A Sense of History

I like history.  I think we have to know where we’ve been before we can understand how and why we got where we are now.

It’s true of the world at large, and a lot of what we call history is the recounting of momentous events and larger-than-life people doing momentous things.  But I’m even more interested in small histories -- the very personal, intimate stories of individuals.  The sum of our small histories gives texture and meaning to the larger sweep of mankind.

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If you read one of my novels, you know the importance I attach to backstory.  I have to know how my characters got here, how the baggage they tote from their past affects how they’re moving through the present.  When I offer a story, I’m like a lawyer arguing a case before a jury.  I need to give enough background to let you know that my story and characters are authentic.  I need to offer what lawyers call extenuating and mitigating circumstances.  In my new novel, The Governor’s Lady, I devote chapters to my central character’s history.  In other works, it may be a sentence or paragraph here and there.  But the backstory is crucial to me in understanding the character, and then presenting the character to my readers.

That really hit home when the Hallmark Hall of Fame folks were making a movie from my first novel, Home Fires Burning.  I adapted the two-hour screenplay from a 500-page novel, so I had to leave out a great deal.  But Glenn Jordan, the director, required the cast members to read the book before they came to the set, and I’m sure that in a thousand ways, they brought a richer understanding of their characters to the portrayal.

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My love of histories large and small is what intrigues me about an oral history project going on these days in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  It’s called StoryLine, and it’s based on the premise that when people in a community share their stories, it fosters an understanding of what they have in common.  StoryLine does its work from a small bus that serves as a studio.  You and a story partner sit down before microphones and have a conversation about who you are and where you come from.  Some of the stories, in edited form, air on local radio stations.  They all go into an archive at the Forsyth County Library: a treasure trove for the community’s understanding of itself, now and in the future.

But you don’t have to have a studio in a bus to record history.  Any kind of recording device will do just fine.  The thing is to sit down with a friend or relative and just talk about who you are, how you got where you are now, your hopes and dreams.  It’s especially important for the older generations in our families.  Before it’s too late, preserve their stories.  I wish I had been smart enough to do that with my parents.  When they passed on, I lost a good bit of my own history.  I’m poorer for that.

I once heard a semi-famous man say, “We never see the handwriting on the wall until our backs are to it.”  I think he was right in the sense that we often turn our backs on our history and keep repeating mistakes.  But it needn’t be that way.  It takes having a sense of and appreciation for history – and then, like StoryLine, doing something about it.

Delbert Earle and the Author

“You don’t work,” says my friend Delbert Earle, “you’re a writer.”

My friend Delbert Earle has always had a jaundiced view of this thing I do to make a living.  His idea of work is anything in which you lift, tote, fetch, hammer, dig, explode, or stand around a hole in the ground watching somebody else do one of those things.

“But writing is hard work,” I protest.  “I sometimes sweat profusely when I’m writing.  I have occasionally broken down in tears.  Have you ever had to use a jackhammer on writer’s block?”

“Have you ever shed blood in the course of your work?” he asks.

“Paper cuts,” I answer defensively.  “Paper cuts can be painful.”

“Have you ever filed for workmen’s compensation?”


"Well, then.”

So it was with some trepidation that I told my friend Delbert Earle about this new novel, which I’ve finished after years of sweat, tears, and paper cuts.  “I have even found someone to publish it,” I announced.  “In September.”

"What’s it called?” he asked.

The Governor’s Lady.”

“What’s it about?”

“A feisty woman.”

“Like your wife?”

“Feisty,” I repeated.

“Does she get some of the profits?”

“All of them.”

“Okay,” says Delbert Earle, “what happens next?”

“I shall go forth and ask people to buy it and read it.  It’s where art meets commerce.”

“Shameless hucksterism,” he says.

“Yea, verily,” I say.  “Where two or more are gathered…”

Maybe I bear some responsibility for Delbert Earle’s notion of what it takes to write.  He once asked me, “How do you write a book, anyway?”

I replied, “You stare out the window until you think up something, and then you write it down.  Then you stare out the window some more until you think up something else, and then you write that down.  You keep doing that over and over until you’ve thought up everything you can think up, and then you write THE END and send it off to your publisher.”

Did I oversimplify here?

At any rate, Delbert Earle is my very good friend, and despite his misgivings about my profession, he is pleased by my good news.  He promised to buy a book in September, and says he might even find it interesting to read, since we are both married to feisty women.  And he has decided what he will give me as a congratulatory gift: a box of band-aids.

Robert Inman’s novels are available on on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Kobo.