The Story in History

As we’ve noted in the MCHP manual, the word “history” comes from the Greek historia, meaning learning or knowledge based on inquiry and investigation. History is that branch of knowledge dealing with past events–and specifically, the recording or relating, of those events, a narrative of them. A narrative is an account of something with a discernible beginning, middle, and end. But as everyone who passed through school knows, sometimes historical accounts don’t feel very “narrated” by a real human being. Lists of dates, short bios of big names, battles accounts, sequences of events — they might as well have been spit out by a computer. Reader result: glazed eyes.

The late Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman had two words of advice for those trying to engage people in history: Tell stories!

Now, that sounds about simplistic as it comes. That’s what a narrative is, of course — a story. But the word story has a decidedly different ring to it — playful and cozy — because it transports us back in time to childhood when many of us first learned to love them, whether heard or read. No matter how old we get, don’t we all still love a good story?

You may be saying, “Yes, but you’re talking about made-up stories!” Not necessarily. Forget for a minute the obviously important distinction between fiction and non-fiction — we all know in which camp history is firmly ensconced. As Tuchman clearly knows, both types of stories share key qualities–those that engage readers.

Try this: Ask yourself what you like about a good “story” and then see if those answers don’t fit true stories as much as fictional ones. (Hey, even if your favorite author is Stephen King and one of your answers is “blood-curdling horror,” there are plenty of historical accounts to be found in that category!)

Here’s what my answers would be:

  • Entertainment! I’m serious, folks. This is Number One. Let’s be realistic–when you read a good story, isn’t your first priority to enjoy the experience? Don’t you want to escape into it, be transported to some other place and time? I do. Good, fact-based writing and suspenseful, exciting writing should NOT be mutually exclusive. No one likes to be bored. And History is the tale of the human experience–is that not the most suspenseful story that has ever existed?
  • A clear arc–a beginning, middle, and end where something happens or changes along the way. I don’t want to feel the same at the end of the story as I did at the beginning. I need to learn something, understand a different perspective, feel moved. Good historical stories carry the reader along to a new place.
  • Emotion and humanity. David McCullough, another Pulitzer winner and historical story-teller extraordinaire, recounts a great definition of story by the novelist E.M. Forster here: Paraphrasing Forster, McCullough says: “If I say to you the king died and then the queen died, that’s a sequence of events. If I say the king died and the queen died of grief, that’s a story. That’s human. That calls for empathy on the part of the teller of the story and of the reader or listener to the story.”
  • Fine details and vivid imagery. Generalities are boring: The town was settled in 1795. Give readers the specifics they need to envision the story: On the steep banks of the Tellatale River, where trout lazed around waiting to be caught, Chattertown was born in a flurry of settlement in the pre-dawn of the 19th century. Now, which story do you want to keep reading? (Okay, I’m having fun here, but you get the idea!)
  • An underlying theme or message laced with causes and consequences, and context. Why are you telling this historical story? Why should people care? The story must mean something. Examine causes and effects, draw conclusions, place your story in its milieu. Nothing in history happened without reason or in a vacuum.

If you work these qualities into your MCHP narrative (or, if you like, “The Story of [Town]”) and exhibits — all the while basing your writing on comprehensive research and an allegiance to the facts — you should have little problem engaging the hearts and minds of your readers.

About mainechp

Maine Community Heritage Project at Maine Historical Society
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