Online Course

Advanced Historical Narratives: Crafting the Best Material

January 10 - March 20, 2022

Level Advanced

Hone your approach, pinpoint your main characters, organize your story, and bring the past to life.

Additional Information

Turning research and history into vibrant narrative presents some unique challenges, such as employing speculation effectively, using details to best advantage, and writing with your own style.

In this class, you’ll learn how to transform history into lively prose using the tools of creative nonfiction. We’ll break down the most crucial elements of writing scenes, such as using characters and dialogue. This class is suitable for writers at any stage of a project. Those who have already begun, or even completed, gathering historical materials can submit parts of their work for review by the class and the instructor. If you’re just formulating ideas or beginning to research, you’ll be able to refine your approach, pinpoint your main characters, organize your prospective piece, and begin writing in class.

Recommended prerequisite: Historical Narratives

Course Schedule

Week 1: The Historical Narrative Toolbox

We’ll begin by reviewing the basic tools of creative nonfiction – characters and scenes – as they apply to historical narrative. We’ll talk about the balance between narrative scenes (the stories you will tell) and exposition (the basic facts and background that readers need to learn), which is all-important in historical narrative. We’ll also review some essential building blocks of historical narrative, such as common methods for creating scenes out of raw material.

Week 2: Beginning Scenes

Where should you start your piece – with what scene, and at what moment in time? How do you write scenes to keep readers intrigued and informed? What’s the most important thing that happened to your main characters, and what did that event mean for the rest of your characters’ lives? We’ll explore ideal beginnings and opening scene alternatives, as well as the importance of being specific and explicit. You will post a brief part of your research that is detailed enough for a scene and draft the opening paragraph(s) of a scene based on that research material.

Week 3: Crucial Characters

What makes a character a main character? How do you best convey your characters’ lives to the reader? How can you organize your historical material to discover major and minor characters? And should you be a character in your story? This week we’ll look at best ways to show your characters in action, and why it’s vital to stay in a character’s point of view. You will turn in a historical narrative piece – either the first part of a longer piece, or a standalone shorter piece—for critique by the class and instructor.

Week 4: Creating Dialogue From Historical Sources

Turn diary entries, personal letters, newspaper accounts, trial transcripts, and other historical sources into a character’s speech (or thoughts) inside your scenes. What if you have no sources for dialogue or thoughts directly from your main characters? We’ll use examples from published works, and practice with our own historical material, to show how source material can be used to make your characters’ own words live on the page – or how to get around any gaps in the record.

Week 5: Finding Historical Materials And Using Them Most Effectively

At some point, research has to end and writing begin – and the amount of material you’ve collected can sometimes be overwhelming. Where should you look for the best material – and how do you decide what to use once you have it all? How can you use this material subtly, so it doesn’t overwhelm the story? How much of history should you include? You will post an excerpt from your historical material that seems to be mere facts, without colorful incident, and then try your hand at turning it into the liveliest prose possible.

Week 6: Using Speculation: When, Why, And How

No matter the story, there are moments – sometimes crucial instances – where you can’t know what happened. Learn how to speculate confidently, usefully, and unobtrusively, so that your story continues without a pause – and stays accurate. Explore how to fill in gaps in scenes and in time, so that your story keeps moving. You will also have the opportunity to post your historical narrative piece for critique by the class and instructor – either the second part of a longer piece, or a standalone shorter piece.

Week 7: Using Details To Best Advantage

Stories thrive on the specific, so details are crucial. What details should you use, and which should you discard? How do you use details without overwhelming the story? How do details create character? Explore how to sift the vast trove of historical detail for the parts most useful to your particular historical narrative. Post a brief excerpt from your historical materials and choose which details would be best to use in a scene – and what they convey to the reader.

Week 8: Writing With Your Own Style

You’re working hard to keep your story true to history, but you’re still the author. Your aim is to do more than just string facts together, so your own words are paramount. How do you make this story your own without overstepping your bounds? When is it time for your own prose to stand out?

