Writing a local history gives you the opportunity to create a picture of what a village, town or region was like in the past by telling the stories of the people who lived and worked there but there are also many other aspects you can focus on. For example, specific families, the wider community, local events and traditions, entertainment, buildings, churches, monuments, historical sites, industry, organisations, schools, churches, occupations, landscape and so on.
Your research has probably also given you an insight into the origins and development of the community and how it thrived or declined and how events both within and outside affected the lives of the people living there at that time. So where do you begin?
Start by writing what you know most about
It is easier to start by focusing on topics which you are very familiar with or passionate about. If the research you have already done is extensive and/or ongoing, choose just one theme or topic for your first writing project and save the rest for other essays, articles or separate chapters of a book.. You may find that an idea for a story is simply sparked by a photo, a letter, a building, an anniversary of an event or institution or an interesting document you have found.
Don’t just write about the big stuff
When you start writing by all means mention significant events and people but also tell your readers about the lives and experiences of ordinary people. Your readers want to be able to identify with the people you are writing about and to discover more about the place they may well be living in now. They also want to learn how it has changed, what brought about the changes, which historic sites and landmarks have survived, which traditions live on and so on.
Who is going to read your story?
Before you start to write, think about who you writing for. Are you writing for a specific group of people or publication (for example, a village or local history magazine) or do you want your story to appeal to a wider audience? Knowing your audience can help you to decide how much detail you need to include in your story and how you craft your story.
It is never too soon to start writing
Research can be never ending and the more information you gather the harder it will be to start writing. The risk is that you will suffer from information overload and consequently miss an opportunity to share the work you have done with your potential readers. Don’t underestimate the interest other people may have in your research and the enthusiasm they will have to read your stories – so the sooner you get scribbling the better.
Put your story in a wider historical context
As a local historian your research will not only help you to tell stories about people and places in the past but also how events both within and outside a community or area may have affected the people living and working there. Describing the influences beyond your area of research will put your story in a wider historical context and help to explain the course of events in the place or community you are writing about.
Check your facts
Make sure that what you write is factually accurate. Primary sources are the most accurate but secondary research sources, including internet research, can be less reliable and sometimes misleading. The main rule is, if in doubt leave it out, or make sure that you qualify what you say by adding a phrase such as “according to…” or by referencing your sources.
Bring the past to life
Don’t just present your readers with a chronological list of dry facts, figures and dates. Although dates in history are important your readers will want to be entertained as well as informed. It is your job as a writer to bring your research to life by creating a lively narrative which includes just enough information to create a convincing and accurate story and in a style which is lively and accessible. If you are a new or inexperienced writer this may be difficult at first but with practice you will get better. If you really don’t know how to get started take a look at how other writers do it.
The three main elements of local history writing
Successful non-fiction history writers combine the three elements of good history writing – narrative, description and analysis. By interweaving descriptions of what happened at a particular time and the reasons why these may have happened with an engaging narrative will enable you to tell a story people will want to read. It may be tempting to include every little detail you have uncovered but the art of a good writer is to identify the bits that will make a good story and leave the rest out.
For some tips on how to get started writing a local history, check out my blog post Local history writing tips.