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To Write Our Vivid Foundation

Writing About the Past: Become a Popular-History Storyteller

Portrait of Jack El-Hai

As a society, we return to history again and again: studying political and cultural figures, revisiting wars and examining the progression of the arts. Why do we do this? What’s so important about what’s gone before us? Appreciating history helps us to better understand our current world, to appreciate and observe how change happens, and to remind us that, much of the time, the conflict and change we’re experiencing have happened before, in various ways.

While the perception of historical writing may be burdened with ideas of fusty, impenetrable writing and academic analysis far beyond casual apprehension, this isn’t necessarily the case. “Popular history wouldn't be engaging if it were mostly about clinical scrutiny,” Jack El-Hai insists. “My course (Writing About the Past: Become a Popular-History Storyteller) is about writing popular history, which means writing history for general readers, and not for academic audiences, although I believe academics can enjoy it.”

El-Hai is the award-winning author of numerous books, including the historical crime investigation The Lost Brothers: A Family’s Decades-Long Search (University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming this October), The Nazi and the Psychiatrist (PublicAffairs Books, 2013), Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), and The Lobotomist (John Wiley & Sons, 2005), among others. A popular LearningLife instructor, he has taught courses on true crime stories and historical medical narratives. Now, he returns to discuss the craft of writing about history, and what it takes to bring the reader emotionally and psychologically into an era of the past.

“What does a reader have to know about events beyond the people in the story to understand their situations and motivations? Too much context overwhelms the story, and too little makes it incomprehensible.” His argument is that constructing a lively, engaging examination of the past has much in common with the structure of fiction: “popular history is built on a framework of character development, plot, narrative voice, and setting. … What motivates characters—love, fear, hubris, the search for justice, curiosity, etc.—are universals throughout time and place among human beings.”

What makes a good writer of popular history? Obviously they should have a knack for research, and “curiosity is an essential quality: writers should constantly want to ask themselves what motivates their characters, who gained and lost from the outcome of historical events. … It helps a lot to read nonfiction, fiction, and poetry in large quantities.”

Published on July 29, 2019