Week 9: Organizing Your Scenes Into A Coherent Story

Long or short, your historical narrative needs to be organized for greatest effect. Which scenes should you include, and which events merit only a brief mention? What comes first, second, or last? What type of organization serves your story best? This week, you’ll post your historical narrative piece for critique by the class and instructor – either the third part of a longer piece, a standalone shorter piece, or a single piece that you have been preparing throughout the class.

Week 10: Critiquing And Revising

Finishing your piece means making sure you’ve included all the most important parts of your story, in the most useful order, and that you’ve helped the reader best see the meaning you’ve discovered in this historical narrative. This week includes a comprehensive checklist to help you with one of the hardest tasks a writer faces: evaluating the success of your own work.


View Complete Syllabus

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Please Note

It is not uncommon for classes to fill up before the end of early registration, particularly in the last few days before the deadline. If you know for certain that you wish to take a particular class, we recommend registering early. If you'd like to be added to a waitlist for a sold-out class, please email our director of education, Sharla Yates, at [email protected].

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Education FAQs

  • How do I find my course archive?

    All course work is saved in Wet.Ink. When the course closes, you can find the archive by logging in to your account, and choosing “Past Classes.” Archives include course content (lectures, readings, writing prompts, etc.), your posts and writing submissions, and any feedback given on your writing. The course archive will not include your classmates’ writing submissions.

  • What do the course levels mean?

    FUNDAMENTALS—open to all levels.
    Our fundamentals courses are designed for those who are new to writing or new to creative nonfiction, as well as those who could benefit from a back-to-basics review on how to effectively and intentionally use elements of the writer’s craft.

    INTERMEDIATE—prerequisites suggested. 
    Our intermediate courses are designed for writers who have some experience either in the genre or CNF’s courses. Past course participation is not required, but we do recommend starting with one of our fundamentals courses, especially Foundations of Creative Nonfiction.

    ADVANCED—prerequisites for enrollment. 
    Our advanced courses are for writers who have completed two previous online courses (not including self-guided courses) with Creative Nonfiction (one must be an intermediate level course).

  • What makes CNF’s online courses different from other online programs?

    Flexibility
    Some online programs work on a “synchronous” model, which requires you to be online at an assigned time each week. The asynchronous model used in our classes means that you do not have to be online at any particular time of day, and can approach the class assignments at your own pace throughout the week based on your schedule. While some optional events, such as class video conferences, do take place at a specific time, the majority of class activities can be completed according to your schedule.

    Intimate Classes
    Classes are small—limited to 14 students per section—which means you’ll receive individual attention and feedback on your work.

    Experienced Instructors
    Good writing instructors not only need to be skilled writers, but also need to have experience in teaching what they know to others. That’s why all of our instructors are professional writers with extensive teaching experience.

    Substantial and Meaningful Writing Assignments
    Many online writing programs ask you to complete short writing exercises each week, and only near the end of the class are you invited to write a single essay or chapter. At Creative Nonfiction, we recognize the value of exercises, but also believe that completing an essay or chapter is the best way for developing writers to really explore how all the elements of creative nonfiction work together. Writing complete pieces also leaves you with a sense of accomplishment and with work that you can share when the class is completed. For this reason, in our classes you are invited to submit longer essays multiple times during a course. See course syllabus for more information.

    Sense of Connection
    We realize that it is difficult to find one’s writing community—which is why we now offer every new student membership to a Community Page where you can meet with other CNF students, during and after class.

  • What day and time is my online course?

    Our courses run asynchronously; meaning, you will NOT need to be online at any particular time. Assignments for CNF classes are given on a weekly basis; you should submit each assignment by a given deadline, but in most classes you will have at least an entire week to complete the assignment. We realize that our students live in many different areas and have different work schedules, so classes are designed to be flexible. Courses feature one live conference session, which does require that you be online at a particular time; however, participation in this session is completely optional, and instructors make an effort to offer times that can accommodate most students. This is scheduled by the instructor after class begins.If you are not able to participate in the live conference you will still be able to view a recording of it during the remaining weeks of the class. Please note that there are no video conferences in boot camp courses.

  • When do you offer courses? How long are they?

    Our terms include 5- and 10-week courses and run in fall (September-December), winter (January-March), and spring (April-June). In summer (July-August), we offer only 5-week courses.