth of) Australia
Eschewing “theme” for a more general/broad-based approach is totally fine too! In fact, it’s frequently obligatory for more difficult answerlines, since there may not be enough accessible/important material to create a good “themed” question that’s playable and/or of appropriate difficulty. It’s also easier to do in many ways, since theme questions require you to be familiar with enough material to be able to identify details that could be worked into a coherent theme. However, since you lack an inherent guiding principle to your question, you need to be careful that all of your clues point to why the answer is important:
PADAWAN wrote: According to a literary source, this region accepted Christianity when a bad-ass bishop demonstrated its power by defeating a sword-swinging warrior with a crucifix. This region gave up its independence by accepting the Old Covenant. Primary sources on this region include a history by Ari the Wise and the Book of Settlements. Celtic monks called papar settled in this region around the 7th century. Local lords called godr in this region met at the (*) Law Rock, over which the Lawspeaker presided. A famous explorer from this region went on a journey when he was exiled for three years for killing his neighbor. This region is home to the oldest Parliament in world history. For 10 points, name this island territory settled by Viking explorers and governed by the Althing.
The Iceland question highlights the most important inhabitants and social institutions in medieval Iceland. Its lead-in in particular is well chosen, since it is the type of memorable anecdote that will often be highlighted by a secondary source, or stick in a reader's mind from a primary source. The Jacob Fugger question actually straight-up explains how he became powerful, then transitions to easier clues about the important things he did with this power.Chicago Open 2014 wrote:
This man appointed Pompejus Occo as a representative to the court of Christian II of Denmark, and another of his secretaries kept a catalogue of contemporary dresses called the “Book of Clothes.” This man used his friendship with Janos Thurzo to gain direct access copper-producing regions near Baska Bystrica in modern Slovakia. His earlier dealings with Antonio Cavalli helped him wrest control of Tyrolean mines from the Baumgartners of Kufstein, which paved the way for his entry into the electoral politics of the Holy Roman Empire. Albrecht Durer painted a portrait of this man, who provided significant support to Maximillian I and Charles V of Spain. This man, who was from the “of the lily” branch of his family, began a business empire that grew under the control of his nephew Anton. For 10 points, name this scion of a merchant and banking family in Augsburg, known as “the Rich,” whose name Martin Luther made synonymous with usury.
ANSWER: Jacob Fugger the Rich [or Jacob Fugger II]
The alternative “creative” questions have something of the same internal gyroscope as the “standard” answerline with a “theme” – so it’s easier to write a question that makes it evident as to why something is important. Keep in mind, though, that creative questions aren’t automatically exempt from standards just because they’re creative! You still need to pick clues that are either self-evidently important (i.e. they are from really famous events/people) or contextualized in a way that makes it clear to a listener as to why they’re important:
ACF Nationals 2014 wrote: Relatively large amounts of this commodity were found at a Spanish Bronze Age site known as the "Bat Cave" near Granada. The Chinese writer Xu Boling records that the Chenghua Emperor of the Ming Dyansty ordered this commodity to be purchased at equal the price of gold. Several centuries later, Engelbert Kaempfer described a variant of this called madak. The alchemist Paracelsus mixed gold and citrus juice with this substance to create his "Stones of Immortality." A letter written by the court oƒfficial Lin Zexu laments that "every province of his land" overflows with this substance, and shames the addressee for endorsing the sale of this commodity while it is illegal in her country. The HMS Nemesis was key to victory in some conflicts fought over this commodity, which resulted in the burning of the Summer Palaces and the signing of the Treaties of Tientsin and the Treaty of Nanking. For 10 points, give this powerful drug created from poppy plants, the namesake of two wars between China and Great Britain.
A particular “creative” approach that I think is worth using is what I’ll call the “Jordan Brownstein” style of common links, which I have so named because Jordan writes a lot of really good questions in this style, including the ones highlighted below. This style of question takes a common element that is independently important in a large number of historical contexts (rather than digging up unimportant, obscure leadins that just happen to have something in common) and fuses them together into a single question:SHEIKH wrote: The leaders of a group of this many men offered to make Ariaeus king, but Ariaeus declined since he wasn’t of royal blood. The elite Zhayedan units consisted of this many soldiers. In his Secret History, Procopius reports that “this many times this many times this many” was the number of people that Justinian killed. Upon reaching Mount Theches near Trebizond, a group of this many men is reported as having cried (*) “The sea! The sea!” in joy. The officers of that group of this many men were betrayed and killed at a feast held by Tissaphernes. This number provided an alternative name for the Persian Immortals, and is also the name of the mercenary company that fought at Cunaxa whose story is told in the Anabasis of Xeonphon. For 10 points, identify this number historically referred to as a myriad.
