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Best Practices for Writing Historical Nonfiction and Reference Guides

Writing a creative piece affords an author the opportunity to interject fantasy, whimsy, and impossible adventures while implementing more dynamic storytelling tactics. Historical nonfiction is quite a different process, requiring more direct but still engaging language that pulls the reader into the focus period and event. If you’ve set your sights on crafting a new historical reference guide or nonfiction novel, you’ll need to take care in your approach.

We’ve put together this list of practices to follow during the process of planning and writing your historical nonfiction piece.

Don’t Skimp on the Research

When your readers complete your historical book, they should have a pretty deep understanding of what was happening during the core event of the period. That means you will have to do a bit of research to flesh out key players, themes, a timeline of events, and even aesthetics like attire and architecture. Don’t make up facts, and if you can’t find an answer to something, be honest or find a way to skirt the issue.

Expect to have your head down in reference books for a while to prepare your historical nonfiction piece.

What’s the Focus Point of View?

Let’s say your nonfiction piece covers the Battle of Midway. There are at least two perspectives you can go with – the Japanese and the United States. However, the events of that day are going to be recalled differently by both sides, especially, say, a Japanese admiral, who would be too proud to admit the mistakes made.

The best practice is to pick one point of view and stick with it. If you’re writing about the Battle of Stalingrad, choose to tell it either from the perspective of a Soviet soldier or a German sniper. Writing about D-Day? A German gunner or a member of the 101st Airborne Division will suffice. The perspective will drive how details are disseminated (i.e., a first-person perspective from the beaches of Normandy will be far different than from a soldier atop the cliffs).

Don’t Go Too Broad

History is, in general, vast. One year can contain a million events worth talking about. For the purposes of your historical nonfiction reference, though, you’re better off selecting one or two events at a time. If, say, you were writing about the atomic bombing of Japan, you wouldn’t then interject with a detailed account of what was happening in Europe at the same time.

The more focused you are, the more time you can spend researching and adding information to your finished piece.

Show Why the Historical Event is Relevant

When people pick up a book, by the time they finish it, they want to know why they read it. A good fiction novel will tell a coherent and engaging story that answers that question. For a nonfiction work, you have to be a little more direct in exploring why the event you’re covering is important.

If you can tie something about the historical event to today, you’ll be giving readers even more reason to pay attention from start to finish. Try not to be too broad with the relevancy. Quotes like “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it“ (George Santayana) are cliche and not descriptive as to how that particular historical event is relevant.

Develop Key Characters

Covering something like a large-scale war makes it difficult to develop all players that were involved. The trick is to choose who you believe to be integral to the event and talk about them. If you’re writing about the Battle of Gettsyburg, you can mention President Lincoln and talk about his address, but developing him as a core character would take readers too far off the battlefield for too long.

Don’t Be Shy – Be Vivid

Finally, we understand that history can be dark and gritty. However, you want your readers to want to keep reading, so you may need to get a little descriptive and vivid. Don’t dramatize to the point of falsifying, but give your readers imagery they can work with to formulate a depiction of what you’re referencing.

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