Finding the story in history

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My professor was a storyteller. He was a huge inspiration, even if we were slightly scared of him. He’d lunge at you in the small room, point a finger and ask a random question about the Middle Ages. I’ll never forget when it was my turn, first week of my studies: “Who were the Salians?”

I blinked, shocked after having escaped the hugely crowded law studies auditoriums. There was a professor that not only saw me but addressed me, asking a question. What the hell?

My response “a dynasty” was as startled as automatic. I’ve always been into the Middle Ages and read a lot before I’d embarked on the “breadless” subject of Medieval and Ancient History, despite my family moaning about how they didn’t respect me for dropping out of law (having a lawyer in the family could have saved them a lot of money after all).

It was something of a received wisdom to “sit well to the back” in Professor H’s lectures. He’d do that. Sit down on your table and grill you. He radiated boundless energy, sheer glee at his topic, true passion, which can be overwhelming when you’re a first semester still trying to work out what dishes in the canteen are actually edible and which should be avoided at all costs, whereas the other professors were true academics – dry, razor sharp and much more concerned with dates and factual accuracy than what people were like, what they thought and felt.

Over my studies, I was constantly drawn to Professor H’s lectures. It was not only the topics – he did a lot of social history and history of ‘mentality’ – how people and certain groups thought and saw themselves – but the way he delivered the lectures. Walking around, talking like an ancient orator, discussing with himself as much as with us, and asking questions. I remember him telling a story about a duke and a king and a duchess, and the duchess leaving the duke for the king. He got really worked up about this, voice vibrating with emotion, face flushed, saying things like “How could she?” and “That faithless bastard.” I only later learnt that he was going through a difficult divorce himself.

He was the only professor who thought that fiction was a legitimate way to talk about history. “There’s “story” in “history”, you know,” he said one day in the canteen. (In German, “Geschichte” – history – and “Geschichte” – story – is the same word). He was the only professor whom I told that I was writing historical novels. The others sniffed at the idea of leaving the purity of facts behind and asking “what if”?

Back then, I wanted to be a serious historian, and they told you that fiction was not serious. Certainly not serious history. But I just couldn’t help getting inspired by a throwaway comment of Professor H’s. I can now confess that my frantic scribbling in his lectures wasn’t note-taking.

In many ways, Professor H, with his reckless passion and hard questions, was the inspiration behind writing historical fiction. I wondered about the people that had no voice, who lived in the cracks of medieval society, whose life depended on keeping their loves hidden, and how they still managed to stay true to themselves and find a way to live. Those questions turned into stories.

Fourteen years separate “Who were the Salians?” from Lion of Kent. I left university with a degree that wasn’t quite as breadless as my family expected, even though I left academia – and didn’t, because I’ve taken all my history books and keep buying more.

I still sometimes email Professor H, and his passion is still as alive as it was back then. It’s heartening to think that he’ll sit on a first semester’s table and ask them unexpected questions, and that he’ll inspire more writers to move beyond pure facts and find the story in history.

Aleksandr Voinov
Please visit Alex’s website, his blog, or his Facebook!

8 thoughts on “Finding the story in history”

  1. azteclady says:

    I wish I had studied under Professor H!

    I wondered about the people that had no voice, who lived in the cracks of medieval society, whose life depended on keeping their loves hidden, and how they still managed to stay true to themselves and find a way to live. Those questions turned into stories.

    It is a great question, indeed. Thank you for giving us your answers to it.

  2. Thanks, azteclady…I thank my lucky stars that I’d found him. (There weer a couple others…maybe I’ll tell the story of “the elephant of God”) next time. :)

  3. Amora says:

    Awesome. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Marcie says:

    Thank you. And, thank you, Professor H.

  5. He sounds like an inspirational teacher.

  6. Karalynn Lee says:

    Great post! I can only cheer on any author who has such a thorough grounding in history and is sure to get the period details right. And I’m delighted to hear of such an awesome professor who recognized that history comes to us through narrative. Many of my story ideas have been sparked by something learned in history or anthropology, although I was never quite so daring as to write stories in my lectures.

  7. What a fascinating teacher! I like how he embraces the notion that, before something becomes “history”, it is somebody’s life–filled with drama, and humor, and all the details of being human. It’s only later that these things get reduced to dry “facts” or dates that commemorate an event.

    Since there aren’t more Professor H-types, I’m glad we have storytellers instead. :)

  8. Thanks, guys. :)

    The frantic scribbling of course meant that I had no notes to fall back onto – so I had to read all that stuff in the books (what hardship… :) ). I think the biggest inspiration happened in the little chats outside curriculum. Just the passion was infection. I learnt it was okay to have that emotional connection to people who are long dead – it’s not very scientific or academic, but great for a writer.

    And as we can see, one Professor H is enough to keep a writer going for years. :)

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