Writing the Past

Bringing the dead to life is not easy work, but neither is overcoming the dry reputation history books have earned through the years. Narrative historians seek to do both by presenting the past with emotion and suspense previously found only in fiction. At the October Pensters meeting, author John Sledge addressed what he called the “historian’s challenge” of weaving facts together to keep the reader turning the page.

While the typical approach to history involves reflecting from a comfortably removed distance, it also forfeits much of the tension that draws readers into a story. The narrative historian takes a different route, creating a mental time machine to travel back and live in the moment. While researching the Civil War, John found himself aware of the environment of the day: “Everybody is in a hurry. Everything is half broken. Everything is dirty. Nobody is at ease.”

That feeling of uncertainty is a key aspect when it comes to connecting with readers. Even those who recall the outcome from middle school history class will have a hard time not turning the page as characters attempt to forge their way through the obstacles of the past.

sledgeAnother challenge can be tying together a variety of seemingly unconnected characters. Sledge discussed one such instance from his book “The Mobile River” where two historical accounts took place on the same plot of land. Though separated by a hundred years this common thread intertwines the events for the reader.

No matter the genre, authors who incorporate the senses in their writing paint a more vivid picture for their audience. John captured this perfectly in discussing how he chose to combine the themes, personal essays and stories in his book. The goal was to tell of the past in a way that continually brought readers back where they “never really lose the sense of the smells of the river.”


Submitted by: Jessica Trippe

Photo by: Cleveland Brown