The tense of the verb in a sentence reflects the time at which the action is set. In historical studies that is, by definition, in the past. The vast majority of verbs used in history papers are past-tense (e.g. came, saw, conquered). When the topic is literature, however, it's a different matter. The action which takes place in works of fiction exists in a timeless world. So, in describing characters or recapitulating the plots found in literature, it's best to use the present tense.
When describing the action or characters in a work of literary fiction, use the present tense: "At the midpoint of The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus journeys to the realm of the dead." It's best in this case to use the present tense ("journeys"), because stories like Homer's epics exist in a timeless realm where they can happen over and over again each time we read them. The present tense highlights the vividness with which they re-occur whenever they pass through our minds and, because they're works of fiction, they can and do relive with every re-reading.
As a result, ordinary speakers have forgotten the preterite form of some strong verbs that are traditionally used informally. The third person past of ("to bake") was once or but few Germans know that anymore, even though the past participle of remains strong: In the 3rd person singular, both and are possible.
Conversely, past-tense verbs should dominate history papers because the vividness of the present tense pertains less to the discussion of history than it does to literature. While it's possible to describe the historical past in the present tense, such a posture belongs more naturally to casual conversation than formal writing. That is, when a speaker is trying to make his account of something which happened in the past seem more real to a listener, he may use the present tense, saying, for instance, "So, yesterday I'm standing in line at this store and some man comes in and robs it!" Here, a past action ("yesterday") is being expressed in the present tense ("I'm standing," "comes," "robs"), with the speaker acting as if both he and the listeners were there when the event occurred.
The use of past tenses, on the other hand, makes it seem as if the speaker is more aloof and remote from what happened: "Yesterday I stood in line at a store and a man came in and robbed it." Because of the past tenses ("stood," "came," "robbed"), the speaker appears to care less about the past actions he's relating. Thus, to avoid the sense that they are neutral and unconcerned, speakers often use the present tense when relating a past action, since it lends the story a sense of being right there right then. After all, that's what the present tense is, by definition, "right here right now."
In German, as in English, the simple past differs from the in that it describes past events that are interrelated within a time frame that is separate from the present. Hence it is typically used in narratives. German speakers are not always careful in making this distinction. Indeed, they sometimes even mix the two tenses indiscriminately.
As a complete style and guideline for writing, the APA is a valuable tool for writing scientific papers, laboratory reports, and papers covering topics in the field of psychology, education, and other social sciences. The APA style allows for in-text citations, direct quotations, and endnotes and footnotes. It is also enables the author to use the past tense of verbs in the reportage.
When writing an analytical or informative essay you should remain impersonal. Stay away from You's and I's. The only time I would recommend using I's and You's might be in a persuasive essay to a certain audience that knows you.
When writing keep the same tense. If you're writing in the past tense stay in it. Here's an example of someone who doesn't keep in the same tense.
Billy had a ball. The ball is nice. Too bad he popped it.
See how awkward that sounds. Don't do that.
It should read: Billy Had a ball. The ball was nice. Too bad he popped it.
This isn't true of the authors themselves, however. Discussing Homer, not his epics, calls for the past tense, because he's dead and can't come to life the way his works can. So, when writing about the man, you should speak in the past tense ("Homer composed his epics spontaneously in performance"), in contrast to recapitulating the tales he told ("The theme of Achilles' anger runs throughout The Iliad."). Thus, literary papers usually entail a balance of past-tense and present-tense verbs.
In ordinary conversation, then, the simple past is unusual. There are however, a few exceptions, primarily the verbs "sein," "haben," and the modal auxiliaries. It is quite common to say: "ich war da", instead of "ich bin da gewesen"; "wir hatten eine Katze", instead of "wir haben eine Katze gehabt"; or "sie konnte ihn sehen", rather than "sie hat ihn sehen können." This is particularly true when it serves to cut down on complexity. Even in ordinary speech it is more usual to say "ich musste einen Arzt rufen lassen" than "ich habe einen Arzt rufen lassen müssen."
The problem with "right here right now" in writing assignments for a history class is the writer doesn't have to engage the reader in the story. The writing has the reader's full and undivided attention at all times, because I'm the reader and I'm totally involved—I guarantee it!—in whatever you have to say. Nor do you need to encourage me to see the past vividly. I do that naturally, because it's my job and I love it. So, for your writing assignments in a history course, please don't use the present tense, when describing the past. Use the past tense, instead.
However, if you are citing articles in the paper, as you probably should, then you should check with your professor to see if he or she would prefer that you use the literary present or the past tense when referring to these articles.
Furthermore, to the same extent that the present tense is unnecessary in this particular context, the past tense is helpful. By stating the facts of history rather coolly in the past tense you appear calm and collected, which, in turn, makes your judgment seem more sober and reasoned. You don't look excited or excitable, and that's a good thing for a historian who's trying to convince others to see the past a certain way. Arguments in this arena work better when they appear to come from cool heads.