Archive for the ‘Teaching History’ Category

The “frontier” between fiction and nonfiction

One of my favorite new blogs, A Writer of History, recently posted an amazing interview about the writing of historical fiction—or is it “creative history” or historical nonfiction?  Personally, while some argue that the terms are synonymous for the same genre, I’ve always felt that the genre designation depended on the author, the research, the message, and the presentation, if you know what I mean!  And I’m glad that author Charlotte Gray not only agrees but has definitely earned the right to place her relevant works (Gray also writes pure nonfiction) into the genre of historical nonfiction.

During the interview, which was posted to the blog on February 25, Mary Tod asked two seemingly unrelated questions of Gray: “What ingredients make for successful historical nonfiction?” and “Can you tell us what you mean when you say that the frontier between fiction and nonfiction is under constant negotiation?”

Gray’s insightful responses are actually central to the fiction-nonfiction debate:

Trustworthiness. I have worked hard to establish a reputation as a nonfiction writer who does not invent characters, events, conversations. If I say what somebody is thinking, I know about their internal monologue from private letters etc. So readers can know they are increasing their knowledge and understanding of Canadian history without constantly asking themselves, “Did this really happen?” . . .  A novelist is not under such constraints to stick to the known facts . . . he or she can let their imaginations run! (But if they have somebody driving a car in the 1880s, that’s a problem!)

Jump over to A Writer of History and glean the knowledge that awaits in the many other information-packed answers. While reading, remember that much of the commentary and advice can pertain to other fiction genres and categories as well as it does to any type of nonfiction.

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The “fiction” in historical fiction; and the why

Those of you who have followed me for a time know that some of my favorite editorial projects are works of historical fiction; the truth is, historical fiction has been one of my favorite genres since I was in grade school.  (Anyone remember the We Were There series?)  Perhaps that’s why, during those projects, I’ve noted one challenge that continually plagues many of their writers—especially newer ones:  “Exactly how much fiction is acceptable in historical fiction?”  Even more seasoned writers have issues, but their challenges are more generally along the lines of,  “When is fiction acceptable in historical fiction?”  Either is a common problem.

Part of a recent  interview with best-selling, award-winning author Hilary Mantel  on NPR’s  Fresh Air  briefly addresses these two questions.  (If you listen to the interview, which focuses on the two finished books in Mantel’s trilogy about Tudor England,  Wolf Hall  and  Bring Up the Bodies,  her comments on writing historical fiction run from about 16:18 to roughly 19:38.)  Her answer is simple, yet complex.

I make up as little as possible.  I spend a great deal of time on research, on finding all the available accounts of a scene or incident, finding out all the background details and the biographies of the people involved . . .  it’s really in the gaps, the erasures, that I think the novelist can best go to work . . .

She then steps into the topic that, in my mind, states the very purpose for writing historical fiction in the first place: to tell “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey used to say—the part of the story that history books cannot easily convey; the part that relates  why  what happened, happened:

. . . inevitably in history, in any period, we know a lot about what happened, but we may be far hazier on why it happened. And there’s always the question: Why did it happen the way it did? Where was the turning point?

In other words, facts are facts, whether they involve a person or group of people, an act or event, or a time or place; but, the why and the how . . . now, that’s where the “story” in history comes in!  At least, that’s my opinion.

So, now that you know the challenge of historical fiction (and how to meet it), get back to that draft!

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Your memories to memoirs, or a personal history

Of all the projects I work on, I have to say that some of the most rewarding ones are those during which I have the chance to help clients start, develop, and complete the stories of their lives. Working with “average Joes” and “everyday Josephines” is an interest that developed early in my career—when I helped out in the local history room of the Dayton and Montgomery County (Ohio) Public Library back in the 1970s and early ’80s.

I didn’t do much in the beginning except help the reference librarians to research questions by digging up information from “the cage” (where the older and historical properties of the library were stored behind chain-link fencing) and then verify their responses by photocopying documents, pages from history books, and newspaper clippings. The work was extremely interesting, rather like detective work, and certainly deepened my interest in local history. But it was just a stepping stone in a journey I didn’t even know I’d begun.

Eventually, I jumped from that local history room to the county historical society a few blocks away. There, I not only started performing my own research but I also got to transform my discoveries into stories for the society’s newsletter. Still, like the questions I worked with in the library, those adventures into local history primarily involved companies, buildings, street names, and communities; only occasionally did a good question about a local family come in. And, then, the questions were nearly always about prominent families. Finally, when I later moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, and took a position as historical publications editor—well, that was when I finally got to work primarily with people, and primarily with “rag’lar” people.

