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Five things: writing historical non-fiction

Fiona Macdonald shares her expertise in bringing history to life

Genre: History
Audience: Writers

Last updated: 21 May 2021

Hook ‘em in …

Ever thought of yourself as medieval seamstress, creating pretty pictures with her needle? No? Well, according to some linguists, ‘historia’ originally meant ‘embroidery’, the entertaining details added to an already well-known tale. If that information caught your attention, then you’ve just fallen for a ‘hook’: a device at the start of a book, chapter or page to stimulate the reader’s interest and encourage them to read on. It can be helpful.

Make a Mental Map

You know the story  - the historical narrative – that you’re hoping to tell. You’ve researched  people, places, contexts. You know what went before and (usually) what happened afterwards. You’re aware of other historians and their theories. But, very probably, your readers won’t know any of this. So help them. Provide them with guides through the information they’ll find in your book. A good contents page is essential; so is a scene-setting introduction. Consider summary paragraphs, ‘the story so far’. Include mini-biographies of the most important characters, or lists of battles or discoveries and inventions. A conclusion helps too – even if you don’t call it that – and I don’t think I’ve ever written a children’s history book without both a glossary and a timeline.

Check, Check and Check again

You can get far too close to your subject. So close that you come to think that you ‘know’ what happened in the past. Well, you don’t. You weren’t there. You do, of course have opinions: your own take on the topic, maybe a fresh interpretation. No doubt these are fascinating, but it’s all too easy for them to develop a life of their own. So anchor your text in external reality wherever possible. Check the evidence for your statements. Find reliable sources – ideally two or more – for each main point in your book. And don’t rely on Messers Wikipedia or Google.

It’s Not about You

Readers need to know if you are a member of the flat earth society or believe that the moon is made of green cheese. That way, they can approach your text with caution. But otherwise, history writing is not about you. Your task is to link the past to the present. Of course, your personality, experience, training and so on will all be intimately involved in the writing, but they should be at the service of the reader. Think about who the book is for - children or adults, local or international, expert or newbie – and shape your text to suit them.

Last but not least...

Ask, ‘Do I need words?’

Of course you do, you’re a writer. But from a reader’s point of veiw, some information is much better conveyed by pictures, charts or diagrams. A good family tree is worth a dozen pages of rambling text. And  bullet-points, boxes, sidebars and lists can all clarify, simplify, amplify, prioritise.