History for Writers: What No One Told You About - Craft Your Content
improving writing historical literature

History for Writers: What No One Told You About

History is often seen as long dates, complicated names, and something used only to remember when you last had a proper birthday party. Almost nobody sees it as the biggest tool for a writer’s success… and the best step to avoiding the Writer’s Ultimate Nightmare.

Did you know that history can be something more? Something you could use to improve your writing?

I’m guessing that you’ve already got this topic you want to write about—and you’ve outlined your work. Now you can’t wait to get it down on paper.

…But you’re scared.

Scared that your writing isn’t good enough to be out in the world, scared that you’ll get lots of backlash. But one fear that totally takes the cake:

The fear of writing something that’s never valued.

Oh boy, isn’t that quite a scare! But hey, I get it.

I’ve attended countless webinars to dismiss this problem, and each of them told me to “change my mindset”. I did – but still, when I reviewed my writing with friends, even they told me it wasn’t exactly gripping.

Almost all beginner writers feel this, the ultimate scare when they’re halfway through their writing.

So what do they do then? I recommend joining an encouraging accountability group like Ninja Writers.

We may never overcome our fears; lose heart in our writing, and never make it to the publishing stage. We all may enter the Writer’s Ultimate Nightmare: failing to write something special.

But, no worries! I’m here, just in time—actually, history’s here, just in… time.

See, the best way to get rid of your fear is by writing engagingly: which you can do by learning from historical stories, not just blindly editing your work.

As the Spanish poet and philosopher George Santayana rightly said: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. 

Proving Mr Santayana right, many writers don’t succeed because they overlook the mistakes writers made before them. Instead, if they studied older writers’ works, they would know what mistakes to avoid and what to implement in their own writing. Worse still, sometimes modern writers don’t simply overlook past mistakes, but actually mock the ancient writer.

Well, surprise! The style of writing from ancient authors is still incredibly beneficial to writers today. No, readers won’t shun your work if you use a historical term. Yes, your writing will improve and you’ll lessen your fear if you follow the secrets of these ancient authors.

Well, that’s all well and good, but how do you study the mistakes other writers did, avoid them in your writing, and implement the good elements in your piece? This is precisely what I’ll show you in this post, so that you can take your writing to the next level, learning from ancient authors. 

How to Study Historical Works to Improve Your Writing

You aren’t going back to school or studying impossible texts. It’s actually quite easy!

Now, don’t panic. By studying historical works, I don’t mean that you have to wolf down A Midnight Summer’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, or Lord of the Flies.

The process is fairly simple. You will need the following:

  • Your favorite childhood book or any text you want to learn from (eg. Matilda, Feluda Somogro)
  • Your favorite classic (eg. Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice)
  • A pen/pencil 
  • A notebook

Let’s take The Chronicles of Narnia: The Magician’s Nephew as an example. And now, we have to answer the following (examples are given, don’t worry!):

  • Is the author hooking you from the first line? How are they doing this? Our chosen book’s first line is: “This is a story about something that happened long ago when your grandfather was a child.” Since it’s target audience is children below ten, they find the first line amusing and are immediately interested.
  • Is the entire book engaging? In the case of the novel we’ve chosen, it has particularly life-like dialogue, keeps us engaged, and the characters are very well written. Thus, it is pretty engaging.
  • Are there any flat characters, unrealistic dialogue or boring scenes? Dialogue is very realistic in The Magician’s Nephew. The novel’s target audience feels intrigued and starts believing in the characters right away. The settings are perfectly woven into the dialogue, and their personality traits aren’t dumped onto the readers. However, the backstories could’ve been crafted into the characters in a better way, through flashbacks, chapter summaries, prologues or prequels.
  • How can you avoid making the same mistakes the author has made? Till now, the only mistake is C.S. Lewis hasn’t ‘woven’ the backstory into the characters. To avoid that, you can weave the character backstory into flashbacks, dreams, prologues, chapter summaries, or prequels.
  • What feeling does the book give you? How does the author give you that feeling? The feeling The Magician’s Nephew gives is of intrigue, by telling us about a mad Uncle and a secret cabinet he keeps.
  • Does the author connect with you in the case of a nonfiction work? How? Over here, you can note whether or not the author is giving real-life examples.

