Getting Started as a Writer of History

Journalism is the first rough draft of history, Alan Barth declared. Or is it the reverse, that history is just journalism, as Joseph Campbell mischievously asserted? Either way, there’s much in common between writing journalism and chronicling history, and I’ve spent my career exploring the overlap of those two great disciplines.

 I’m always surprised to see that few of my fellow journalists try writing about history. It could be that some writers find history intimidating, they’re afraid of making factual errors, or they mistakenly believe there’s no market for historical writing. But many journalists who overcome these fears and reservations — including such people as David McCullough, Rebecca Skloot, Erik Larson, Candice Millard, Deborah Blum, and Sarah Vowell — have been well rewarded for focusing on the past. Their books have become best sellers and they have discovered the excitement of digging up the secrets of the dead by researching in archives, diving deeply into primary sources, and prying memories from living people.

I haven’t become a best-selling author of the stature of Skloot and Larson, but I have seen my history-driven books, articles, and presentations move, transport, and intrigue audiences. I’ve discovered astonishing collections of historical materials, written histories of multi-billion-dollar companies, and had my work published in eleven languages and optioned for film and TV. Many of my history-writer colleagues have become valued friends. What could be better?

If you are considering writing journalistic treatments of historical events, here are some tips:

  • Start local, with what’s around you. I sold my first history article after hearing that the sale of tobacco cigarettes had been illegal in my state for several years at the start of the twentieth century. My investigations proved it true. I did not have to travel to research the piece or search hard to find a publisher in my local city magazine. Is there some historical figure, story, statue, building, crime, or disaster from your region that intrigues you? Begin there.
  • Make connections across time. Trace a contemporary event or person’s experience to its historical source. When I found out that an elderly couple in my area was still searching for their three boys who had mysteriously disappeared decades earlier, I learned that their sons represented the oldest active case of missing children in the U.S. and that the parents’ search had fascinating historical roots. Alternatively, identify a historical event and follow its ripples to the present.
  • Give talks and presentations on your historical interests. You can speak at libraries, before community groups, and in academic and institutional settings. It will help you build a history-writing specialty, and attendees will bring more history stories your way. I love speaking to audiences, and I offer tips specifically for history speakers here.
  • Read inspiring history-focused nonfiction work. In addition to the authors mentioned above, seek out the work of such writers as Tim Brady, Marian Calabro, Beverly Gray, Bruce Henderson, Robin Marantz Henig, Ben Kamin, Steve Kemper, Nancy Kriplen, Pat McNees, John Rosengren, and Pamela Toler.

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