How to write historical non-fiction


15 June 2020
Tips for history writers, from the authors on the Wolfson History Prize 2020 shortlist
How to write historical non-fiction Images

Make it relevant to keep the reader interested

• John Barton (A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths, Allen Lane): It is essential to capture the interest of the reader, preferably with a reference to contemporary issues or with the presentation of some person or incident that can lead into a wider discussion. 

'Where (as in my own case) the research is based on already-published material rather than on archival work, it is important to make it clear how one's own work realigns or reinterprets already-known material and not simply to reproduce it. 

'Above all it is vital to aim at an accessible style that avoids jargon and constantly considers the intended readership.

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Immerse yourself in your era

• Marion Turner (Chaucer: A European Life, Princeton University Press): I think you need to immerse yourself in your chosen era to write a powerful historical book, fictional or non-fictional. I found "footstepping" – following the traces and journeys of my subject – to be immensely helpful. I followed Chaucer to a small town in Navarre, for instance, and stayed in the place where his safe-conduct was issued in 1366; I also retraced his journeys around Lombardy and Tuscany and tried to see what he saw and go to the churches and libraries that he visited. For me, exploring about the past is multi-disciplinary and multi-sensory. I think about what people looked at and heard, about the kinds of buildings and rooms they lived and worked in, what they read at school, where their bread was baked, what they wore. All those details are crucial in helping you to enter into the imagination and mental landscapes of the period.

Write clearly and research meticulously

• David Abulafia (The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans, Allen Lane): There are three fundamental rules, I think:

1. Write clearly and fluently, avoiding jargon, trying to keep sentences elegant and balanced, so that the words carry the reader along from sentence to sentence.

2.  In a subject such as history, try to stimulate the imagination of your readers; stay firmly within the bounds of the evidence, but help them to visualise the people and events you are describing.

3.  Never come up with an idea that challenges orthodoxy and then try to fit the evidence round it; gather the evidence first and see what it tells you, and how that might alter our view of a problem.

Understand your reader and write for them

• Hallie Rubenhold (The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, Penguin Books):

First it's important to recognise that there are many types of historical non-fiction for a number of different readers. Academic non-fiction will vary in tone and appeal from narrative non-fiction. It's important to first decide what sort of book you'd like to write and for who you are writing it. My feeling about historical biography is that it's a mistake to write something which charts a life in a strictly linear fashion. A life may contain one or two dramatic incidents which altered the course of a person's experience or character, and building a book around these events sometimes makes the story more gripping.

My caveat to this is that what can be written and how to write it is always dictated by what source material exists. Undertaking an assessment of what body of material is in place to tell a life story is essential. Read everything in print and then go into the archives, then go back and read the secondary material again.

Be passionate about your topic, and plan ahead

• Toby Green, A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution (Allen Lane):
Choose a topic which you are passionate and care about, not just one which you think will be easy to pitch. You then have to become something of an obsessive, tracking down every piece of relevant information and background that you can – try to be imaginative here, not just thinking of texts and archives but also of, for instance, music, clothing, and art which can provide a human touch to what you are writing. For the writing process itself, I find that detailed planning of each chapter and creating an index of my notes is essential – it often takes me much longer to plan out the writing of a book than actually to write it.

Research deeply, write clearly

• Prashant Kidambi, Cricket Country: An Indian Odyssey in the Age of Empire (Oxford University Press):

Good historical non-fiction is a combination of deep research and accessible writing.

1) There are no shortcuts to deep primary research. Cast your net wide and look for a variety of sources: printed and unpublished material located in institutional repositories, newspapers, private papers, memoirs, oral testimonies, and visual materials.

2) Find an efficient and effective way to organize the source material that works for you; this can save valuable time when there is a vast amount of research material to sift through. Ensure that your notes, and the sources from which they are drawn, are accurately recorded.

3) If you use the work of other scholars, take care to acknowledge their research appropriately.

4) Think hard about the structure of the work; try, if possible, to do this before you start writing. In some instances, a thematic organization might be called for; in other cases, a narrative might be the best way of communicating your ideas.

5) When you write, keep your audience in mind. The criteria of ‘accessibility’ vary, depending on whether you are writing for an academic audience or a general readership.

6) Don’t become too attached to what you write; be prepared to cut!

The Wolfson History Prize is awarded annually by tte Wolfson Foundation to recognise outstanding history written for a general audience. For more details, and to find ot who won the 2020 Prize, see the website.


Discover more about Hallie Rubenhold's approach to writing history here.