Writing Fiction as an Exercise in History Education

The literary world has much to offer the study of history.  While I do not mean to suggest that novels should replace academic history texts in higher education (though I’d be less concerned if they replaced many of the textbooks I’ve seen), good historical fiction, or fiction written historically, can augment our developing understanding of historical eras.  Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” or Charles Dickens’s “Oliver Twist” are stories that inform us about our eras of study.

The reverse is also true.  The effort of research and study of primary documents provides a bounty of fruitful forays into one’s imagination.  Without imagination, being a historian is almost impossible since one is compiling a reconstruction of a past era with bits and pieces of information that have been handed down–much has been lost, naturally.  Historians with an inclination towards writing do the world a service; whether they choose to write fiction or not, others will still recreate the past at will but not necessarily with any accuracy; I submit Dan Brown as Exhibit A.

In other words, historians have the done the research and have the imagination to produce fiction that enlightens the world on multiple levels.  They also have a number of other responsibilities that make writing full length novels a challenge given the time available to them.  Many may also doubt their abilities, having a healthy respect for the demands of writing.  Still, where time can be found, the effort would be rewarding for both other educators and readers in the general populace.

By the same token, however, the assignment of fiction writing as part of a larger research project is also a fruitful exercise for the inexperienced history students.  As a multi-disciplinary project, it is incredibly valuable: not only do English teachers have the opportunity to teach them about literature and creative writing, but the History teacher has the opportunity to teach both historical research and test cultural assumptions that they might make.  A character has to behave as she might in the studied era, not in the 21st century; he has to communicate as he would in his era, not in this post-modern information age; she has to exhibit an education commiserate with what her era would teach her, not what she would learn in today’s democracies.

This is such a valuable mental exercise not only for budding historians, or at least young history students, but also for young people who are learning how to find their way in a world that supports many different cultures and mores.  It is an exercise in understanding and in imaginative reconstruction based on available evidence.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Fiction

6 responses to “Writing Fiction as an Exercise in History Education

  1. Aaron

    Interesting proposal. I would you assign history/ fiction to students?

    • At the university level, a multi-disciplined class could be taught as an elective and be team-taught with two professors of the same era from the history and English departments. Thus, one might have a “Writing Medieval historical fiction,” though Medieval could be replaced with “Victorian England” or “Colonial America” or whatever interests coincided among faculty. The historian would direct the research and provide background on the era while the writer coached them on writing fiction. Students of both disciplines would benefit.

      In high school and junior high/middle school, assignments could be done a handful of ways: a) assign a creative writing story in conjunction with primary source(s) that ask students to write what happened before, next, or from someone else’s perspective of the same events; b) a larger collaborative project between history and English departments that ask students to research an era and construct a realistic circumstance or event that is illustrative of the period or connected to a historical circumstance or event.

  2. Further discussion from History Times (although the article does not adequately pursue the questions it raises): http://www.historytoday.com/jerome-de-groot/signposts-historical-fiction

  3. Pingback: Gaming the Past: How to Teach History with Video Games | Brush off the dust! History now!

  4. Pingback: Smart Summer Fun: 30 Ideas for History Dorklets | Brush off the dust! History now!

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