Writing history for the commercial market – 1: finding the social context

Non-fiction history writing is a burgeoning market.  If you’re an amateur historian or genealogist you may find a paying outlet for your masses of research. In this series we will look at how to turn history into commercial articles or books.

Public vs private history

Whether it’s your own family history or simply an aspect of history you find interesting, you need to ask yourself whether this is something that should be kept private or be written for public consumption. This will have implications for both the writing style (we’ll look at that in a future session) and subject matter.

Finding the social context

Just because something interests you, it doesn’t mean it will interest anyone else. This is particularly true of your family history.  So what makes history relevant or of interest to the broader reading public? A social context. For example: How does the life story of Granny McAdam provide an insight into the social history of her time?
Or how do the changes in fortune of the Marmaduke family from blue-blooded artistocracy to blue-collar workers reflect changes in class mobility?

The Lens Concept

This is what I refer to as the ‘lens concept’. A lens is something that helps focus the eye on something else. When considering the story of the history you want to write, ask yourself: what lens am I going to use?

  • Female emancipation?
  •  The decline of a community?
  • The rise of an industry?
  •  The suffering of the oppressed?
  •  The changing political landscape?

This will help you to establish the theme of your story as well as to select the information you are going to use from your vast research. It will help you to leave out irrelevent information and structure your article / book. It will also give your publisher a marketing angle. Remember, a body of research can be looked at through multiple lenses, which can give rise to a number of differently angled articles or books. It is a common mistake of  novice history writers, particularly family history writers, to try to include too broad a sweep of their subject in one article. The lens concept helps to narrow it down and allow you to present a ‘slice’ of history.

Keeping it in the family

If you cannot find or are not interested in providing a social context for your ‘story’ then it should remain private or be written for family members. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, just make sure that if you do write something for your family to be careful how you handle skeletons in the cupboard, lest you cause a family rift.

A good book to help you get started is Writing your Family History by Deborah Cass.

In the next session we will look at finding the ‘story’ in your history and using narrative techniques.

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Related posts:

  1. Writing history for the commercial market – 2: narrative history writing techniques
  2. Report writing – finding work
  3. Tolkien history resource
  4. Non-fiction market opportunities
  5. True Life Stories – market opportunity

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6 comments on “Writing history for the commercial market – 1: finding the social context

  1. Karen M on said:

    I like your lens concept, Fiona. I’ve had a couple of commissions for history articles recently and find I need this sort of focus to keep it interesting. It’s amazingly easy to make history sound boring even when it’s not. A sharp focus keeps it lively and stops your pen from sprawling too far into lists of facts and events. Thinking of a lens will be a handy way of keeping that in mind.
    Good sound advice as usual. Cheers!

  2. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Hi Karen. I didn’t know you were into history. These articles are based on a course I run in Northumberland called ‘Writing the Story of Your History’. The main thing students need to learn is how to narrow the focus of their writing, otherwise they just present a cradle to grave wadge of the past. I also use the lens concept when teaching people how to write from life. I should trademark it! Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Karen M on said:

    I’m finding there’s quite a market for Scottish history, often combined with travel. I really enjoy it. Yes, you should trademark your lens concept!

  4. Gabriel Gadfly on said:

    I’ve been toying with the idea of writing something of a family history. My grandfather, in particular, was a really interesting figure: a zeppelin pilot, a postman, a janitor, and twice, a soldier.

  5. Fiona on said:

    You should give it a go, Gabriel. Start with an article then progress to something bigger if the bug bites. The zeppelin pilot lens could be very interesting. Check out my next post on how to build a ‘character’ when writing your family history.

  6. Pingback: Just Write Blog Carnival March 6, 2009 Edition | Incurable Disease of Writing

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