Leave out the Boring Bits!

Up until Grade 8, history class had been a snoozefest. We drew maps of places I’d never heard of (Rupert’s Land?) and memorized facts about long-ago battles led by men wearing silly white wigs.

Here are some examples of what I mean:


Then one day my history teacher talked about a rebellion that took place in Upper Canada in 1837. She told us funny stories about the rebel leader, William Lyon Mackenzie. He wore a red wig because he’d lost his hair due to a childhood disease, layered two coats when he went to the battlefield (as protection against musket balls) and disguised himself as a woman to escape the authorities.

Weird? Maybe. But he also believed in democracy, fought for the underdog and stood up to the government because it favoured the wealthy.

History came alive for me that day. William Lyon Mackenzie wasn’t some far distant hero galloping across long ago battle fields. He was a newspaper publisher who devoted his life to making Canada a better place. He looked funny and did some odd things, but he had the courage to stand up for those who couldn’t speak for themselves.

History is about conflict. Stories are too. Conflict can be wars and political battles, but it’s also physical challenges such as crossing rugged mountains and raging rivers, or battling the weather: freezing cold, floods, or a drought that leads to starvation. All of these things affect real people who have hopes and desires, strengths and weaknesses.

When I write historical fiction I skip facts like dates and battles and treaties. (I think I just heard my Grade 8 history teacher gasp).

Instead I search for the story and the characters that make it come alive. Usually this is about one person wanting something that someone else won’t let him have. Once I have a character and a conflict, I have the beginning of a story.