Writing History, Great and Small


There are two kinds of history: Great history and small history. Great history is the history we are used to reading about: wars, famines, plagues, floods, famous murders, elected world leaders, kings and queens, and periods of time that have names beginning with capital letters (the Renaissance). For the past few weeks, I have been reading In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, a study of US Ambassador William E. Dodd and his daughter Martha, and their family’s time spent in early Nazi Germany. I enjoyed this book immensely, even though it is written in little snippets and I sometimes wanted each part of the story to move along for longer than just a page or two.

In the Garden of BeastsLarson’s story on the rise of Nazism is told from the perspective of two small players. It’s an interesting angle. Martha Dodd wrote copious letters to her many friends and lovers, and also published her father’s diary, leaving a wonderful “in-the-moment” record of what it was like to live in Berlin as Hitler came to power. One of Hitler’s cronies even tried to fix her up with the man himself on a date. It’s hard to imagine anything creepier—but the book is full of interesting and authentic details like that.

Small history is the history that Bill Bryson explores in his latest book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life. He details how each room of his house in England, the former home of a country parson, came to be. It is the history we find tucked in the corners of museums, in the china collections of first ladies, in the period wardrobes of servants, and in articles about the rise and decline of different farm tools.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill BrysonBryson makes history come alive as he explores his house and looks at its original plans. He leads us on pleasant tangents about the history of various building materials, British clergy, wealth distribution, taxes in America, and numerous other things. It’s amazing what he crams into this book—but you feel that way with most of his nonfiction books; his curiosity is boundless. Bryson as a historian can be overwhelming, but I’m a fan.

History books do not sell millions of copies in most cases, but they do a steady business. Sometimes, you can find a local market for your personal interest. Maybe there is a famous worldwide business that started in your hometown, or a notorious unsolved murder, or a strange mystery that needs probing. (There are all of these in my own hometown, actually.) Though most people are not true history buffs, many do love the history of particular things, and if you can find a matching publisher for these audiences, and an interesting way to present your topic, you may be able to work a book proposal right into a history publisher’s heart.

Today’s Writing Exercise:

Think about a piece of history, great or small, that interests you. If you prefer great history, try to find a new angle—as Larson does by telling the story of Hitler’s rise from an unusual perspective—that will still allow you to do enough research. If it is small history, think about how you can gather an audience that is large enough to convince a publisher that a book on the subject is needed. If Bill Bryson can write and publish a book based on a walk through his own home, you can probably find a way to write about something equally obscure.

To give you some inspiration, check out “Stuff You Missed in History Class,” a podcast I find well researched, entertaining, and NOT for kids under age 15 or so! (Lots of sex and violence; it is history, after all.)


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