Why is there now a growing interest in the history of our country? How is non-fiction written in such a way that it keeps the reader engaged, just as though it is a fictional story? How does one begin to carry out proper research for a story? Why do we read stories about history when we already know how they turn out?
These are some of the questions that were discussed at the History Writing Masterclass that was held on the first day of the Storymoja Festival 2017. The masterclass was facilitated by Owaahh, a writer, researcher and historian who chronicles bits and pieces of history on his blog, Owaahh.com.
The session kicked off at a little past 2pm with everybody introducing themselves briefly. Upon Owaahh’s request, the members of the masterclass then had a chance to talk about the last interesting history book they had read, a discussion which he used as an entry point for the content that would be covered. Using questions and simple group activities, he led the group through the basics of writing non-fiction, and especially writing history.
We established that history did not need to be events that happened to famous figures fifty years ago, but rather could be anything that had already passed, including the last five minutes. According to Owaahh, there is history that happened to you as a victim, history that happened to you as a witness, and history that had nothing to do with you. Interesting, right?
Creative non-fiction, we learnt, is ‘creative’ because it employs the tools of fiction such as characterization and narrative arc, and quite simply, is enjoyable to read. We were also introduced to factors to consider as a history writer, such as the historian’s fallacy (or hindsight bias) and the necessity of details. Those details are what make a story come alive, and transform your work from a dull presentation of facts to some sort of time machine, where your reader feels as though he/she is right there, watching history unfold.
When writing non-fiction, facts remain facts. The importance of research cannot be understated because whatever else, you need to get your facts right. Though research can be challenging, you must be ready to do the dirty work. For Owaahh, for example, this means going to dark musty rooms in buildings within town where he can find the material he needs to build a story. However, in some cases, you will find that nobody knows the details of the story and you will need to reconstruct the story yourself using what you see.
The topics brought up by Owaahh sparked many questions from the those attending the masterclass. For instance, is it still non-fiction if you’re using your own ingenuity to fill in some details? It turns out, yes. What you are doing as a writer of creative non-fiction is building a story around facts that are already there. If you haven’t attempted to change the facts, you’re still writing non-fiction.
The History Writing Masterclass was so engaging that we went on uninterrupted for the whole designated three hours! At the end of the session those who still had some questions had a chance to have a smaller discussion with Owaahh afterwards, who was more than happy to engage with them. I believe the conversations that took place during this session were helpful and provided guidance to those attending on where to start or how to go on in their writing careers.
When asked why there are no stories written about women in history who have impacted our lives today, Owaahh gave a simple answer which I took as the parting shot: We have not written them. Those who were writing before us did not do it, so it’s up to us to dig deep into history and write the stories that we think matter.