Don’t Rely on History : Freelance Writing Tip #34

If you’re writing an article, novel, or game, sometimes you will want to utilize historical-based people, places or events to fuel your creativity and your ideas. While history offers you something invaluable–a focused area for you to research–writing historical fiction, non-fiction, or games can be problematic depending upon what your intent is.

For example, is your intent to entertain? If yes, then you may want to take liberties with history to modify your plot or story. When you entertain your audience, you need some elements that may not be apparent through a researcher’s lens. Characters may seem larger than life, conspiracies may seem darker, and everyday activities become extraordinary. Although we’ve all heard the phrase, “The truth is stranger than fiction,” the cold, hard facts are—If an event happened in the past, then you may not ever know the big picture.

Take for example this native american permanent settlement in Wisconsin known as Aztalan. The history of Aztalan is rather sketchy and, interestingly enough, the Wikipedia entry for Aztalan downplays the questions that this site offers. Here’s the amazing part about this settlement–it’s a mystery, plain and simple. Over 500 years had passed since the settlement was abandoned, and no one knew why.

Now say this site has piqued your curiosity, and you either want to write a story, an article, or an adventure that revolves around this settlement. You have a few choices, you can either write like a historical textbook (especially if you’re concerned about the preservation of history and ancient cultures) or you can make something up. In this case, the fiction aspect would be relatively simple because there is a lot that archaeologists don’t know. Why did people leave? Why did people build a permanent settlement surrounded by well-fortified stockades? Why people build mounds that were not crafted to preserve their dead?

When you use history for fuel, a good thing to keep in mind is to utilize the questions that history is left behind. If your writing “goal” is to be historically accurate, you’ll need to wear the hats of a researcher and archivist. Sadly, the nature of history is that no one will ever know the entire truth of any circumstance, simply because they weren’t there. Sometimes, even if you were, there might be skeptics or conspiracy theorists that poke holes in strange or unusual events. Like most things, “what really happened” is usually the cause for a lot of headaches because there is always room for debate.

Historical accuracy is something that many people feel the need to achieve, but there is one important thing to consider when weighing the pros and cons of your resource materials. Time. You could literally drive yourself insane for years trying to find out every minute detail around key figures like Cleopatra, Aristotle, Michaelangelo or Sitting Bull. The trick is to find a balance between what happened and what you think happened, if you do your job right, your work will be believable like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code or the movie Braveheart.

If you love history, there are many, unexposed areas of human history that are great places to look into and start doing some research. The bonus to writing something based on an area of history you’re mildly interested in? You might just learn something.




August 2007
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