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Writing Creative Nonfiction: Narrative History

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August 2013
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By Dave Hood

Instead of writing the personal narrative, many writers turn outward, and write true stories about the past, including stories of historical people, historical places, and historical events. They write from many perspectives: as a victim, as a witness or observer, or as historian or lover of history. For instance, Erik Larson recently wrote the bestseller “The Devil in the White City,” a true story about the 1893 World’s Fair and a serial killer. To write the narrative history, Larson used newspaper accounts and trial transcripts. Historian David McCullough has written several books of historical narrative, including “1776,” “Truman,” and “John Adams.”

Writers are not required to write books of history. Many writer craft creative nonfiction essays using the techniques of historical narrative. To write about history, using the historical narrative approach, writers must conduct extensive research and then write their story using the elements of fiction, literary techniques, and poetic devices. The historical narrative is highly descriptive, and so scene and description must be used. Writers are not suppose to fabricate dialogue or events. As well, they are expected to complete rigorous fact-checking. No fact should be included that has not been verified through fact-checking.

In this chapter, I’ll discuss creative nonfiction as it applies to writing about history. The following will be covered:

  • Definition of history
  • Perspectives on history
  • Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction
  • Nonfiction history versus creative nonfiction
  • Gather material through research
  • Writing style for the historical narrative
  • Additional reading

Defining History

There are many definitions of history. Here’s my view: The historian or lover of history studies the past, collects, analyze, interprets facts, determine cause and effect, and share the significance of the past, in an effort to teach humanity not to make the same mistakes again and to learn how to recreated the achievements of the past. Writing about history involves writing about past events, such as the Civil war, World War I, Roaring Twenties, Viet Nam War, War on Terror. Writing about history also involves writing about historical people who are now deceased, such as Mao, Hitler, Stalin, Bin Laden, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and many more. As well, the writer can share a story about ordinary events and ordinary people, providing the story is interesting.

How can the you craft narrative about history? Four popular ways to write about history are:

  • Writing a Memoir. It is writing about a period in the person’s life, not their entire life. Often political leaders write about their experiences in public office. Anyone can write a memoir, providing it is interesting and unique.
  • Writing a biography. You can research the person and their life, and then write a life story, including details of obstacles and setback that were overcome, achievements and accomplishments, significance to the present day. Historians often writer biographies about public figures, such as presidents and prime ministers and generals, icons of popular culture. For instance, David McCullough wrote biographies of “Truman” and “John Adams.” Other writers have written biographies on Ghandi, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, President Bush, Prime Minister Trudeau, Reagan, and countless others.
  • Short Profile or Biography Sketch. Instead of writing a biography, many writers write a biography sketch or profile of a historical figure, artist, politician, writer, photographer, even an ordinary person. The sketch is much shorter than autobiography or biography, usually between 500 to 2,000 words. Unlike the books of biography or memoir, the profile or sketch is published in magazines or newspapers.
  • Narrative History. You can use the elements of fiction, literary techniques, and figurative language to tell a true story about a person or event in history. You can write a creative nonfiction essay, based on historical narrative, or a book of narrative history.

Perspectives Of History

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

When writing as a victim of history, you are writing a true narrative about how some historical event impacted you and your life . For instance, 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.

When writing as a witness of history, you are an observer of the world, watching it unfold before your eyes. Every year, you are witness to many global events and public figures of historical significance, which will become stories in history textbooks, for future generations to learn. 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.

When writing as an author of history, you are researching the past, and writing about it. Either you are a historian or lover of history. Each of these roles requires that you become a subject matter expert. You must immerse yourself in the life of the person or the historical event, reading everything you can, visiting the places of historical significance, immersing yourself in the past by reading diaries, journals and notebook, watching historical film footage, gazing at vintage photographs. As an author of history, you are the historian, sharing facts, anecdotes, description, narrative, interpretation, and analysis. Your purpose is to educate, inform, and entertain.

The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction

To write about history as a creative nonfiction writer, you must embrace the advice of Lee Gutkind, expert on creative nonfiction. And so, you must do the following:

  • Write about real Life. Your topic will be real people, actual events, and real places. Nothing is fictional or fabricated.
  • Conduct extensive research. You will gather facts and information and impressions from the library, interviews, Internet, immersion, and more.
  • Write the historical narrative. You will use the elements of fiction, such as the narrative arc, literary techniques, such as showing and telling, and figurative language, such as simile and metaphor, to write the true story of history.
  • Share personal reflection. You will share personal thoughts, feelings, perspectives with the reader.
  • Learn about the person or event by reading. You must read autobiographies, biographies, and other informative books about history.

