Course Syllabus

Advanced Historical Narratives: Crafting the Best Material

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

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.

How it works:

Each week provides:

  • discussions of assigned readings and other general writing topics with peers and the instructor
  • written lectures and a selection of readings

Some weeks also include:

  • writing exercises and/or prompts
  • opportunities to submit a full-length essay for instructor and/or peer review (up to 2,500 words and typically in weeks 3, 6, and 9)
  • optional video/tele conferences that are open to all students in Week 2 (and which will be available afterwards as a recording for those who cannot participate)

Aside from the live conference, there is no need to be online at any particular time of day. To create a better classroom experience for all, you are required to participate weekly to receive instructor feedback on your work.

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.