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What Is Historical Nonfiction?
Historical nonfiction is a broad category that covers any sort of nonfiction writing that depicts historical, real-life events. Some nonfiction categories—like literary nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, and creative nonfiction—overlap with historical nonfiction, and many bestselling books can be categorized in two or more of these genres. There’s a broad array of subjects and stories that fall under the umbrella of historical nonfiction, including the biographies of historical figures. As a nonfiction writer, it’s your job to familiarize yourself with popular works of nonfiction and research subjects that interest you to generate possible book ideas.
7 Examples of Historical Nonfiction
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010): Part biography, part medical research book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of how the cell line that was discovered in one woman’s cervical cancer cells is used in cancer research.
- Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (2010): A biography of Olympic track star and World War II hero, Louis Zamperini, who was stranded for 47 days at sea before being imprisoned in a Japanese Prisoner of War (POW) camp for two and a half years.
- John Adams by David McCullough (2001): This Pulitzer Prize winner documents the life of President John Adams.
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (2011): This book provides a survey of humankind through the lense of evolutionary biology.
- The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (2003): This book weaves together the stories of Daniel H. Burman, the architect behind the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and serial killer Dr. H. H. Holmes.
- Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow (2010): This biography documents the life and times of George Washington, the first president of the United States.
- Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962): An environmental science book describing the harmful effects of widespread pesticide use.
9 Tips for Writing Historical Nonfiction
Writing history can be an incredibly daunting task. If you’re starting to write your first book and wondering where to begin, here are some tips to get you on your way:
- Do your research. The first rule of writing about real events from history is to do your research. Nonfiction authors (and historical fiction writers, for that matter) need to spend a large amount of time making sure that the real-life stories they are telling are accurate and factual. It’s useful for nonfiction authors to have a background in history and be well versed in research methods. If you aren’t familiar with the specific time period or region of your subject, the research process will be longer.
- Choose a point of view. It’s important to choose a perspective for your book. This doesn’t mean you have to write in first person from a specific person’s point of view (though that is always an option, especially in the creative nonfiction genre) but it can help you focus and narrow the scope of your book. The perspective you choose can shift over the course of the book, but it’s useful to have a clear idea of who or what you are centered around at each stage of your book. If you’re writing about the depression from the perspective of a young girl from a working class American family, you’ll produce a very different account than you would if you wrote an overview of the depression-era New Deal policies instituted by FDR.
- Outline a narrative arc. As with writing fiction, it’s important to have a detailed outline of your story and overall arc before you dive into the creative writing process. This is especially important if you’re writing a creative historical narrative. Even the most dry academic accounts of historical events have an overall narrative arc. This doesn’t mean you have to adhere to a classic three act structure, but being able to view your subject matter as a story with a beginning, middle, and end can help give your book shape.
- Focus on compelling famous characters. If you’ve got your sights set on writing a New York Times bestseller, it’s worth researching some popular figures from history. Writing about a historical figure like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, or Mahatma Gandhi will certainly attract more eyes than a story about lesser-known subjects.
- Incorporate elements of other genres. Just because you are writing about history doesn’t mean you can’t use genre elements. Some of the most popular historical nonfiction books use narrative or stylistic techniques from genres like science fiction, coming of age stories, or thrillers. For example, true crime is one of the most popular genres in both books and movies and is a perfect example of genre overlap between historical nonfiction and thriller.
- Don’t neglect character development. Just because you are writing about actual events doesn’t mean you should ignore some basic aspects of character development. When developing characters in nonfiction, your characters were living, breathing historical figures—it’s your job to provide the factual details that make the character come alive to appear nuanced and fully formed in the minds of your readers. The best nonfiction books don’t simply recount history in chronological order but rather focus on the people that influenced significant events, trying to explore the traits and desires that drove them and made them human.
- Focus on a single event. Rather than writing about a topic like the Civil War or World War II, consider narrowing your focus to a specific event that occured during these periods. This is especially useful if you are new to the historical nonfiction genre.
- Consider the modern relevance of historical events. Readers are interested in relating historical events to the modern world. Think about how you can describe history while drawing implicit or explicit links to events and issues facing us today. Books about the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement might link their subject matter to the mass incarceration of black men that continues to this day. The African American struggle for freedom and equality goes back long before the Civil War and stretches into the present—so when you tackle topics like it, it’s important to demonstrate how history still affects us today.
- Start with shorter pieces. If you’re writing historical nonfiction for the first time, it’s a good idea to start by trying to write magazine articles or short pieces before making the jump to full-length books. This can help you develop your skills as a historical nonfiction writer and explore new nonfiction topics and subject matter that you can further develop into a book.
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