Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Bringing History to Life

Kathryn Page Camp
Have you ever been told to “write what you know”? Some writers think that means they should only write what they have directly experienced. But if everyone felt that way, we would have no historical fiction and no biographies of long-dead individuals.

So what does the phrase really mean? I think it has two components.

The first component is research. Assume I want to write a story about the RMS Titanic disaster in 1912. I wasn’t there, so how can I make it realistic?

I can start by getting into the heads of those who were there.

Autobiographies, letters, newspapers, and “as told to” accounts are better than history books for learning what people actually experienced. And for more recent events, interviews can provide additional information by showing the anguish in people's voices and the pauses to compose themselves before talking about losing their fathers or brothers.

The Titanic survivors are all dead by now, so I can’t talk to them. But several wrote books or articles about the experience, and many more were interviewed by newspapers in the days following the disaster. There are even some tapes where you can hear the emotion in the survivors’ voices. These are all resources that a writer can tap into to understand what the participants experienced.

The second component of writing what you know is as simple—or as gut-wrenching—as breaking the experience down and reaching into your own background for related incidents and emotions. How can you portray the feelings of a character waiting to board a life boat or sitting on the ocean and watching the ship go down? He or she would probably have been terrified. But you’ve been afraid, too. Remember the feeling and magnify it. Have you watched a loved one die? Use that. We all experience the same things in different degrees, so take your own reactions and modify them to fit the situation.

I believe in writing what I know. But that doesn’t mean I have to have been there.

Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Her latest book, Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal (KP/PK Publishing 2013) is available from and other retailers. Kathryn is also the author of In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion (FaithWalk Publishing 2006) and numerous articles. You can learn more about Kathryn at

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