Monday, November 21, 2011

Study History!


Manuscript Detail
The other day, during a particularly long car ride, I was talking with my wife about some of her students. She is a tutor and covers a wide range of subjects from basic reading and shapes to advanced math and biology. I don’t know how she does it, jumping from one subject to the other with different students for hours on end. Frankly, I find these cerebral acrobatics mind-blowing.

However, she rarely is called upon to tutor someone in history. Sad, isn’t it? History tends to be one of those subjects relegated to the realm of the less important, forever doomed to be in the shadow of arithmetic, science and English. Why is that? I know that for most of you reading this, I am preaching to the choir.

Imagine my shock when history entered the discussion on her work with one student. Let me clarify, the student was writing an essay for English class on an historical topic. I am an historical fiction writer and therefore, a fan of both history and English. Anyhow, this student’s assignment was to write a monologue for a character (a Jewish barber), whose customer of the moment is a former Nazi officer. I don’t know about you, but as a writer that is a very loaded, conflict-rich scene to write out. I was never assigned anything like that in my grade ten class.

What struck us was that the student had no idea what to write. Not a clue! As soon as I heard this, the ideas started blasting through my mind: huge internal and external conflict, ripe for the picking. What kind of person is the barber? Was the Nazi sorry for what he had done or been part of? What if they just talked about it, like one of those human book things? Should the barber just slit the Nazi’s throat as he shaved him? Would the barber then be a hero or would he degenerate into the sort of person he had just killed if he did indeed kill him? Would the barber cry? Would the barber remain silent and allow the Nazi to walk away ignorant of the fact that he has just been shaved by a Jew? Etc…etc…etc.
Book of Kells Detail

There were so many possibilities with this student’s writing assignment and yet…nothing. Not an inkling. I don’t think that this is entirely the fault of the student who simply follows the curriculum. History classes have never been up to snuff and English class covers a whole other world of things. As a writer, I know how much I owe to my years of studying history and the importance that study plays in my writing and the development of my characters. History is not just about dates and battles and lost civilizations. More importantly, it is about human nature and human conflict.

Whether you are writing historical fiction or not, the study of history, I believe, is key to writing and creating real, in-depth characters that move the reader. Whether in the past or present, the study of history is important in everyday life because it helps us to understand the human conflicts that have resulted from human nature.

It holds true that by learning about the past we are better able to understand the present and see the future. If people paid more attention to history, the world might not be as mad a place as it is, more often than not. Granted, bad history is responsible for much of the conflict going on today; a discussion of looking at and letting go of the past in order to better the future will have to be left for another time.

'Plato's Academy' - Michelangelo
My point here is that history is an invaluable tool for any writer, of any genre, because it sheds light on all aspects of human nature and gives precious insight into the human condition which is, for the most part, what almost all novels are about.
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