Thursday, May 16, 2013

Want to write great fiction? Know history

Lately, I've been studying World War 2 and the Holocaust . It has been a dark study and difficult for me at times because I'm a pretty upbeat and optimistic person and it's hard to look at the evil and dark things of this world. But one good thing that has come of it, for me, is an increased understanding of how and why people do bad things, become evil. How weaknesses become vices, become sins, become horrors.

To tell honest fiction, fiction that inspires for good, then we as writers must understand evil and be able to portray it so others will recognize it for what it is. Such classics as Lord of the Flies and 1984 endure, not because they are fun to read but because they help us feel repulsed, wrong, angry. In another post here at the Cove, I talked about books of that sort as "broken", meaning they show evil winning, or good losing, or the world left in a wrong state. These books still can, and do, inspire us -- they prompt us, urge us to walk away from their pages with a determination to fix the wrongs of the world.

When I was fifteen, I lived for a few months in Germany, and as part of that stay I visited the Dachau Concentration Camp. It was a shock for me to realize the extent of man's inhumanity to man. To see gas chambers and firing walls and cremation ovens, so institutionalized, so systematic. To see pictures and film of the walking dead, dressed in rags, skin stretched tight over skeletons. Of the tortures and atrocities, the human experimentation committed by Nazi socialists on the "inferior" races.

There is a huge statue in one corner of the compound. From far away, it looked like a giant iron section of barbed wire. When I got closer, it became clear that it was a sculpture of twisted human bodies. As I stepped up to the base of the artwork, I already felt to echo what the plaque said, written in a dozen languages: "Never Again".

That creative work marshaled the feelings I had from viewing everything at Dachau. It helped me feel a resolve to move forward and always be on guard against tyranny. That is what great art can do, it can change us and thereby change the world.

Wow, right?

Knowing history helps us become better creators in so many ways. In writing fiction, we are trying to tell the story of mankind from its heart, which may arguably be as true -- or truer -- than telling it as history does, from its head and its hands. Understanding all sorts of things from history helps us to do this. I've learned this from my son whose passion is history. We were watching The Hobbit a few nights ago when he burst out with, "Hey, the Elves are patterned after the Greeks and Romans! Just look at that architecture, and that helmet is totally Spartan!" which led to a discussion about whether the Dwarves represent the Mongols or Vikings or what. It enriched our experience to see the links between history and fiction. They were links that Tolkien certainly intended.

 I remember once hearing someone ask Orson Scott Card what sci-fi books he had enjoyed recently, and he replied that he didn't read much of it anymore, but instead read biographies and histories to inform his writing. I didn't really get that at the time -- but I do now.

So how has history deepend your appreciation for story?


  1. Wow is for sure, Amber! Thanks for a wonderful and thought-provoking post. My daughter is constantly sharing things she learns in her history class at school because, "this would make a great story for a book!" I think one of the primary functions of story is to allow us to draw on the acquired knowledge and experience of the entire race. Story will unify us. It will move us forward. It is the only thing that can save us.

  2. My latest book was drawn from a real person in the 1600's, and as I researched the time and especially the social and political conflicts, so many ideas came flooding in. It was easy to find the theme, and I could see so many possibilities. Every writer wants to write a story that has some depth to it, and nothing does that better than using the conflicts/resolutions/lessons that have been learned over eons of time. There are so many interesting cultures to learn about, too. I just read a children's story called "Shipwrecked!: The True Adventures of a Japanese Boy" by Rhonda Blumberg. It's a true first-hand description of the time in Japan when their borders were closed to all outsiders for hundreds of years. Their people weren't allowed to leave or interact with any outsiders, on pain of death. It tells what happened when a Japanese boy was swept away during a storm, spent years in Western nations, and then tried to get back in. Fascinating - and talk about giving ideas! Anyway, I agree. History can be a huge boon to any writer. Thanks for a great post!


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