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How to Bring History to Life through Storytelling
by Chris King

Years ago when I was in school, there was one subject that I disliked and dreaded — history. I have discovered in recent years that I love history and that the reason I hated it in school was the method of teaching, not the subject. Learning dates, names, and facts was boring and difficult.

But now that I am hearing, learning and creating historical stories, the subject has come to life — it is exciting, interesting and captivating. One of the most popular and asked for workshops that I give has the title of this article, so I will share some of the same techniques I share in my workshop.

Pick a time period and/or person that interests you. You might think that this would go without saying, but when the word is out that we tell historical stories others will request certain periods or people from history. There are tellers who have been hired by communities and businesses to create stories about their history. These tellers always make sure, however, that they can dedicate their time and energy to these special projects. I find that working on historical stories can be even more demanding than working on a folktale or a personal story. And that is because of the time expended in:

Research, research, research. Creating an historical story involves extensive research and attention to details. To make your story come to life, you have to know so much more than you will ever include so that you feel just like you were there at the time. You need to know what the setting was, felt like and looked like. What did people wear? What kind of food did they eat? What was their livelihood? What did they read? How did they think? What was important to them? We are fortunate that people in days gone by wrote letters to each other, so if you can find collections of letters from a time period, you will gain true insight into that time period.

One of my historical stories is about the time when Gauguin joined Van Gogh in Arles. Fortunately, both men wrote letters that revealed their opposite personalities, what led to their arguing and finally to Van Gogh’s cutting off his own ear.

As you get into reading newspaper clippings, letters, and articles about your chosen subject, you will be amazed by how immersed and interested you will become. If you can find people who lived in that time period, or had relatives who told them stories, you will discover a whole new slant that will add richness to your story.

Decide the best method for telling the story. I especially like telling the story in the first person, taking on the persona of someone who was there (or might have been there). In my Van Gogh story, for example, I have created an old woman who was only 12 years old when Van Gogh arrived in Arles. She was the Postmaster’s daughter (you may remember all of his paintings of the Postmaster). Now that she is in her eighties, some young art students are visiting her to hear the story which, “Oh yes, I have told the story of those two so many times.” I had to decide how a young girl of 12 might react to what happened.

There are some tellers who dress the part. I know one who does a whole combination storytelling and acting performance about Johnny Appleseed. I may throw on a hat, scarf and granny glasses, but that is about as far as I go. I also warn against telling the story with an accent unless it is authentic. It not only slows down the movement of the story, but can also cut down on audience comprehension. Judith Black, on the other hand, is a storyteller who has an acting background and tells some of the most moving historical narratives that I have ever experienced. Because of her acting skills and dedication to hard work, she has the capability to take on different speaking parts in her stories, making them seamless and convincing. Unless you can achieve this, I suggest telling in a straight forward style. It is OK to add natural drama. Just make sure you are enhancing, not detracting from the story.

Use the power of true, real life stories from real people. Our nursing homes and assisted living establishments offer a plethora of rich stories and story ideas. A great way to gather these timeless treasures is to spend time with the elderly sharing some of your family stories, which, in turn, will remind them of theirs. Ask if it is all right if you record their words. It usually will be once they are comfortable (they may even be flattered that you are interested and willing to spend the time with them}. There is a well known storyteller in our area who tells stories at many nursing homes. After she has told her own stories from the past, her mature listeners are eager to share some of their stories. This is a great way to start others telling their tales.

To get started, get the book Many Voices : True Tales from America's Past published by The National Storytelling Association in Jonesborough, Tennessee. This fascinating book consists of a collection of 36 stories … “Much more than a collection of unrelated facts, names, and dates, our history is indeed our story — our interpretation of past events, a reflection of the way we see ourselves and of what we think really matters.”

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