Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Telling History through Story

Kathryn Page Camp

When I was a child, I hated history. Well, hated may be too strong a word. It’s probably more accurate to say that history bored me. But I loved reading, and I loved stories.
I also loved what I used to call the "blue true books.” They were biographies of famous Americans that concentrated on the childhood years, and they had a blue cloth cover at that time. As the picture shows, the cover has changed over the years, and the series now has an official name: “Childhood of Famous Americans.” I’m guessing that many of the incidents in them are pure fiction, at least for the earlier books that would have been harder to research.
But I learned something about history because it was told as an engaging story.
These days I enjoy history in most forms, but I still prefer it as story. My library contains an ever-increasing number of memoirs and autobiographies and first-person accounts of historical events. When those primary sources aren’t available, or when they need supplementing, I turn to well-written biographies and other secondary sources. And I still read the "blue true books" when I come across them at used book sales or museum book stores.
Even as an adult, I learn best when history is told as story. That’s a good lesson for authors who write history as either fiction or non-fiction. If you want to capture the attention of a reluctant audience, use story. Don’t just write about the 4th of July—write about people who lived it.
One other caveat. Even when writing fiction, the story must be historically realistic. Not every detail needs to be accurate, but it must be true-to-life.
I recently heard about a novel set at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. It sounded interesting, so I went on Amazon and read the reviews. They said it was well told but historically inaccurate. The author had the Americans liberating the camp instead of the Soviets. So even though it might have been an engaging story, I didn’t buy it.
But as long as you keep the important details intact, you can broaden your audience by telling history through story.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Her most recent book, Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal (KP/PK Publishing 2013), is a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection. 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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