ANSWER: ten thousand [or a myriad before mentioned]
SHEIKH wrote: Two of these objects built for Caligula's worship of Diana were unearthed in Nemi. Specific parts of these objects taken at the Battle of Antium were used to decorate a speaking platform in the Forum called the rostra. These objects could be connected with a tool called the harpax, and the “Liburnian” was a common type of them. More than 100 of these objects could fit in a hexagonal structure constructed by Trajan to the north of (*) Ostia. Nero's plot to kill his mother Agrippina the Younger involved a self-destructing example of these objects. A device for drawing these objects together, the corvus, was first used at the Battle of Mylae. During a siege, some of these vehicles under the command of Marcellus were supposedly targeted by giant hooks and heat-rays devised by Archimedes. For 10 points, name these vehicles exemplified by the trireme, which made up the Roman navy.
ANSWER: Roman ships [or obvious equivalents like boats, barges, galleys, triremes, etc]
In one country, the destruction of 90% of these things sparked a period called the Kefu Qan, or “Bad Times.” The ubuhake system was based on the lending of these things in exchange for service and helped form the divide between Hutus and Tutsis, the minority group who owned these things. The ceremonies and myths about these things were the subject of Melville Herskovits’ dissertation. The teenage prophetess Nongqawuse convinced the Xhosa people to slaughter thousands of these (*) animals, sparking a massive famine. Judar Pasha's forces used gunfire to reverse a charge of these animals during the Battle of Tondibi. In the 1890s, millions of these animals in Africa were killed by a rinderpest epidemic. The Nguni breed of these animals was introduced to southern Africa by the Bantu migration. For 10 points, name these animals domesticated for their milk and beef.
ANSWER: cattle [or cows]
I’d also like to discuss another type of question: the historiography-driven approach to history, either as a full question or with individual clues – the “Marshall-plus” question, if you will. By this I don’t mean tossups on historians or history books, but rather questions on other kinds of “standard” answerlines that use clues drawing on the work of latter-day interpretations and studies. For these questions, assuming you're trying to put them in the history distribution (and not "Other Academic" or "Social Science") I think it’s important to “contextualize” your tossup by pairing clues about interpretations with “regular” history clues – that way, you aren’t screwing over people with knowledge of the events being discussed. The key here is to create a tossup that is maximally playable by players with a wide range of types of knowledge.
My objective in writing this question was to provide lots of contextual clues and important terms/buzzwords that people could easily learn about from multiple sources, even if they weren't familiar with the titles being mentioned - this way you aren't turning the question into "are you familiar with these titles and authors" and also reward some more "conventional" history knowledge that you're more likely to encounter in a survey book (i.e. kishi activists, the constantly-evolving nationalist notion of kokutai, and the kokugaku scholars of the Tokugawa era).SHEIKH wrote: In a book on this country’s Agrarian Origins, Thomas Smith argued that its aristocracy was not abolished because it was revolutionary, as exemplified by activists called “men of spirit.” The book Outline of a Theory of Civilization argues against the uniqueness of a notion from this country translated as “national character,” a notion which later evolved to emphasize racial affinity in the 1920s. The John Whitney Hall Prize is named for a scholar of this country, study of whose classics was emphasized by the “national study” movement. (*) Iris Chang is best known for studying actions committed by this country whose omission from school textbooks is often protested by teachers. For 10 points, name this nation studied extensively by an anthropologist from the Office of War Information during World War II, during which it exploited comfort women.
Approaching Writing History for a Full Tournament
If you're writing history for a full tournament, your primary guide should be the following mantra: diversity, diversity, diversity. This can really be applied to any area of the distribution, but history questions vary across so many dimensions - answerline type, region, time period, subject matter - that I think it's particularly crucial in this area and particularly noticeable (and often painful) when something is off. In particular:
1) Reward a variety of types of knowledge: This means being conscious about balancing clues about political history, social history, military history, and historiography. The first two types of knowledge should be emphasized, but I would like to point that military history really should not be ignored because, even though it's not taught a lot in the academy, there are countless volumes about military history out there and lots of people do read them. I would suggest using more clues about what makes a battle historically/politically important or unique, rather than simply saying "X person was here at Y time."
2) Make sure you vary things by time period and geography. I do not care if you think one particular area of history is boring or easier to write - you are doing a disservice to both the players and thousands upon thousands of years and people from human history by deliberately ignoring them. In particular, if you're looking to find under-asked topics for world history, I think (these days) there's a wealth of unused clues about Central Asia (that place is _huge_ and has tons of cool stuff), colonial Latin America, Early Modern Southeast Asia (17th-19th centuries), and a bunch of random periods of East Asian history (middle of the Tokugawa era, middle and late Ming and Tang, the Jin/Song in general, and a crap ton of clues about the early 20th century throughout the region).
EDIT: grammar and comments