Writing From History – A Special SBWC Upcoming Event

  • Post author:
  • Post category:SBWC Blog

Geoff Hunt cover art  for The Hundred Days, by Patrick O’Brian
This summer I have been rereading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin novels, all six-thousand-five-hundred-and-seventy-odd pages of them. These twenty-one novels, published between 1969 and 2004, are a series of nautical historical novels set during the Napoleonic wars and chronicle the friendship between Jack Aubrey, Royal Navy officer, and Stephen Maturin, ship’s surgeon, natural philosopher and intelligence agent. The stories cover vast territories of the outer world (thousands of sea miles between one pole and another, deserts, jungles, high Andean mountains), and the inner world (profound, enigmatic relationships, physical, emotional and intellectual strain, moral ambiguities, the ravages of age, jealousy and ambition), all elegantly conveyed in archaic, if not esoteric, language by a writer of boundless intellect, style and wit. In his review in the New York Times, Richard Snow called the Aubrey and Maturin novels, “the greatest historical novels ever written,” and noted that, “On every page O’Brian reminds us with subtle artistry of the most important of all lessons: that times change but people don’t, that the griefs and follies and victories of the men and women who were here before us are in fact the maps of our own lives.”
Mapping the human story is the work of historians and novelists, and the well-told story brings that history to life. As a species we’re hardwired for stories; they help us see, think feel, and project. David McCullough, who wrote many celebrated non-fiction works, including, The Brooklyn Bridge, The Path Between the Seas, and the Pulitzer Prize winning, Truman, has said, “… it’s in our human nature to want to know about the past…. I think it probably has something to do with our survival as a species. For nine-tenths of the time that human beings have been on earth, knowledge that was essential to survival was transmitted from one generation to the next by the vehicle of story.” Stories feed our imagination and help to bridge the present and the past. Indeed, for McCullough, “You could make the argument that there is no such things as the past. Humans are only alive in the present.” And that, of course, it is the challenge for the writer: how to make history present for the reader. What is the “subtle artistry” that breathes life into a past made only of words?
That is the question that Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative will be grappling with at a panel discussion on September 30th, with the help of Tim Castner, Mary Babson FuhrerTona HangenKevin LevinMegan Kate NelsonRichard C. Wiggin, and Ursula Wong. For these historians, teachers and writers, telling the stories of vanished people, worlds, and cultures is at the center of their lives and work. And part of that work is sharing what they’ve learned with others on the same journey. In anticipation of this special SBWC event, moderated by local writer and teacher, Tim Castner, we’ve asked the panelists to share something about their approach to writing from history and what inspires them as historians and as storytellers.
(Hollis Shore) Kenneth Burke writes that, “Stories are equipment for living.” What draws you to a certain person, place or time in history, and how do you recognize when you’ve found a story worth telling?
(Tim Castner) A moral philosopher says, “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”
—Alasdair McIntyre, After Virtue.
Is the story important? Does it resonate with current or perennial questions or concerns? If it moves me it will likely move others.
(Mary Fuhrer) As a social historian—someone interested in recovering the lives of everyday people within the social context of their times—it all begins with evidence. It’s challenging to find evidence of “common folk” in the past; they rarely left individual records of their lives. So when I come across an extraordinary source that reveals something of everyday life, I’m intrigued. Uncovering the story within that text is the next challenge. When I find a source in which a person’s individual story reveals something about the larger struggles, goals, fears, and hopes of an era, then I’m hooked.
(Tona Hangen) I’m always looking for slightly subversive stories that disrupt my expectation about the past—ones that surprise or nudge me to revise my settled sense of how things were. I agree with others here that the right story begins with compelling evidence, and enough of it, to fill out the details in a historical episode. But even brief and cryptic pieces of evidence—a single artifact, one document, a photograph—can be unpacked to tell a short or partial story.
(Megan Kate Nelson) In all of my work thus far, I have been drawn to unloved places and things in America—swamps, ruins, and deserts. Because they usually provoke negative responses, these landscapes are places of interaction and conflict, and so they have really vibrant, complex histories, which appeals to me as a historian and a writer. Additionally, historians had not written about the Okefenokee Swamp or various forms of wartime destruction before, so the chance to tell a new story was alluring to me.
My current project—a history of the American Civil War in the desert Southwest—also tells stories that most Americans have never heard before, and that complicate our notion of what constituted “The Civil War” in American history. These are stories about the desert Southwest, and about multi-racial forces of Anglos, Hispaños, and Native Americans that fought for control of it. So, not your typical Civil War story, or one that most Americans would recognize as such. Yet it illuminates many of the most important political, economic, and cultural aspects of the war, and of American history in the mid-nineteenth century.
I recognized early on that the history of the Civil War West has a compelling chronological structure—a well-defined beginning, middle, and end—and a host of complicated and vivid “characters” through whom I could relay its history. The war story is a classic genre, and my book uses the drama inherent in “the march to battle” to frame all of the interactions in the book. However, I have structured this story of the Civil War Southwest around nine individuals rather than ideas or events; this has allowed me to experiment with biographical writing for the first time, and to figure out how to interweave personal histories with the cultural, political, and environmental histories of the Southwest.
