As a former history and English teacher, one of my principal motivations for teaching was to help students to find the story in history.
Too many times students find history boring. BORING? How could the lives, obstacles, and challenges people through history and time have faced and overcome be boring? History is so much more than dates and places and names...
As writers who love history, we know that studying and writing about past lives is exciting and relevant. Perhaps that is why historical fiction is more important than most of us even realize. For those who have found the past nothing more than boring facts, writers have an obligation to provide a door into the past through story.
But what IS story? According to one definition, story is "a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; a tale." But I think the definition of story goes deeper than that....
Interestingly enough, story is part of what makes our human experience unique; to some degree it's part of what makes us human. After all, in spite of all the "language" that animals can engage in, creating or relating story is not one of their communication skills.
Story is entirely human in its origin and in its impact.
Think of it: even the parables in the Bible were constructed in story form; oral history, which is traditionally without error, has been the mode of transferring knowledge and culture in societies for thousands of years. Is it any wonder we gravitate to story as not only a form of entertainment, but also as a source of solving the dilemmas of our human experience?
Through story we can look critically at the vagaries of life through another person's point of view. Through story, we can riffle through the choices we each face in life -- perhaps trying on one or another as a way of vicariously finding solutions to our own questions.
Because character development is an integral part of any good story, as writers we need to examine our characters closely -- allowing their humaneness and foibles to help bring them to life. So as we construct their personalities, we can look to the people who color our own world -- here and now. After all, human conflict has not changed since the dawn of human settlement. Letting those characters speak their own stories, we can discover their fears, hopes, dreams, and conflicts. Their stories become "everyman (or woman)" stories that will resonate with readers.
In looking for characters for my first novel, ACROSS THE SWEET GRASS HILLS, I looked to the history behind the notorious Baker's Massacre as the focus of my tale. I wanted to pit characters who would have to dig deep into themselves to survive such a horrendous event. I also wanted those characters to likewise deal with their own personal stories. The confluence of Red Eagle and Liza Ralston's personal stories had to bisect the larger regional story of a people, the Blackfeet. It was an exciting process as well as a challenge to keep those two story formats integrated.
I'm pleased to report that ACROSS THE SWEET GRASS HILLS Won a WILLA Literary Award, from Women Writing the West for Best Softcover Fiction...
In writing BLACK BART: THE POET BANDIT, I wrote the story of a real man's life -- as I imagined it, of course -- and that was a new challenge. What I sought to do was find through the facts of the historical narratives the essence of his personal story and bring it to light.
I'm happy to report that the first version of this novel placed in the Jack London Novel Contest -- and it is the first and only fictionalized biography of Charles Bowles, aka "Black Bart." He was California's most successful stage bandit, but he was also a poet (of sorts!).....he was, indeed, an enigma...
It is interesting to me that although I have written far more nonfiction than fiction I find fiction to be as much a truth-telling genre as nonfiction! To make fiction reflect life and reality, it must reflect the human condition, the human conflicts we all face -- in short, our human story.
For more about my writing, check out my website: www.gailjenner.com