Some lucky writers stumble upon a soldier's diary from the Civil War or an intriguing love letter in their grandparents' attic, and their stories just seem to unfold from there. But in Simon Partner's historical-fiction class, students must instead resort to dutiful research and a flowing imagination in order to craft stories set decades, even centuries ago.
Before the writing begins, students read a variety of historical works in order to form a foundation of techniques and theories on which to build. Partner's syllabus pairs fiction with nonfiction, and he asks students to consider what makes for successful storytelling and why it has fascinated people throughout history. Each week,
the class focuses on a specific time and place—twentieth-century Japan, say, or the Depression-era Dust Bowl. Students examine different storytelling techniques employed, question the quality
of the portrayal of the historical backdrop, and observe how different approaches in narrative can result in different stories.
But the course's main focus is the stories told by the students themselves. By the end of the semester, each student is expected to produce a substantial piece of historical fiction or nonfiction at least thirty pages long. Topics have included the Cherokee Trail of Tears, the Black Panthers movement, and the Taiping Rebellion. The class is structured as a series of workshops; students lead the discussions and critique each other's work.
Throughout the semester, Partner emphasizes the responsibilities inherent in writing historical fiction. He says he believes that his role as a historian is to make history accessible. That requires a narrative approach rather than one that is purely analytical. There is "some kind of extraordinary power to storytelling," Partner says.
He challenges students to find new approaches for classic storylines but cautions them against taking on "too much story," trying to cover topics too broad or complex for the space allotted in the assignment. History is a collection of stories that play out over long periods, he says. It is in the details that a narrative truly comes to life.
Simon Partner graduated from the University of Cambridge, and went on to earn an M.B.A. from Manchester Business School and a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University. He received a Fulbright Research Fellowship in 2000. His research interests include twentieth-century Japan.
None. Open to upperclassmen and graduate students
The syllabus consists of three types of readings: theory of narratives, excerpts from historical fiction, and excerpts from nonfiction appealing to a general audience
One piece of historical fiction or nonfiction, at least thirty pages long and based on a minimum of one primary source