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Creative Nonfiction: Writing about History

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September 2012

“Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more than a research, however patient and scrupulous, into special facts. Such facts may be detailed with the most minute exactness, and yet the narrative, taken as a whole, may be unmeaning or untrue. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time. He must study events in their bearings near and remote; in the character, habits, and manners of those who took part in them. He must himself be, as it were, a sharer or a spectator of the action he describes.” Francis Parkman

“An historian should yield himself to his subject, become immersed in the place and period of his choice, standing apart from it now and then for a fresh view.” Samuel Eliot Morison

We are victims of history, witnesses to history, and socialized by history. A case in point: the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Much of history is forgotten, unless it is recorded and then shared. Writing about historical events can teach us not to make the same mistakes again.

Significant people, like Steve Jobs, can be written about in the form of a biography. Biographies of “movers and shakers” can teach us how to live our own lives.

As a creative nonfiction writer, you can play the role of writing about “threads of history.”In this article, I’ll explain how to write about history from a creative nonfiction perspective.

Definition of History. There are many definitions of history. Here’s my view: The historian studies the past, collects facts, analyzes the facts, interprets the facts, determines cause and effects, and significance for present day life.Writing about history involves writing about past events (Civil war, World War I, Roaring Twenties) and significant, historical people who are now deceased. (Mao, Hitler, Stalin, Bin Laden)

Two popular ways to write about history are:

  • Writing an autobiography. Often political leaders write histories of their own lives for future generations.
  • Writing a biography. A writer researches and write a life history of a famous person who has contributed to human history in some significant way, such as Ghandi, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, President Bush, Prime Minister Trudeau, and countless others.

Instead of writing a biography, many writers write a biography sketch or profile of a historical figure. The sketch is much shorter. An autobiography and biography are usually several hundred pages and published as a book, whereas a sketch can be from 500 to 2,000 words, and published in a magazine. As well, the sketch does not require as much research.

Another way is to write a book about some significant historical event, such as 9/11, the civil rights moment, Feminism, totalitarianism, the Cold war, Ku Klux Klan, Civil War….

Moving Outward. When writing from a creative nonfiction perspective, instead of writing about “self”, you are writing about another person, place, event, idea. You are also applying the research methods and writing techniques of creative nonfiction. And so, you are moving outward, viewing the outside world from your own eyes, instead of looking inward to “self”, and those memories that are part of your sense of “self.” You can view the world as a witness to history, as a victim of history, or as an author of history.

Perspectives Of History. When writing about history, you can be a victim of history. All of those who died in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 had friends and families, who were victims. Suppose you are a victim, a family member who lost a loved one in the attacks of 9/11. You could write about 9/11 by sharing historical facts of the event, by explaining the causes, and by contributing your personal reflections.

You can also write about history as a witness. You are an observer. Every year, you are witness to many global events, which will become part of the history textbooks. For instance, President Obama is the first black president of the United States. To understand the significance of this, you must have a sense of history–the civil rights movement, racial discrimination of blacks in American throughout history, the Civil War, and slavery of blacks. As a writer, you can use history to provide context, as a backdrop,  or as an antagonist in your narrative.

You can write about history from a creative nonfiction perspective as an author of history. You were not a witness because it happened before your time. You are not a victim because the historical event has not impacted you directly. You are writing about history like a historian, sharing the facts and interpretations by applying the  creative nonfiction techniques of scene, summary, and reflection.

Nonfiction History versus Creative Nonfiction History. Both creative nonfiction and nonfiction inform and educate readers. A historical text presents the facts and causes and effects, and significance. Creative nonfiction does the same, but also adds narrative, including storytelling, dialogue, setting, character development.

Writing Nonfiction History relies on an authoritative tone and is written in the third person. Creative nonfiction allows the writer to use  first-person “I” or  third person (“He/she” ) and  a friendly, conversational tone.

Writing Nonfiction History tells the story using formal language and matter-of-fact presentation, without personal reflection or use of figurative language, such as simile, metaphor, imagery. A creative nonfiction writer puts into use personal reflection and figurative language.

Both approaches require extensive research, including immersion, interviewing, fact-collecting in the library.

Both the historian, who writes nonfiction history,  and  creative nonfiction writer desire to inform and educate the reader.

The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction

Writing about history as a creative nonfiction writer involves:

  • Real Life- Writing about real people, actual events, and actual places
  • Research- Collecting facts from the library, interviews, Internet
  • Writing-Writing literary journalism essays, autobiographies, or biographies
  • Reflection-Sharing personal thoughts, feelings, perspectives
  • Reading-Read autobiographies,  biographies, and other informative books about history.


Creative Nonfiction Tools

Writing about history as a creative nonfiction writer is like writing other types of creative nonfiction, in the sense that you will use the same techniques, including:

  • Scene, summary, personal reflection
  • Storytelling and other tools of fiction, such as dialogue, setting, characterization, point of view
  • Poetic devices of simile, metaphor, imagery
  • Concrete, particular, and significant descriptions
  • Structure- Narrative, lyrical, meditative, opinion with an argument, or organic.
  • Research, such as interviewing, immersion, fact-collection from the Library or Internet.


What to Write about

History introduces us to countless fascinating people and events to write about. Here are a few that come to mind:

  • Bin Laden
  • Pierre Elliot Trudeau
  • Nelson Mandela
  • Mother Teresa
  • Steve Jobs
  • Sadam Hussein
  • Shah of Iran
  • Gulf War, Viet Nam War, World War I & II, Civil War
  • Digital revolution- the computer, Internet, Social media, iPhone, iPad.

If you write about a historical person, you can write a biography sketch or profile.


Books to Read

In the past decade, many writers have written about history using the tools of creative nonfiction. Here are a few books you can read:

  • Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
  • The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first century by Thomas Friedman
  • A History of God by Karen Armstrong
  • A Brief History of Time by Stephan Hawking
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
  • The End of Faith by Sam Harris


For additional information on writing creative nonfiction, read the following:

  • Truth of the Matter: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty Moore
  • Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
  • Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style by Eileen Pollack
  • To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin

1 Comment

  1. jmanlowe says:

    Thank you so much for passing along titles I’ve enjoyed reading to learn more about Western history. You might like another book—one of my favorites as a professor of religious traditions—by Karen Armstrong called “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life.” If your readers want to know history in relation to world traditions, they should check out these titles (below):
    Through the Narrow Gate (1982)
    The First Christian: Saint Paul’s Impact on Christianity (1983)
    Beginning the World (1983)
    Tongues of Fire: An Anthology of Religious and Poetic Experience (1985)
    The Gospel According to Woman: Christianity’s Creation of the Sex War in the West (1986)
    Holy War: The Crusades and their Impact on Today’s World (1988)
    Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet (1991)
    The English Mystics of the Fourteenth Century (1991)
    The End of Silence: Women and the Priesthood (1993)
    A History of God (1993)
    Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths (1996)
    In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis (1996)
    Islam: A Short History (2000)
    The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2000)
    Buddha (2001)
    Faith After September 11 (2002)
    The Spiral Staircase (2004)
    A Short History of Myth (2005)
    Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time (2006)
    The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2006)
    The Bible: A Biography (2007)
    The Case for God (2009)
    Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (2010)

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