In this, the first of a series of guest posts for National Share a Story Month, world history author and timeline specialist Christopher Lloyd explains how connecting knowledge together gives narrative its heart.
Why the biggest stories are the best!
Most people, especially when they write non-fiction books – are specialists of some kind. Our modern culture is obsessed with people being experts, doctors and professors – so much so that to succeed in getting a good job (or being taken seriously as a non-fiction author) you must be an expert.
“What’s your special topic?” asks John Humphries, host of the famous BBC Series Mastermind. Maybe it’s a species, an event in history, a famous person, an invention, a movement or a historic place.
I do the opposite. My job is zooming out. For the last 10 years I have made it my business to narrate the biggest possible stories, to connect knowledge together across the widest possible timescales and the farthest geographical co-ordinates. In so doing I like to think I have discovered narratives and stories that for many people simply don’t exist.
That’s why I love timelines. My latest is a rendition of British History published in collaboration with the National Trust. One part is a fold-out timeline of more than 1,000 pictures and captions that charts the story of British history from its emergence as a jagged hunk of rock, as the Atlantic ocean was forming some 60 million years ago, to the political shenanigans of whether we should remain an island nation or not today.
Running along the bottom of the timeline is our coastal history – from the geological marvel of the Giants Causeway to the recent celebrations for the Queen’s diamond jubilee. Across the top runs a dynastic line of rulers detailing key moments and events in the reigns of every monarch since William of Normandy’s seismic conquest. Running across the middle is a street through time – from Stonehenge to the Millennium Done. Woven throughout this structure of coast, street and dynasty are hundreds of people and places that have shaped our island’s story.
In the other half of the book I have taken my 40 favourite moments and written them up as newspaper stories. I used to be a journalist and now, in my effort to write accessible books on history, the style of newspaper reportage seems to be more relevant than ever.
We forget that when we read a history book the events described did not only take place a long time ago – rather the story we are reading is being compiled in our minds by our imaginations in the here and now. Reading makes history present. So why not write it as if it happened yesterday?
That’s how stories about the past become more accessible to children. I believe reportage is also much more honest because it reintroduces the drama of the moment, the excitement and the emotion that is lost by the fiction that history only happened hundreds or thousands of years ago – as if our brains are passive recipients of an inert truth. What tosh!
Once thing I have learned from writing about big history it is that 90% of all human behaviour – from the stone ages to the present day – is shaped by emotions not reasons. We craft rational narratives to explain and justify our actions that are sometimes instinctive and almost always felt.
So whatever stories you like to write – big or small – remember that what matters most, is the emotion and the feelings captured by the atmosphere of a place, the memory of a building or the pathos of a monument.
I have found so many moments in my British History timeline that it is hard to single one out for special treatment. But all of them are treasure troves of the drama of human and non-human endeavour. So why not choose one yourself – ideally with a young person to hand? Find out about it together, go there if you can – and then write the story of what on earth happened as if it happened yesterday.
Then together you can witness and enjoy the drama of the past leaping into life.
Federation of Children’s Book Groups readers can see Christopher Lloyd’s new Wallbook Timeline of British History at www.whatonearthbooks.com/britishhistory (RRP £12.99). Add in the code GOLDEN 5 in the coupon box at the online checkout for a special FCBG £5 discount. Offer lasts until the end of July 2016.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.