Thursday, August 25, 2022

Those Who Forget the Past by Connie Berry

A Journey Into Our Past

One of my favorite days this summer was a visit to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home on the banks of the Potomac. My guide was Grace Topping, a good friend and fellow WWK blogger. I’d been in Alexandria for an author event, and since I had a late flight back to Ohio, I phoned Grace to see if we might have lunch and catch up. My last-minute thought turned into a memorable day.

I’d visited Mount Vernon as a child. My mother, a former elementary school teacher with a passion for history, made sure family vacations included lessons from the past—lots of them. We literally never passed a historical marker. Now, as an adult, I saw eighteenth-century America with new eyes.

Lessons From the Past

Washington’s decision to forfeit power and return to private life impressed me, as did the foresight of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association who, in 1860, purchased the near-decrepit house and opened it to the public. The day was beastly hot, and I pondered again how people lived without the comforts we take for granted—central heating, air conditioning, refrigeration, electricity, indoor plumbing. More than that, I thought about the many enslaved people whose job it was to make life as pleasant as possible for the Washington family while their own lives were considered unimportant—if they were considered at all.

With my mind very much on the past, we headed back to Grace’s car. On the way, we encountered a woman and a young boy, perhaps fourteen or fifteen, who were arriving for their visit. As we passed them, we heard the boy ask, “Does George Washington still live here?”


Do we still teach history in our schools or had this boy simply not been paying attention?

Have We Forgotten Our Past?

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” The quote has been attributed to a number of people, including the Irish economist Edmund Burke, the Spanish philosopher George Santayana, and Winston Churchill. How do we reconcile that statement with Thomas Jefferson’s quote about history being written by the victors?

The lesson I learned at Mount Vernon is that history must tell the whole truth, the unvarnished truth, or it isn’t history.

Using the Past in Fiction

Which brings me to fiction-writing. A few years ago I wrote a blog with my top ten tips for creating memorable characters. I talked about creating fully realized characters with skills and  abilities, disabilities and struggles, strengths and weaknesses, fears, failings, and flaws. The characters we create should also have a past—a personal history some call “the rich, full life” with secrets, regrets, successes, failures, and families who have shaped them for better or for worse. Much of our characters’ past histories will never make it onto the page—authors know a lot more than they tell—but our characters’ past lives are what motivate and enrich their present actions, thoughts, feelings, and responses. Giving our characters a personal and cultural history puts their lives in context and helps us reveal their uniqueness as human beings.

We're Not Doomed to Repeat the Past--Neither Must We Forget It

What lessons from the past, personal or cultural, have shaped your life?

How have you used the history of a fictional character to add depth and complexity?


  1. Most of my fictional characters have a biography "cheat sheet." In addition to physical characteristics, it has telling details that seldom make it onto the page. Their family makeup, esp. in childhood and the circumstances in which they grew up; pets throughout their lives and how they related to them; what their favorite drink is--someone who downs boilermakers is very different from one who sips champagne; what kind of car they would like to drive vs. what they do drive, if they care at all.

  2. I love all those details, KM--especially the pets and the cars!

  3. I visited Mt Vernon with my HS class during our senior year trip and more recently on a Thanksgiving weekend with my kids. I loved the setting, gardens, and "family home" atmosphere of the plantation. We also met the presidential pardoned turkeys.

    I have bios of my main characters with their favorite breakfasts, cars, shoes, pets, adult beverages. It makes a difference.

  4. Our parents might have been separated at birth, Connie. I remember my parents taking me to Mt. Vernon as a child and being enthralled by the docent presentation and the grounds. It was spring.

    My characters all have bios that feature appearance, likes, dislikes, critters, favorite songs, artists, and books!

  5. Love that place. We used to live near by and one of my daughters even worked at the Inn for a while! I do think it's important to know our characters' histories - and sprinkle a few mysteries in their background as well.

  6. Margaret, it does make a difference. Just as we are impacted by history, so are our characters.

  7. Kait, I like the care you take in developing characters. It makes a difference.

  8. Shari, it's not just in our writing, is it? Knowing where we've come from as a nation--how as imperfect people, we strive to live up to our ideals--is essential.