Micro-History and Storytelling
Jane Austen famously said, “Real solemn history, I cannot be interested in…. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.” One good story is more fun than all that solemn history, right? Maybe not. Here at History Imagined we love both the stories and the history.
The two fit together perfectly. My mom and dad enriched my life with their storytelling. They instinctively knew the old truth that every good story deserves embellishment and consequently their stories were highly entertaining. At the same time they gave me my first introduction to micro-history.
Micro what? Micro-history consists in information about little things: regular people, ordinary houses, and the myriad little events that make up our lives. My parents’ stories constituted one form of family history. When genealogists document their family stories from public records, private papers, and archival material, their research is micro-history. That’s another type of family history.
My husband announced he wanted to research his family soon after he retired. The librarian in me reacted with a yawn. Your great grandfather fought in the civil war? Every family has one. But I agreed to help. We tracked down the great grandfather’s records and sure enough, he fought in an Ohio volunteer regiment. Then I saw it: “Promoted to sergeant July 3, 1863.” Gettysburg! We had connected our micro-history to the country’s macro-history. I was hooked.
I quickly discovered that micro-history isn’t limited to family. The records are full of interesting individuals with stories to tell. Soon we were researching an entire company of civil war soldiers and the places they fought, riding up and down country roads in Pennsylvania and Georgia.
Moving to a new town? More to research. A building doesn’t have to be Buckingham Palace to have a compelling history. Land records, courthouse deed books, insurance maps, and city directories all have stories to tell. Towns are built on dozens of stories. Maps can sometimes tell still more.
One of the best examples of micro-history I’ve ever seen is the Tenement Museum in New York City’s lower east side. Instead of decorating rooms as they might have looked or could have looked, the curators researched the lives of the real folks who actually lived at 97 Orchard Street. Visitors choose a tour. They may learn about the German family who ran a saloon on the first floor, the Italian family on the third floor, or the Irish family who moved far from the center of Irish life to what was then a Jewish area. Guides use photos, documents, and newspaper articles and so on to make life in the tenement come to life with the successes, failures, joys and sorrows of those lives. There are far too many stories for any one tour.
It doesn’t take long before the urge to embellish the facts takes hold. As fiction writers we feed on the scraps of history—the stories, the primary documents, the maps, the letters, and the photos—and in the end turn them into stories we embellish to tell our own truths. American historical fiction is built on the records of the colonies, the frontiers, and the ordinary men and women who go about living lives, earning livings, and feeding their families. Allan Eckart’s books come to mind. Do you have a favorite?
For samples of how I feed my imagination for my own stories, check my Pinterest boards.