You see, the North Carolina Museum of History had just started an initiative to gather “his stories” and “her stories” (get it? his stories, as in histories . . .) from the working classes of the state’s residents. The wealthier and ruling classes were, of course, well documented; but in the 1990s, the stories of older residents and their everyday lives were rapidly vanishing, along with the ways of life they reflected, and the museum had wisely taken note. My role was to edit transcribed oral histories and videos and to proofread transcriptions from written letters, notes, and diary entries. Once in a while, I did get to meet the “dignitaries” but generally, that honor was reserved for the staff members and volunteers who did the interviews.

The act of gathering histories from the state’s working classes was somewhat novel in the early 1990s. In fact, many people refused the museum’s advances at first because they believed “no one will care about my life” or “I’m not important; why do you want to know about me?” A few years passed, but eventually, we overcame those beliefs. And, what helped change minds were interviews like this one (a low-resolution pdf), which was used in the museum’s Tar Heel Junior Historian magazine.

Ms Boyette’s story exemplifies a regular, old, everyday existence. But, in reading it, no one can argue with the significance of her memories or the importance of her story. With luck, it’s even helped convince you to consider telling yours and leaving it as a legacy for your family, friends, and community.

Something to think about, anyways . . .

Stephen Evans,

Dear FutureMe:

A not-so-new but not-well-heard-of Web site has surfaced thanks to a recent article on National Public Radio. The site,, is intended to enable a person to write an e-mail to himself or herself that will be delivered anytime between a paltry thirty days from now and fifty years into the future. In the past four years, more than 400,000 people have sent messages for a variety of reasons.

Granted, most people address letters to themselves, like a personal time capsule, but a use that would be more pertinent to our areas of interest, is to write letters to others in our lives, letters that will surprise their receivers in the future, just as lost letters and missing postcards have surprised some of us in years gone by. The site does not have a limit yet on the number of letters that can be sent, though abusers who use the site as a simple reminder service are allegedly dealt with . . .

Oh, and in case you’re worried about “moving” (changing e-mail addresses), FutureMe now has a management system that allows updating of addresses—no fair, though, changing or updating those messages! Get started here:

Huckleberry Finn under attack, again

February 2, 2007 2 comments

Yes, here we go—yet, again. Instead of exposing America’s students to the differences of our society and helping them understand the history of those differences (in essence, teaching them what makes America America), another attempt is under way to just remove a topic from the table and ignore it. Who knew, of course, that Mark Twain used the “n-word” (as this St. Paul Pioneer Press author so safely puts it) two-hundred times in the classic adventure novel? Then, again, who really needed to know? That wasn’t the point of the book then, I don’t think, and, while the point has admittedly changed through the years, it shouldn’t be the point now!

During discussion of the book, [one student] said she was uncomfortable with views she said students expressed—that blacks should go to hell and interracial marriage was immoral, for instance. (see “District may drop ‘Huck Finn’ from required reading list” by Bao Ong; posted online Friday, February 2, 2007)

It’s good that she was uncomfortable, isn’t it? Isn’t that part of the point of educating our youth? To let them know that people are different, that controversies exist and can be debated in a healthy fashion, that times have changed, that we shouldn’t “let history repeat itself?”

No, I should know by now that’s an outdated concept of public education, that such lessons are not on any of the tests today’s students have to pass, so there’s not enough time in the schedule; but, that’s another disturbing story! I guess it could be worse . . . at least they’re not specifically trying to ban The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—this time . . .

Geriatric1927 still sharing his story on YouTube!

Since the middle of last year, a widower named Peter has been sharing the story of his life on the video blogging site His life story is fascinating, and, if you know of anyone who still does not understand the value of sharing personal histories, Peter’s stories will serve as an introduction and a justification. From laughter to tears, Peter tells us all about his life in England. Watch a few of his videos (most range in length from three to five minutes; very few stretch to eight) and enjoy him. I’ve always believed that everyone has a story to tell, and Peter’s words of history, reflection, and comment reinforce that belief. While you’re at the site, be sure to watch the video of the sketch artist who drew Peter’s portrait—it is amazing. And, take a look around YouTube, too. Sure, you’ll find lots and lots of junk, but somewhere amongst it all, you might just stumble upon another jewel or two.

The Gilder Lehrman Institute online

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History provides a host of online learning opportunities—from teacher-directed teaching modules to individualized activities. Other threads on the Web site include “virtual exhibitions,” a keyword-searchable research tool, and an online store that includes a link to History Now, an understandable history journal for teachers.

Categories: Teaching History