Course Syllabus

Historical Narratives

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Bring the past to life! Get insight into how to translate facts and research into vivid characters and scenes.

Have you ever been fascinated by a true historical story? The tools of creative nonfiction are exactly right for turning historical finds into vivid characters and scenes. Even when you can’t interview your characters or directly observe them in action, you can still write great nonfiction narratives from the rich materials of history. Whether you’re just beginning or deep into researching a piece (especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the amount of material you could use), this class will show you how to bring the past alive. You’ll learn how to find the best characters and scenes in what you’ve dug up, how to organize your information, and how to make it live on the page.

We’ll look at published pieces of historical nonfiction, discuss your work in progress, and critique it in detail. You may choose to write the crucial beginning chapter of a longer piece or work on a section in the middle where you’ve been stuck. Alternatively, you may work on a smaller historical nonfiction piece that can be completed for the end of the class. To get the most out of the class, you should have a subject in mind and at least one source of historical material. This could be a personal source like a diary or letters, material from a publicly-available archive, and so on. Each week there will also be a spot to post raw materials and early-draft portions of your pieces for discussion and critique; optional critique time will continue for three weeks after the class ends.

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 prompts and/or assignments
  • opportunities to submit a full-length essay or essays for instructor and/or peer review (for a total of 3,500 words)
  • 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)

To create a better classroom experience for all, you are required to participate weekly to receive instructor feedback on your work.


WEEK 1: The tools of creative nonfiction

One of the key skills of writing historical nonfiction is learning how to turn research materials into characters, scenes, and dialogue, creating a story that is exciting but still true to the facts. We’ll take a first look at these elements, and invite you to begin using your own materials for your own scenes, for critique.

WEEK 2: Finding the best material

Some historical projects yield a glut of research material, while for others source material may be hard to find. This week you’ll discuss online and in-person sources for historical materials, how to select the right material out of an overwhelming collection, prioritizing sources that lead to narratives, and how to find the story among the facts. There is an optional exercise to demonstrate how historical material may be used in variant ways, even by the experts.

WEEK 3: Beginnings

The beginning of a historical narrative is the most important part; it sets the tone and scene, and determines whether your readers will follow your story to its end. This week you’ll work on finding focus and main character(s), setting scenes, and introducing themes. You’ll also consider the balance between narrative and information, learning how to entice readers while introducing research material, and how to inform readers without breaking the narrative. You will use this material to construct the opening paragraph of your opening scene – the most crucial part of a historical narrative piece.

WEEK 4: Organizing the rest

Writing a historical narrative is typically a long process, so you will spend this week planning for how you will continue to write your piece. The class will discuss outlining and prioritizing scenes for a narrative arc, concentrating on the small/specific within a large amount of material, and picking characters and scenes large and small.

WEEK 5: Critiquing and revising your work

This week you’ll look at how to revise your writing as you continue and complete your ongoing project. You’ll also go over tips for telling whether a piece is completed, a checklist for revision, and best methods for self-critique. You will submit a completed draft of a scene, essay, or chapter of up to 3,500 words.