In 1953 Walter Cronkite anchored the first episode of You Are There with a reenactment of the Hindenberg. The early days of CBS news embraced a style grounded in reporting events based on eyewitness accounts, authoritative sources, and observational methods and packaging them into a story. After the end of WWII, CBS deployed the news editorial talents of Edward R. Murrow, Eric Severaid, and the young Walter Cronkite to create a program that would go back and report the facts from the past. Suspending disbelief, the American viewer could enter a timewarp and relive events experienced by those who came before. CBS’ journalistic methods demanded facts matter most and that history come back to life with relevance to our contemporary lives. Today that remains a hallmark storytelling style for historical non-fiction narrative.
You. Are. There. The narrator is a surrogate for the reader. The ears, eyes, nose, mouth, and fingers of the reader, the writer must provide lots of sensory information to create a context for comprehending the historical action.
Where Are You? Have you searched Google Maps? Using this tool and others can provide a better and more accurate description of location, scene and setting. You can also identify current historical landmarks to pursue your sleuthing in person.
What kind of weather conditions existed on that day in history? The Washington Post provides an excellent resource for writers. This tool, and others, is not just to gather trivial facts. They can assist in the corroboration of eyewitness accounts, or cast doubt upon the veracity of facts. For example, if an eyewitness recalls the incident with details about the weather conditions, then check the accuracy of the weather. If the weather facts are wrong, the accuracy of the rest of the testimony becomes suspect.
What were they wearing? Historical costumes and vintage fashions can best be described from your factual first hand observations. I’ve recently discovered a great timeline from the Vintage Fashion Guild that will inspire you to do more digging for details.
Three-dimensional characters, their motives and relations to one another, need to pop from the pages. Investigate your real life characters with these tools: biography.com, ancestry.com (30 day free trial for those who have keywords and a search strategy)
Putting the primary characters into historical context is important for the reader. Three tertiary sources for general timelines and historical events are historicaltimeline.com, timelines.ws and historymole.com
Google has many tools for writers of historical non-fiction narrative. Beyond the standard google search bar, use Scholar.Google.com for access to more secondary sources, especially expert, academic and institutional research.
Don’t speculate, corroborate. The devil is in the details.
Six or seven years ago my advice to aspiring authors of nonfiction books was to build an audience platform by blogging. An example of how critical blogging could be to securing a publishing contract can be found in the case of Ann Marie Ackermann, author of Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee. After an initial assessment of her manuscript, I had recommended she start a historical true-crime blog, and she did. In fact, the editor of the ideal book series at Kent State University Press became a fan ofRead more…