(Rick Wiggin) I ask myself, “Why would a reader want to read this?” And “What can I bring to this story that others haven’t (or how can I tell this story in a way that others haven’t)? Also, I look for the human element. I believe that history is the product of uniquely human experiences, and therefore I want to tell the story in human terms.
 (Ursula Wong) A writer’s personal connection to a person, place, or time can be a tremendous motivator. Amber Wolf is historical fiction set in WWII, and addresses the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe. The inspiration for Amber Wolf came from a manuscript I found among my uncle’s possessions after he died. It focused on wartime Lithuania when the Nazis were gone, and the Soviets had returned for the second time since the beginning of the war. Lithuanians were deciding whether to stay and oppose Stalinism, wait for the West to push the Russians out, or leave their country. The manuscript drew me in, and inspired me to research Lithuania’s WW II history, eventually writing my own novel.
All stories expressed with passion and interest are worth telling. Sometimes, the best stories come from an inner voice that says, “Write me.”
(HS) Research is at the heart of writing from history. Could you talk a little about your approach to reading and research? What constraints do you set for yourself in incorporating evidence and sources? Do you write and research simultaneously? And if not, at what point do you turn from researcher to writer, from explorer to guide?
(TC) I tend to research and write at the same time. I am drawn to a question or a problem, or I stumble upon a document, which raises questions. Often I begin by teaching or talking about the story or document and move from there to writing about it.
(MF) For me, writing cannot begin until I feel I understand the story that has emerged from my evidence. While historians to a degree unavoidably impose their own interpretations on evidence, I prefer to let the sources tell me as much as possible before I begin to weave a tale from their separate strands. The stories I uncover (or impose) tend to evolve over the course of research, and I prefer to let that process continue for as long as I have new evidence to consider.
(TH) I regularly teach undergraduate courses in historical research methods, so I try to help streamline the research process for my students, and that helps me refine my own workflow. First, I read widely. I subscribe to several professional journals, I get a daily newspaper (in print!) and a couple of monthly magazines, I have a big stack of nightstand books, and I have an active Twitter account that generates many links to articles, essays and long-form historical writing. I try to look beyond my own current areas of research to see what’s happening elsewhere in the field and in the world of letters and ideas more generally.
For a given writing project, I organize my reading and research using Zotero, which helps me keep track of sources as well as my notes on those sources. I do try to write and research simultaneously; though it can be messy to know when to begin writing, at some point in the research one begins to have original insights, and that’s the time to start laying down words in a draft, the earlier in the research process, the better. The writing then emerges over time, first from disconnected pieces of writing that later get knitted into a whole. I rarely outline at first; I work more organically.
(MKN) I completed the research for my first two books before I sat down to write them. I am by nature and training a “compiler”: I gather all of the evidence I can get my hands on, and then I spend some time absorbing and organizing it before I figure out the arguments I want to make.
I still do this, but my current book’s structure and narrative style demands that I work at a much faster pace. Generally, I still research each chapter and compile some notes before I write anything—and I don’t start until I have a good sense of how the chapter is going to go. But I do start writing before I am fully ready. As I write, I either bracket areas where I need to do more research or stop writing and do it, and then go back to writing.
(RW) Everybody does this differently, so you have to do what works for you. In my case, I tend to research and write simultaneously, segment by segment. My only constraint about evidence and sources is that they must be accurate and reliable. There is simply too much myth, supposition, and misinformation that gets passed off as gospel. Unless I’m working with a reliable primary source (in which case I can assume the information to be sound), I look for at least two different sources to corroborate secondary-source information. If I have conflicting data points, then I look for ways to reconcile them. If they are irreconcilable, then I’ll choose the one that best fits the preponderance of reliable data, and explain in a footnote the inconsistent data and source.
(UW) I spend a tremendous amount of time reading both fiction and non-fiction. When I research a subject to prepare for a new book, I don’t write. However, when I begin writing, I continue to research special topics that come up as the story unfolds.
While the Internet is a great source of information, it’s also a way to find people and experts. Reaching out to individuals can lead to important and exciting information. It can lead to brand new stories. It can also change a writer’s perspective on stories they’ve already written. A conversation with an ex-Soviet officer helped me understand attitudes and mannerisms of Russian military personnel that wasn’t in any of the references I’d been using. Ultimately, that detail made Amber Wolf a better novel.
(HS) Writing historical narrative involves, as one reviewer described it, putting “the spark of life into the sawdust of time.” How do you approach turning research into vivid characters and scenes? What role does style play, and how do you balance the simultaneous goals of entertaining, informing, and, hopefully, thrilling the reader?
(MF) I believe the historian’s challenge is to transform mere chronicle—a recitation of events—into narrative, an engaging story that speaks to readers in a way that allows them to imagine themselves in that past, to empathize with the characters, to perceive similarity and difference in their own experiences. This is primarily an endeavor of storytelling. Developing a plot is critical. So is conveying setting—even details such as the weather during it particular event, the sounds, sounds, smells, sensations that defined a moment. And inevitably, I feel, a good narrative history needs characters, well-articulated individuals with emotions, ambitions, fears, motivations. These details can be challenging to recover, but I believe they add immensely to bringing a story to life.
