Writing history


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Workshop encouraging writers to use imagination, inspiration & information for writing history.

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Writing history

  1. 1. Writing History (and teaching history): The Three-Legged Stool Approach The three “i’s” The three “r’s”Ellen A. Brown The Virginia History Exchange www.vahistoryexchange.comCommunity Archives of Southwest Virginia, LLC mynewestchapter@verizon.net
  2. 2. The Three R’s (of history education) • readin’ • ‘ritin’ • researchJust like in the days of a one-room school house, when a teacher tried hard tomake sure her pupils learned readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic… there are threesimilar components of an education in history. In order to write about a specifictime and place in the past, one must combine the three elements above: 1)read what other historians have written, 2) track down whatever information isavailable, and get them organized, and 3) weave a compelling narrative.
  3. 3. A recipe for writing good history …(incl. historic fiction, biographies, short stories, family histories, museum tour guides, and scholarly monograms) Like a cook preparing a savory dish, a writer must make use of the three i’s… • Inspiration • Ingredients (Information) • Imagination
  4. 4. InspirationInspiration for historians can come from many sources, including…• a batch of old letters• a journal written by an ancestor• an unbelievable family story• a legendary or heroic deed• an unsolved mystery• curiosity about why certain people acted a certain way
  5. 5. Ingredients (Information)• Primary source documents – journals, letters, newspaper clippings, oral histories, court documents, marriage certificates, etc.• Secondary sources – local histories, text books, dissertations, Wikipedia, other encyclopedias, family histories, internet data bases (Ancestry.com), movies and videos,• Other (we’ll talk about this more…)
  6. 6. ImaginationIt takes imagination…• to produce a setting… the sounds, smells, weather, and landscape (e.g. the battlefield, on the evening Stonewall Jackson was shot)• to create well-rounded characters, speech patterns, clothing, beliefs, everyday occupations, etc. (e.g. wife, children, neighbors, and slaves in Patrick Henry’s household)• to weave these characters into a web of relationships, and their actions into a plot…encouraging the reader to feel suspense, excitement, and empathy… (e.g. Boo Radley, in To Kill A Mockingbird)
  7. 7. Teaching History Through Literature (reading both fiction and non-fiction)• Bud Robertson’s biography of Stonewall Jackson• Anne Rinaldi, Or Give me Death, about Patrick Henry’s family• Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn• To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee• Cold Mountain, by Charles Frasier• Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott• The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne• Follow the River, by James Alexander Thom
  8. 8. About non-fictionExamples of not-so-good history• Trans-Alleghany Pioneers, by John Hale (written in 1884 – perfect example the romantic period in regional history)• A Girl’s Life in Virginia, by Letitia Burwell (about the good ole days on the plantation)• Suggest other examples…
  9. 9. Research – the indirect methodWhile looking for information about Southwest Virginia in the 1770s and 80s, with an interest in William Ingles, Andrew Lewis, William Preston, etc., I discovered:• Travels in North America, by the Marquis de Chastellux, with delightful descriptions of Natural Bridge, Monticello, etc.• Cradle of America, by Peter Wallenstein• William Fleming, Patriot, by Clare White• The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790, by Rhys Isaac
  10. 10. The amazing world of internet research…• the Pennsylvania Gazettes (from about 1730-1790) are all digitized, and in a searchable database. Same is true of the Virginia Gazettes…• The Chalkley Chronicles (records of the Augusta County Court House) are all available online. It is possible to search for the names of early settlers, many of whom showed up in a court record in the early 1750s, but then disappeared during the French and Indian Wars…Where did they go?• Genealogy data bases (Ancestry.com, etc.) offer thrilling access to POSSIBLE family connections…but it gets overwhelming. It is a tool that requires practice and caution…
  11. 11. Examples of Writing (Do they meet our three legged-stool criteria?)• Stonewall Jackson, by James L. Robertson• Cold Mountain, by Charles Frasier• Or Give Me Death, by Anne Rinaldi• Mr. Roosevelt’s Steamboat, by Mary Helen Dohan• If Trouble Don’t Kill Me, by Ralph Berrier• Roanoke, Virginia, 1882-1912: Magic City of the New South, by Rand Dotson• Others?
  12. 12. Three-legged Stool – A SummaryIf you are writing a short story, novel, or family history…try to do the work of an historian by:• reading• researching• and then writing, carefully incorporating the historical contextWhen writing your narrative, try to make sure it combines…• imagination (breathing life into the assembled facts)• inspiration (having suspense, drama, curiosity)• information (carefully gathered from reliable sources)When in doubt, go back to a classic (like Huckleberry Finn) for inspiration…and that should help you keep your balance!