Doodling. Yawning. Wiggling one foot and then the other. Constantly looking up at the clock. Elbow on desk. Resting my head in one hand. Trying not to fall asleep. Secretly checking my Bonne Bell lipstick in a tiny purse mirror. These are memories of history classes I suffered through in Jr. High and High School. History to me was drier than a petrified piece of Melba toast. Ugh. My history teachers probably felt more like doodling than teaching. I think they were watching the hands on the clock crawl right along with me. These teachers did not seem to enjoy their subject of expertise. Monotone voices. Dates, names, time lines. Memorization without meaning. History was dead. No wonder I got “C’s in misery. Oh, I mean history.
Then, I met my husband. This man is a walking history book. No, wait. He’s an entire history section in the library! He’s anything but boring when he recounts events from history. I especially love hearing him tell Old Testament stories. Where was he when I was in Sunday school? Bob isn’t a writer but he’s a great storyteller. Because history is an exciting subject to him, he makes it “come alive” for me. When a teacher loves the subject, so will the students—and when a writer loves the subject, so will the reader.
It’s a Monday morning and I’m sitting at a table with members of Wordsmiths, our writing critique group. One author begins to read from her historical fiction middle grade novel. Suddenly, and without warning, I’m yanked into the woods alongside an escaping slave girl. I almost spill my coffee. There’s no time to go back and get it. I’m IN the story, running with the girl. As she tries to find a place to hide, I’m looking too. I can hear the baying of the hound as he closes in, and can almost feel the girl’s chest heaving and burning from breathing so hard. Her face stings as sharp branches slap against her cheeks. I “feel ” the cuts. I’m inside of this character’s head. Hearing her thoughts. Feeling her fear. I won’t leave this girl’s side through the entire book because I care about her. That makes me her friend. I am her reader and want to know history through this slave girl’s eyes.
Now THAT is the way to make history “come alive”! It’s writing that pulls you into lives, allowing you to experience their struggles and victories. YOU are there. It puts a face on history. History IS people. People like you and me. Any teacher who leads children to believe that history is boring should think about teaching a doodling-for-fun class instead.
Historical fiction writers, you know what to do. Without warning, yank your reader into the story. Make them hit the ground running. They’ll never look back and they’ll certainly never look at history the same way.
Contributed by Sheryl Crawford