History comes from the Greek word historia meaning to inquire. I imagine history to be sort of like an autopsy. Cut the body open and examine its parts. We find the damaged areas and make a supposition. If there’s a knife wound to the heart, we can say it was blood loss. Then it’s the detective’s (or maybe the storyteller’s) job to figure out why.
History begs for storytelling. Even the word contains story. And what is story, exactly? Story is narrative, story gives meaning to random events. Story creates meaning. Without story, life would be a series of events, disconnected, isolated, and without meaning. No matter if we recreate story from historical fact or from contemporary life, or from imaginative futures, story is part of being human. And when a story doesn’t make sense, we walk away shaking heads, wondering why we wasted our time.
But history is not simply story. History has the added perspective of time. It’s the writer’s job to create importance and meaning from facts that time uncovers. Then the scattered jigsaw pieces must be arranged into a landscape, a face, or a scene. They must be framed.
Curiosity drives my writing and I’m a research junky. There’s nothing more thrilling than learning some obscure little fact and fitting it into the rest of the story. For example, just the other day I learned that Jews were not allowed to have pets under the Nazi regime. Maybe that’s common knowledge for other Third Reich researchers but it was news to me.
I think it was Isaac Newton who famously gave us this law: for every action there is a reaction. If this, then that. And whether it’s science, math, history, or speculative fiction, a story has to make sense. And sometimes that means veering away from the facts so that you can be true to your characters and to the story arc. As a novelist, I’m interested in how the characters feel and the reasoning behind their actions. Guilt and shame, love and fear. These are the jigsaw pieces I want to get right.
Because we humans have something called memory, we can experience events and then re-experience them—embellish them.
I visit a nursing home where I see old people sit and stare vacantly into space. Do they spend their time making a story of their life? If this, then that. If I’d done this, maybe then this wouldn’t have happened. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the mind simply grows confused and stagnant. I’d like to think that everyone tries to make sense of their life until the very end—that it unfolds like the pages of a novel.
So if everyone has their own life story to work on, why would anyone read a novel? David Shields suggests that novels are losing their power and that memoir is the future of storytelling. I have to disagree. I think novels will always be important tools on our journey of self-discovery because they connect us to each other and that connection is where all the power—the magic— happens.
Novels are powered by imagination and go beyond the facts of memoir. They are not just works of self-reflection, they are new creations. It's in creating, not reflecting, that we are go beyond ourselves. And yet, like a paradox, the two are linked—each incomplete without the other.