(TH) Here is where I envy historical fiction writers, who can create whole scenes and conversations from imagination, and documentary filmmakers, who can employ visual cues and techniques to evoke a scene instantly. I share the sense of others on the panel that all good writing, regardless of genre, benefits from attention to and playfulness with plot, pacing, characters, and chronology. I’ll just say that history graduate training provides little professional development in writing per se; most of us pick it up as we go or by trial and error, and so collaborating with other writers and readers is really useful and important. I’m looking forward to learning a lot in our session!
 (MKN) As I have turned from writing in an academic prose style and structure to a narrative style and structure, I find that I use my research, particularly primary document research (letters, diaries, newspapers) differently. Instead of using quotations as evidence to prove an argument, I am using them to create a more vivid sense of the past for the reader.
Every historian loves a good turn of phrase or an eloquent quote, but I love them even more than most, because these enable me to give the reader a real sense of the way people spoke, the ways they dressed, how they interacted with one another, and with the landscape. These are the kinds of details that draw a reader in.
I have also borrowed heavily from fiction writers in terms of structure. This book moves between nine different viewpoints over the course of eight years. This helps me to create dramatic tension; it also allows me to push my protagonists off the page and into the reader’s imagination.
(RW) History has always suffered from the dates and events approach. To be meaningful, it must be relatable. That means a narrative that puts flesh on the bones; that brings the individuals to life as real people. As the product of uniquely human experiences, history is less about the events and dates, per se, than it is the human response to the events and dates. What happens matters only if it happens to real living, breathing people.
(UW) I think that good historical writing should focus on strong characters. The elements of history come in through events, a sense of the time, language, and even attitudes. While history provides a critical component of the story, characters and their genuine reactions to the situations in which the writer places them, is fundamental to maintaining reader interest.
The ideas of entertaining, informing, and thrilling the reader aren’t unique to historical writing. All novels should have these elements. A sci-fi novel needs to have as much detail describing a new world, as an historical novel set in Europe a hundred years ago. With historical writing, details are garnered from research. In other novels, the writer might make them up. But in all cases, the reader needs to be sufficiently grounded with a mental picture of time and place so that the novel makes sense.
(HS) In your mind, what are some of the best examples of writing from history? Are there certain authors who have inspired your own work?
 (TC) Some authors that have inspired me include David McCullough, William Cronon, John Demos, and David Kennedy. One of the interesting things that I have noticed is that best writers break the rules. They insert themselves into the narrative. They write an entire paragraph without a verb. I have also found that they are able to beautifully break the rules because they have already submitted to them and know when to ignore the rule.
(MF) In 1990, I read Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Midwife’s Tale. The work draws on a long neglected—often dismissed as tedious—journal of a wife and mother who also served as midwife and healer to women in rural Maine in the late 18th century. Ulrich brilliantly “opens out” the terse entries to show the fascinating stories hidden in the “daily-ness” of Martha Ballard’s life. The narrative is an evocative page-turner; the greater issues and themes that emerge are transformative in shaping our understanding of women, family, community, and medicine in that era. The book is a marvel and has been an enduring inspiration.
(TH) All of the authors previously mentioned are excellent examples, and some have inspired my own work. I really enjoy authors who translate historical scholarship (which is often justifiably lambasted as dry and turgid) into lucid prose for popular audiences, like Jill Lepore, Erik Larson, Tony Horwitz and Charles C. Mann. My all-out favorite historical fiction writer is Connie Willis, whose time-travel novels are simply marvelous.
(MKN) I have found inspiration among academic historians who shift my angle of vision on the past—scholars like Drew Gilpin Faust, whose book on the cultures of death in the Civil War profoundly influenced my analysis of destruction in Ruin Nation, or Yael Sternhell, whose work on movement, and on the creation of a Union archive during the war, show how powerful the cultural history approach can be in illuminating wartime experiences.
I always appreciate strong, clear, and inventive writing—which unfortunately, can be hard to come by in academic books and articles. For style inspiration, I look more to long-form journalists like John McPhee and pretty much everyone who writes for The New Yorker, and to fiction writers. I’m just now starting Jesmyn Ward’s new novel and I am marveling at the vividness of her prose.
(RW) There are lots of good narrative histories about different periods/individuals in history. Probably my two favorite non-fiction writers of history are David Hackett Fischer and David McCullough. For historical fiction, my vote would go to Michael Shaara.
(UW) I’m a huge James Michener fan. Anne Applebaum, who writes about Russia and the Soviet Union is a phenomenal resource. Norman Davies writes histories of Europe and I’ve relied on his books for facts and political insights. Since I focus on WWII, I prefer Steven Ambrose for his ability to break down a complex time into daily events.
For more from these authors, please join us for,

Writing From History: A Panel Discussion with Tim Castner, Mary Babson Fuhrer, Tona Hangen, Kevin Levin, Megan Kate Nelson, Richard C. Wiggin, and Ursula Wong.
Saturday, September 30, 2017
1030 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.
Thayer Memorial Library