Writers as Students of History

Anyone reading my posts on this agency blog will get a sense of my opinion and perspective on the publishing life. Of the fifty or so blog posts I write each year, many connect something in publishing to a historical event or attempt to draw some sort of application or conclusion from the books which were selling at some point in the past.

To be honest, I don’t know how anyone can understand anything without knowing from whence it came. How could I grasp the publishing industry today without some knowledge of what it was before?

I can’t imagine what it would be like to process national and international news every day without some perspective on history. Here’s a little history lesson which will help you understand the world in which we live:

History Lesson #1 – Racial issues in the United States have been divisive for 200+ years. Like all evils, it dates back to the garden…Eden that is.

History Lesson #2 – Tensions between Israel and other people groups in the Middle East go way back. Way, way back.

History Lesson #3 –China was a unified country for over fifteen centuries before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. To think the Chinese won’t take the long view on an issue is rather foolish.

History drives just about everything in book publishing as well. Publishers make decisions about publishing future books based on a historical perspective.

What worked in the past?

Much of the mystery surrounding publishing for aspiring or experienced authors could probably be traced to a lack of historical understanding about the industry.

But today, I am not talking about the industry, but the aspiring author who would like to be considered a professional writer.

Writers need to be students of history. And not just authors of history books or biographies.

Can you imagine working as a journalist in a certain town’s media and having no idea of the town’s history? You would be laughed out of the county.

Most topics found in non-fiction or fiction require some knowledge of history. It could be argued all authors should have substantial knowledge of history.

Context is important, especially for writers of books with Christian themes.

One cannot write about much from Scripture without some knowledge of the historical context of the passage. Few passages can be effectively understood or applied without it.

Writers of historical fiction would have three hundred blank pages if they didn’t thoroughly research the timeframe encompassed by their book.

If you write with the US Civil War as background and have never walked an actual battlefield, you are walking on literal thin ice.

In addition, non-fiction books on marriage or parenting would be less interesting and helpful for the reader if the author had no understanding how family and relationship dynamics have evolved over the decades or how God originally intended them. That’s history.

How can you write about culture without knowledge of how it changed?

Studying not only political history, but voting rights, civil rights, labor laws…or whatever field is best suited to your message will better illuminate your work. Be an expert other people can call on.

How can you suggest a new path for a church leader if you didn’t understand where previous paths led?

The best news about history is it is accessible to everyone. You don’t need to go back to school or invest a lot of money in learning about it.  If you didn’t give much attention to it in high school, don’t worry, it’s never too late to pick it up.

But it will take time.

Can you recall learning something new about a certain topic and getting excited about discovering an entirely different perspective on life? That’s what learning about history can do.

Historical context in any type of writing is a magic ingredient which not only enhances a story or point to be made, but energizes the reader to keep reading as their eyes are opened and perspective expanded.


15 Responses to Writers as Students of History

  1. Sy Garte February 27, 2018 at 5:20 am #

    Great post. Some time ago during an interview, I was asked “As a scientist, do you find that young people haven’t learned enough science?” I answered, “Probably, but more important is the fact that they have not learned nearly enough history. That is the most vital subject for everyone, including scientists”.

    • Carol Ashby February 27, 2018 at 11:35 am #

      Sy, it’s nice to find another scientist here! You are so right that a knowledge of history is important for everyone. Understanding the events and people who shaped where we’ve come from are vital to understanding why we are where we are today.

      • Sy Garte February 27, 2018 at 1:44 pm #

        Nice to meet you, Carol

  2. Kayleen Reusser February 27, 2018 at 5:31 am #

    After interviewing 200 WWII vets, I took a WWII tour of Europe. Seeing Normandy’s expanse of beaches & standing in a foxhole used in Battle of the Bulge made me appreciate their sacrifices for us so much more. It gave my writing of their stories new urgency & validity I hope.

