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Monday, March 3, 2014


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:


  1. Gail,
    You are so on target with history and its telling. I think if more teachers had been as excited about the people who 'made' history instead of dates there would be a greater appreciation of our past. When recreating historic characters for live performance, the common comment is "if history had been told this way I would have been more interested"
    Great post. Doris

  2. Thanks, Doris! Sadly I think too many teachers do NOT connect with the stories we find in history. And that's where we are all touched -- in the heart and gut. When we can identify with and enter into the story, we truly have an impact....of course, sadly enough, teachers face so many expectations and deadlines, there is very little time in the schedule to incorporate much creativity. But that's where we, as historical fiction authors, can have a role!

  3. Gail, what an excellent post. I believe this with all my heart. Having to "teach to the test" has become all-consuming in our educational system, and has taken all the fun out of learning, so that it's become pure drudgery for the kids. And constant pressure for the teachers and the kids to "perform well" on the standardized tests. I read somewhere one time that kids' brains can't understand that in history, these were "real" people that things actually happened to until they are around 12 years old. Thinking back on it, I can see that! I remember as a kid, hearing the story of the Pilgrims, etc. was kind of like a fairy tale story--I didn't really equate that these were actual people, but they were more like people in a story that these things happened to.

    Oddly enough, I had a coach for a history teacher in my junior year who was actually interested in history and not just doing it as part of the coaching job. He told us things about the historical figures we were studying that really made them come alive for us. I'd always loved history, but his class really stands out to me. I think probably he's the reason I minored in history in college.

    Thanks for a very insightful post! BTW, you did a great job with integrating your characters in Across the Sweet Grass Hills with the big picture of the massacre.


    1. Thanks for your post. I was fortunate as a kid regarding history.... my grandmother, born in 1889, was a wealth of incredible history and family stories and she, as well as my folks (both avid readers and lovers of history) kindled that love of history and story. By 5th grade I'd read historical biographies in the library almost through the letter 'P' (as I recall) my love of history was early and carried me through high school and college. Actually my major was Anthropology and my minor was English and then I accumulated enough credits for a Social Science minor, too....I think Anthropology also kindled a love of culture and people groups and how their history was reflected in their traditions....

  4. Hi Gail
    What an interesting post. As a writer of historical fiction, I can certainly see where you are coming from.
    I think we forget the happenings of the past at our peril.



    1. I think that's one reason why writing historical fiction is such a great genre! As authors we are providing more than a great story or plot; we are recreating what life has been like for many people over time! And I agree that too many people forget history to their -- and our collective peril!

  5. Gail--thanks for the reminder that human history is not noted in dates, places, and events. Sure, in history classes, some sense of time and place needs to be there, but we should never overlook the stories that have combined to relate the progress of the human race.
    I love some history, not all history. I'm a native Texan and become lost in research on the simplest topics. Of course, I know quite a lot of Texas History--the big events--but there exists many, many layers of personal stories.
    For my next blog on Sweethearts of the West, I'll write about: "Dilue Rose and the Runaway Scrape." She tells the story of when she was ten and caught up in this huge heartbreaking exodus toward the Louisiana border.
    Your book sounds wonderful, and you'll be glad you are with Cheryl--one of my good friends, one of the first I met back in about 2007 when she and I published our first books. Count on her--she'll be there for you.

    1. Thanks, Celia! I loved Texas! My first visits there were through Women Writing the West, but now have visited it a couple times... love San Antonio and Fort Worth...great history. My good friend, Cynthia Leal Massey writes about TX history and I've enjoyed her stories; she has written both about Mexican-Texan history and about the Texas Rangers (true story)....

      And I'm thrilled to be associated with PRP and Cheryl and Livia. It's been a great ride so looking forward to more interaction :-) Thanks for the encouragement!

  6. History certainly comes alive for me when I hear about the soldier, and not just about the battle. One person's struggle makes it personal and real. In high school I had a great history teacher who knew all these fascinating factoids about the people in history--little pieces from their lives that brought reality to dusty history and brought it home for me.
    Great post, Gale. Congratulations on the Willa Award.

    1. Thanks, Sarah! It is those little factoids and anecdotes that make history come alive...I like your point about the soldier vs. the battle. I remember on my first visit to Nashville; I went down to the Carnton Plantation where the Battle of Franklin took place. It was hearing the individual stories that made that entire episode so powerful -- and then, of course, touring the house. Finally, having read Widow of the South added to the reality of the entire story!

  7. Gail, I couldn't agree with you more. I love history and always have, even in those "boring" school classes. If more teachers would adopt your belief in teaching history through story, more students would get excited by tales of real people, not just cardboard figures and meaningless (to them) dates in a dusty history book. Thanks for your inspiring post!

    1. Thank you, Lyn!!! I was like you in school -- I always found history classes fascinating, even if the teacher wasn't remarkable. I hope that teachers can find ways to incorporate more story into the subject, but it's a hard thing these days... Still it should be the goal :-)