Review: How to Write History that People Want to Read by Ann Curthoys & Ann McGrath

How to Write History that People Want to Read is one of those enjoyable, professional books that does exactly what its title promises. In this instance, Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath cover the things you should consider when writing history–from research in far flung places to dealing with criticism. They offer sensible advice on structure and style–and their own style is extremely readable.7708535

From my reading, the book started off welcoming and encouraging everyone to write history (be it a  privately published family history book, a textbook or a blog), but then gradually focussed in on people in academia–namely students. I imagine history students would find it a useful guide.

Twenty years ago I was a history student. These days I write steampunk instead. Steampunk is history with a twist. It is part technological invention (steam) and part social critique (punk). So when I was reading How to Write History that People Want to Read I was doing so from the perspective of someone who researches history to purposely skew its retelling.

There is a lot of similarity in how I construct my fictional world, and Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath’s advice for historians: use the five senses, develop characters, hone your own style, and so on.

But what intrigued me was their discussion of historians’ moral position. Ethics in history (in anything) fascinates me. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing fiction: the exploration of good and evil. In steampunk, the social critique can be the reason for the story. Forcing the reader to the point where they have to make a moral judgement is what powerful fiction does–even if readers experess their experience of it as “I love/hate the book”.

This thread of critiquing the here and now by telling a story of the past is a theme throughout How to Write History that People Want to Read. This is historians-as-activists and it’s not a role everyone’s comfortable with. But being aware of why you write is a challenge all authors ought to accept.

How to Write History that People Want to Read is an interesting way to look behind the scenes and see how your favourite history books and journal, websites and television shows come into being.