Gathering Material Through Research

When you conduct research, find the answers to the following: who? what? when? where? why? how? To answer these questions, gather information from the following:

  1. Immersion. Visit the place where event occurred or museum that contains artifacts and other historical material.
  2. Interview subject matter experts. Contact an expert and interview them, such as historian. Or interview eyewitnesses. Make notes as you ask questions, or use a tape recorder.
  3. Use the library. Read relevant books, magazines, articles, newspaper clippings, journals, and take notes.
  4. Use the Internet. Conduct a search of your topic using Google search, to learn what historians have written about the person or event or issue. The search results will also reveal where there are books and magazines and journals on the topic, or subject matter experts. As well, visit History Matters
  5. Reading on your own. During your leisure time, read books, magazines, newspapers, and articles about historical events and historical people.
  6. Read primary sources to understand the person and place. Read diaries and letters and journals to understand the person who is now deceased.

Nonfiction History versus Creative Nonfiction History

Both creative nonfiction and nonfiction writers inform and educate readers. A nonfiction history presents the facts and causes and effects, and significance. In contrast, creative nonfiction does the same, but also adds narrative history, including storytelling, dialogue, setting, character development, vivid description.

The writer of nonfiction history uses an authoritative tone and third person POV (he/she). The writer of historical narrative can use the first person POV (“I”) third person (“He/she”) As well, the creative nonfiction writer uses a friendly, conversational tone, and personal reflection.

The writer of nonfiction history tells the story using formal language and a matter-of-fact presentation, without personal reflection or use of figurative language, such as simile, metaphor, imagery. In contrast, the creative nonfiction writer puts into use personal reflection and figurative language.

Both methods and approaches require extensive research, including immersion, interviewing eye witness or experts, reading books and journals at the library, viewing public records. Both the historian, who writes nonfiction history, and creative nonfiction writer, desire to inform, educate, and entertain readers.

Writing the Historical Narrative

Writing about history requires that you determine your approach. Are you writing as a layperson? Are you writing as an expert? Next, narrative history essays are stories about actual people, actual places, and actual events.  You’ll reconstruct the important people and events using the narrative arc and scenes. You’ll use the elements of fiction, literary techniques, vivid descriptions, and figurative language to write the narrative. As well, always revise your first draft.  Here are a few tips on how to write the historical narrative:

Word choice

Don’t use jargon or clichés. Use familiar instead of unfamiliar words and simple rather than fancy words. As well, use action verbs and concrete nouns.

Elements of Fiction

All stories unfold in a particular setting. Include the setting details— time and place and context.

A narrative history is structured as a narrative arc. It includes:

  • Inciting incident
  • Conflict, either internal or external
  • Turning point or climax
  • Resolution. End of the story.

If you are writing a profile on a person, develop the profile by describing the person’s appearance, action and reaction, and by using dialogue.

Point of View

Write the historical narrative using either the first person POV (“I”) or the third person POV (“he”/”she”).

Scene, Summary, and Personal Reflection

Use one or more scenes (showing the reader what happened) to show what happened and to describe behaviour. A scene includes setting details, action, dialogue, POV, and sensory details. Use summary to explain, to summarize, and to tell readers. As well, use personal reflection to share personal opinion.

Figurative Language

Use various poetic devices to write your literary journalism essay, including:

  • Simile
  • Metaphor
  • Personification
  • Allusion

Vivid Descriptions

To reconstruct setting and events and people, use sensor details, writing descriptions of what the reader will see, hear, smell, taste, touch.

Don’t include every detail. Instead use “telling details.” These are concrete, significant, particular details, which reveal deeper meaning than their descriptions.

Facts not Fiction

When writing true stories of history or historical people, don’t fabricate dialogue or events. This is writing fiction. As well, don’t add any facts without first completing fact-checking.

Writing Style

Follow the advice in “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser and “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.

Revision

The first draft is never your best work. Always revise the draft, completing a macro-edit (structure, tone, elements of fiction, POV) and micro-edit (grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choice, sentence patterns).

Staying Informed

Writer about history requires that you learn about the past and stay informed about the present. Here are a few suggestions on how to stay informed:

  • Read biographies of famous people, such as Hitler, Mao, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Reagan, Bin Laden, Thatcher
  • Keep a history idea journal. Events unfold every day, and so record the details–your opinions, impressions, and observations of what you see or hear in the media.
  • Keep a history file. When an event of historical significance happens, read relevant newspapers and magazines, and save the important magazine articles and newspaper clippings.
  • Learn about history by visiting History Central .
  • Read creative nonfiction books, which focuses on historical people and historical events.

Additional Reader

For additional information on writing narrative history, 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
  • Telling True Stories, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
  • The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed American by Erik Larson
  • 1776 by David McCullough
  • John Adams by David McCullough
  • Truman by David McCullough
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
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