Why History Students Should be Made to Write a Short Story

I believe that history students should perform this excercise - set in a period they are studying - at least once a year.

Writing a short story does two things. Firstly it makes the student think about the past as a living, daily reality. Secondly, it wonderfully employs 'active learning'.

Let us begin. The central character: What is his, or her name, and the names of the rest of the family? What names were typically in use at that date, and why? Would the names belong to Catholic saints, or might they be biblical, Puritan names perhaps? I myself discovered, with no small delight, a medieval man whose first name was Pentecost, and a seventeenth century Puritan named Oh Be Joyful Johnson. In any case, the student will need to scan some records, and think about the implications of the naming process.

What was the family home like, the furniture; what cooking implements were used, what food? How did you warm the house, how cook? How did the smoke escape? What did you see when you went out of your front door, what did you smell and hear? As the story begins, what's the weather? Perhaps it's raining. What did you wear in the rain? How did the clothes feel on your skin? Rule number one of all storytelling is to attend to the five senses.

Are you living in a village, town, county? Are there counties in this period? What are the administrative structures within which you live your life, and how do they affect you as you go about your business every day?

From small things to larger. What are our characters' concerns? Suppose we are in the Middle Ages, when everyone believed in the Catholic faith. But just a moment... Did they? If the Church troubled to inveigh against heretics, doubters and unbelievers, presumably such people must have existed. Was the world really so simple then? Once one starts trying to describe human characters in a story, such questions soon occur.

Or it's a time of civil war. If we're writing a story, we need some personal drama, some torn emotions. Was everyone in a given area on the same side, or might the family be split over the war, perhaps? Did that happen? Let's find out. How did it feel to be at war with your brother?

Well, I have laboured the point quite long enough. But when one starts to write a story, wonderful things occur. The student will soon have to ask questions, check facts, research, perhaps challenge assumptions. Whether tackling such a project individually, or in teams, students will actively experience history as human, complex, and engaging.

Of course, if all these students start writing stories, I may be inviting professional competition. I comfort myself, however, with one thought. While the process is fun, it's very hard work. That should put them off taking it too far!

Did You Know?
In Manhattan in the early to mid nineteenth century, scores of pigs roamed the streets – about 20,000 of them at peak population in the early 1820’s, a ratio of roughly one pig to every five humans ! Many of them belonged to families. The city was quickly growing in the nineteenth century – in population and wealth disparity. Despite rapid urbanization, non-wealthy New Yorkers continued raising hogs as a means of surviving. A family could always slaughter one of its pigs to feed itself, or sell one of them since pork was a staple of the American diet. Why pigs? Other animals weren’t quite so compatible with urban life. People could let their pigs wander the streets, rummage through trash for the piles of spoiled food that was left out on the street during the day, and count on them to return home in the evening !

Please choose your regional preference: