Whatever you’re writing, get historical.

Writers of all genres can turn to history for inspiration.
By Hillary Casavant, Editorial Assistant | Published: April 22, 2014


An 1886 advertisement for McCobb's cocoa and chocolate, from the Library of Congress website.

An 1886 advertisement for McCobb’s cocoa and chocolate, from the Library of Congress website.

The May 2014 issue of The Writer features a guide to writing historical novels, but writers of all genres can turn to history for inspiration.

In her latest novel, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman creates fictional characters surrounding the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, one of the deadliest disasters in New York City history. Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music explores San Francisco circa 1876 and the true account of a woman’s murder. And Peter Matthiessen’s final novel, In Paradise, brings a fictional character in 1996 to the site of a former Nazi concentration camp. Although not strictly known for historical fiction, these three authors have teased out story ideas from the past.

Next time you’re searching for a new story idea – or poem or creative nonfiction piece – consider history your bottomless well of inspiration. A moment from the past can resonate in surprising ways, whether it occurred last month or last millennium. Be open to inspiration. Populate a historical event with fictional characters. Incorporate an image or feeling from history into a modern-day narrative. Dust off old photographs and think about the stories behind the lens. The possibilities are limitless.

Get started with these go-to websites for historical facts, thought-provoking photos and compelling stories from the past.

Mental Floss
This website is packed with obscure information, but the lists of history facts are goldmines. Take a look at this list of century-old classified ads and imagine the stories behind them.

History.com: This Day in History
For a daily break from the writing page, find out what happened on this day a decade or a millennium ago. You may find an unexpected connection to your work in progress.

Letters of Note
This fascinating blog gathers letters, postcards, telegrams, faxes and memos from the past. Examine the letter of a Spanish American War solider or read Helen Keller’s words after “hearing” the New York Symphony Orchestra.

Smithsonian
The history blog for Smithsonian magazine merges history with current events, covering a haunted Venetian island up for lease or a 100-year-old message in a bottle, along with noteworthy events in history.

Messy Nessy Chic
Although not solely a history blog, this website offers a delightful mix of world curiosities from the past and present. It’s also plush with thought-provoking photographs such as a pastel-colored trailer park and churches of Antarctica.

Library of Congress: Picture This
The Library of Congress holds more than 14.5 million photos, prints, posters, cartoons and designs. But before you dive in, check out this blog that highlights images in the collection and tells the stories behind them. Sounds like the perfect opportunity for a writing prompt.

  • http://www.vweisfeld.com Vicki Weisfeld

    Thank you for this interesting post! Novels that have some grounding in real events are often especially meaningful. You inspired me to write on this subject in my blog this week: http://www.vweisfeld.com/?p=1963. Great job!