Some time ago, I conducted a group interview on how to make history interesting to learn . The interview was very well received, and I personally learned a great deal. I therefore decided to expand my questions and give these creative, thoughtful experts a room to do what they do best: think, consider and write.
The first expert is David Leonhardt, an author and blogger, sharing with me his thoughts of history, especially how it impacts his work.
Q. If I say the word “history”, what would come immediately to your mind?
A. David Leonhardt (President, THGM Writers)
When I hear the word “history” I think of storytelling. In fact, that’s what the word means. Go back a couple centuries, and nobody was using the modern truncated “story” form of the word.
I am a storyteller. When I blog, I am almost always recounting some story, rather than just listing the steps to follow to get some task done. So I am a big fan of history.
I recently ghostwrote a non-fiction novel. It’s not history in the sense that most people would think of it, but it was a series of events that happened, and that is history. I blogged about the research tools I used to bring the story to life. One of those tools is Weather Underground’s weather hindcast tool. It is aptly named “Historical Weather”.
Weather has its own history, and it has played an immensely powerful role in human history. It has been the decisive factor in many battles. It has been the cause of the rise and fall of agriculture-based empires. It has served as a portent to many decision-makers.
In the book I wrote, I used weather history to set the mood.
When the weather was dim and overcast, it set a sombre tone to the story.
When clouds kept the stars out of site, it helped confirm the hopelessness the protagonist felt.
When things were looking bleak, the sunny day was…not mentioned. No, a good storyteller doesn’t tell the whole story. I used historical weather only when it confirmed the emotions and the mood of the human history. I left it out when it would have spoiled the mood. Weather as a metaphor for mood.
In that same novel, I included well-known historical events as points of reference for the readers. For example, including Hurricane Katrina and the attack on the Twin Towers gave readers a sense that this story is real, that it fits into history as they know it. There are plenty of dates in the novel, but people remember the stories better than the dates.
What people seem to dislike most about history is remembering dates. Dates are only numerical markers of a timeline of events. They are important for comparing multiple events, what happened first, what happened last. But all those numbers spoil a good story.
Imagine Lord of the Rings full of dates.
Imagine The Firm full of dates.
Imagine 1984 full of dates. OK, bad example.
History teachers are too often guilty of bogging down the story with dates. Only storytellers should teach history. The dates should be used only as a teaching aid, not as something to memorize.