And this does work. I know because I’ve tried this myself. My stories lacked world building (I mainly write dark fantasy and horror) but after studying my favorite stories, they became so cool and complex!

Why Ancient Writing is Unforgettable Even Today and How to Make Yours Unforgettable Too

bertrand russell writer
Find the pattern and emulate it.

1. What do ancient unforgettable stories have in common, and how can you use this trick to make yours so too?

There’s something common between ancient epics such as Homer’s Odyssey or Iliad, the Epic of Gilgamesh, or Mahabharata. Even though they originate from different cultures, these epics are still remembered today. 

Even though they’re a thousand years old, even though their writing isn’t what modern people like to read today, and even though some have to be translated thoroughly to be read.

Why is that? Why put all that hard work into reading ancient writing?

That’s because each and every ancient writing teaches us a lesson, even the fictional ones. The subtlest but most important lessons are taught through beautifully woven characters, their backstories and the plot.

These stories had a ‘why’ – a cause. The Mahabharata’s cause was to show the world how a family’s tiny squabble could lead to even a war against your loved ones – it’s lesson was “thoughts turn into words, words turn into actions, and actions turn into consequences”. 

So the next most important thing you have to do is find out your story’s cause. Some really good questions to ask yourself are:

  • Why did I even think of this idea? 
  • Why am I writing this?
  • What am I hoping to change with this story?
  • What would the world be like if I didn’t write this story?

This can take ten minutes, but I recommend taking your time here. It’s one of the most important steps to improving your writing.

So after you finish reading this, be sure to answer them in your own time. 

2. How to reinvent these stories to improve your writing

The point is you’ve got to change whatever’s been so old it’s become a cliche, or bring a new POV to something the majority of the people see as normal.

And even if you’re not writing in a controversial genre, you can impact your readers by changing their worldview. 

A great example of this is Amish Tripathi, an Indian writer who gets paid millions of dollars for retelling the Ramayana and the story of a Hindu god.

At first, everybody told him his ideas were of no value because apparently, nobody wanted their beloved epics to be ‘twisted and turned’… but now look at him – he gets approximately 1.7 million sales from his latest trilogy! 

However, it doesn’t have to be about changing ideology or retelling something. Your writing can just be about making your reader feel something in a way never been done before.

The point is, learn from ancient authors, but be YOU. And being yourself is a really big topic, so if you’re interested in ‘being YOU’, I’d recommend reading this article.

The End—or Is It the Beginning?

Six questions you can ask yourself.

In this post I showed you how to study historical works to improve your writing, creating more realistic characters and more engaging scenes—in one word, more immersive text.

To study historical works you’ve gotta ask yourself:

  1. Is [your chosen book’s] first line hooking me?
  2. Am I engaged throughout the whole book?
  3. Is there a single flat character, a paragraph with unbelievable dialogue or a dull scene that’s out-of-place?
  4. How is the author making these mistakes? How can I avoid them?
  5. How do I feel while reading this book? How can I make my readers feel the same/feel something different?
  6. (In the case of a nonfiction work) Does the author connect with me well? 

There is a lot to learn from ancient literature. Epics like Odyssey and Mahabharata are still remembered and read today for… well, an epic reason. And believe me, you’d be losing something precious if you dismissed them as irrelevant to modern times.

Even though you can modernize these old texts, their basic framework remains on-point even today, which you can learn from.

And so, with these lessons in mind, pull your laptop closer to you and start writing, as so many countless authors before you did (well, without a laptop perhaps). 

And then, after you’ve blurted out those words, celebrate the fact that you’re a writer, standing on the shoulders of literary giants!

About the Author Ahana Chakrabarti

A Bengali sixth grader, Ahana Chakrabarti is the self-appointed supernatural investigator of her house and a devoted writer. She has travelled not only around the world, but also around the Universe, exploring multiple stars and constellations. She often breaks out of the mundane student’s life by writing sizzling short stories or articles on the craft of writing. When she’s not working on her supernatural novel, you can find her taking online classes or reading on her Kindle. If you like writing and supernatural stories, you can find her works at her blogs called Author Ahana and Creative Ahana.