Using historical narratives to teach history – The role of research in crafting stories

Let’s examine how research helps promote ideas and story development. Let’s look at how research helped to craft Little Hatshepsut.

Research provides characters and story lines.

At the start of this process the writer of the stories in the book hiSTORY  didn’t have much of a clue what would happen in each of the stories in this book. No-one whispered magic formulas and ideas in his ear… In fact, all the writer knew most of the time was that the story had to be set in a particular time and in a particular place. Like most everyone else, the first question that popped into his mind was – what will I write about?

But the writer did have a bit of help. The task wasn’t left completely open.

ALL of the stories in the book hiSTORY started with the writer being given a task. Just as is happening to you, the writer was given a brief – which is another way of saying “a job”. In the writer’s case the job was that he had to stick to content descriptions about what to write in his national curriculum for history. He couldn’t write about any old thing… it had to relate to the curriculum. Other than that, it was up to his imagination.

Beauty, you might be saying. That means just about anything goes; the writer can put in pink fairies and enormous elephants and people who can walk through walls. They can use mobile phones and have access to super computers. So long as the fairies are wearing Egyptian costumes (if the story is set in ancient Egypt) or Roman togas (ancient Rome), and so long as the enormous elephants are wandering around in Carthage (more on ancient Rome)… it’s all right.

Alas, it wasn’t so. Unfortunately, the task also had a small condition – it had to be real for the times and material circumstances; it had to be credible history. No Chinese peasants were allowed to pull out semi-automatic rifles and blow away attacking legions of Mongol warriors. No playing around with history; the material circumstances of the time (the level of technology, the resources they had and used) and their beliefs and values had to be adhered to.

What that meant of course was that the author really had to start with reading. Yep, good old reading; also called research. What was life like back in ancient Egypt or Rome or, to get a little more modern, what happened in Renaissance Italy?  As the reading progressed, ideas might be born…

Little Hatshepsut in fact began with a search string: “Ancient Egypt and daily life”. Then the writer got interested in the fact that apparently – in Ancient Egypt – women were treated much better in daily life than women in many other ancient societies. There were women priests and women could own property and so on and so forth… It seemed like it was a wonderful time for females? But was it? More reading revealed that men in fact still had most of the power (and who has the power and who wants to take that power from them are always great questions for a writer to think about – because it adds the spice of CONFLICT). Then the writer (who did not study Ancient Egypt at school and really knew very little) discovered there had been a few female pharaohs. One of them, the most famous, was called Hatshepsut. But even poor old Hatshepsut had had to pretend she was really a man and had her portrait done with a beard. So even a female pharaoh was downtrodden, just because she was female. Nevertheless, Hatshepsut ruled for over 20 years… so she must have been stubborn and a good ruler… Ah, story ideas were born.

Wouldn’t such a ruler have had a big ‘rep’?

In fact, it happened that the man who became pharaoh after Hatshepsut (her nephew!) hated the fact that he’d been kept from the throne for so long. His name was Thutmoses III and he attempted to erase Hatshepsut’s name from history. He failed… but what a good yarn we had here.

Research provides context.

Context is what surrounds us. It’s the culture we live in, it’s our physical environment, it’s the level of technology and the things that are happening now. Stories need context that appears real. People need to live in real homes and use the correct technology for their time and not have outlandish ideas that people did not have at that time. Research helps the writer find out real context.

Little Hatshepsut was not going to be the real Hatshepsut’s story. Writing about queens and kings isn’t something the writer really knows much about. He’s far more ordinary than that… What he did know about was that girls in modern society still get a raw deal – this might make some girls a bit angry (it’s always good to have at least half your audience on side). And he’d discovered that in ancient Egypt a father could tell his daughter (despite females having more freedom) whom she should marry. So… what if an ancient Egyptian girl aged about 13 or so – yes, they got married young – didn’t want to marry the ‘man’ her father had picked for her (good business sense is the motive)? What if this girl had a stubborn streak; in fact, what if her nickname was ‘little Hatshepsut’?

Such a girl, the writer decided, would storm out on her father when he announced his choice of husband for her. She’d be steaming mad. And she’d have a special place she’d go when she got mad. Where? Ooh, somewhere down near the Nile. It had to be the Nile because that was wildly important to Egyptians. In fact, so he’d discovered, they had a special god for the Nile floods called Hapi. Yahoo, hapi days (groan) – the writer decided she’d have a favourite hangout near a shrine to Hapi. Right beside the banks of the Nile. Weren’t there crocodiles in the Nile River (research, research). Yes, there were. What if she threw herself in the river and was eaten by a crocodile? That would show her dad… No it wouldn’t – she was a clever girl. She wasn’t going to throw her life away in a moment of anger… The rest (you’ll have to read Little Hatshepsut if you haven’t already done so) is history…

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