  3. Lillian February 27, 2018 at 5:54 am #

    Wow! How timely this article is for me! I’ve just finished the first chapter of my book, and discovered that weaving an historical framework into the text has made the chapter pop.Thanks, Dan, for giving me the “why.” I will certainly keep this at the forefront for the remaining chapters.

  4. Rebekah Love Dorris February 27, 2018 at 6:04 am #

    Excellently said!

    History teachers rival mothers and pastors in their capacity to shape the culture for good – or for evil.

    A history teacher who bores his students commits a sin that condemns his students to an existence of closeminded ignorance.

    One who inspires his students to dig into the lessons learned the hard way so many times before, teachers like the Thoenes and Paul Harvey, ignite something so deep it births writers and thinkers who make it their job to pass on the same lessons again.

    I have to tell you about one such teacher who’s started sharing such stories on Facebook every Tuesday and Thursday at 11:50am CST. Dr. Bob Petterson recently published The Book of Amazing Stories, and it deserves a spot on every writer’s favorite shelf.

    Here’s the link if you’d like to watch him:


  5. Vanessa Burton February 27, 2018 at 6:14 am #

    I 100% agree with this post. Many don’t like to learn from history or see what others have done, but that’s exactly why we have the Bible! When I first went to seminary and learned about scripture in an intellectual sense, I was dumbfounded and also gained a lot more respect for God as our Creator.

  6. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser February 27, 2018 at 8:44 am #

    I’ve always enjoyed looking for the history that still exists in so many places, hiding in plain sight.

    Things like the traces of buried streetcar tracks (shades of ‘Dandelion Wine’), and airfields that fell into disuse but still carry the distant echos of air and engines.

    It can pay off, too. I had a friend – now dead – who discovered the remains of a historically significant aeroplane that had lain for years in a long-forgotten airfield’s boundary hedge. Its provenance made it almost priceless, and though most of the material had to be replaced to rebuild it to fly, it retained enough to keep its original identity.

  7. Janet Ann Collins February 27, 2018 at 10:05 am #

    I’ve always loved history, and now I have an excuse to spend time reading about it when I should be writing. 😉

    Thanks, Dan!

  8. Carol Ashby February 27, 2018 at 11:52 am #

    Dan, you are so right that the writer of historical fiction needs to immerse in the history of the time. I’ve learned a number of things that led to major changes in the behavior of my characters to make them people of their own time, not mine. Plus all the research I do lets me create a history site as my main author site. I couldn’t see why anyone would be interested in me before my first book was even published. I still laugh at that thought. But people are interested in Roman Empire topics, and I get lots of visitors to my history site every day.

    One thing I’ve learned is how scarily similar to Roman culture today’s American culture is becoming, with its love of violence and sex and the way it treats people as objects instead of infinitely valuable creations of God. It was the followers of Jesus who started changing that almost 2000 years ago by sharing the Word. What can we learn from their history that will help today?

  9. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D February 27, 2018 at 2:20 pm #

    Thanks so much for your insight, Dan. I love doing research as I prepare to write, so that I can make sure that my story line both plausible and possible.

  10. Janet Ann Collins February 27, 2018 at 4:01 pm #

    A few years ago I wrote down stories my grandfather, who had lived with us, told about growing up in the 1800s and gave copies to my cousins. Recently I rewrote it and sent it to the California History Museum in San Francisco and they loved it. They asked if they could share it with the kids who come there on school field trips, because most of the information in their files is dry and boring for children. But everyone needs to know how the world got to be the way it is today. That will help us all make good choices that influence the future, so writing accurate historical fiction or non-fiction can make a difference in the world.

    • Carol Ashby February 27, 2018 at 4:40 pm #

      That is SO cool, Janet! Have you considered making an inexpensive e-book version of it so school teachers all over the country could use it with their classes?

      • Janet Ann Collins February 27, 2018 at 5:10 pm #

        No, Carol, I hadn’t thought of doing that. How would I get it to all the teachers?

        • Carol Ashby February 27, 2018 at 5:32 pm #

          Contact me through my website email and we can discuss.

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