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?