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Writing Tips – telling your stories

Use first person: I am a pilot, I am a naturalist, etc.  In living history performances, you ARE the historical character.

Grab the audience’s attention: start writing about  one of the most interesting, exciting, or unusual events in your character’s life.  Avoid beginning a story with: “I was born on February 12th, 1587 in the town of Miltenberg in central Germany.”  Start with something that will make your audience eager to hear more!

More memories, fewer facts:  You want your performance to carry the audience back in time with you to re-live important events in your life.  Focus more on sharing memories and descriptions with your audience, and less on listing facts about your character.

Use the five senses:  Touch, Smell, Sound, Sight, Taste.  Search your writing for places where you can add rich sensory details.  When you describe touching something the audience feels it with you, and that works for taste, smell, sounds and sights, too!  Even if you don’t know what it feels like to touch the jewels on a crown or what it smells like to be surrounded by exploding canons, you can research and imagine, and then carry your audience with you to have those sensations too.  Some examples:

  • Instead of saying just “I had a pretty dress,” tell us details of how it felt to touch the dress:  “I loved to run my fingers through the folds of velvet”
  • Instead of just saying “I smelled the apes,” tell us what the smell and sound was like:  “Odor preceded sound: a musky barnyard human-like scent.  The sounds of a high-pitched series of screams and chest beating preceded sight.  And then I saw their magnificent huge black bodies against the green foliage.”

Historical details: Add them in often!  If you’re driving through the street, are people around you standing in long lines for food, or are they rushing to buy swords, or are they decorating with local tulips for a festival?  There are many different kinds of historical details you can add to your stories, such as:

  • the language you use: musket or cannon or atom bomb or drone
  • the social behaviors & customs you show: Were the clothes washed with a machine, a washboard, a huge vat of boiling water, or a servant?  Were women required to stop working when they married or had children?
  • the names of important people such as a king, a president or a religious leader; or the names of important places such as The Eiffel tower, the Statue of Liberty, or the Taj Mahal.
  • the costume you wear: gloves or a codpiece or a bustle or a nose ring; or how you wear your hair
  • inventions or new discoveries: chewing gum, the ferris wheel, the airplane
  • methods of transportation : bicycle, ocean liner, automobile, hot air balloon, space shuttle
  • methods of communication: letters, telephone, oral traditions, emails
  • news or natural disasters: the Titanic, the American Civil War, the volcanic eruption at Pompeii

Here are some examples of using historical context in a YC project:

  • “My father worked hard to make a life for us, but earned only two dollars per day. Although we were far from rich, all of us got to go to school – even the girls!”
  • “The group of professors was invited to the top of Pike’s Peak.  We rode in prairie wagons pulled by horses.”
  • “In 1893, President Grover Cleveland switched the treasury standard to gold – it was terrible news for Leadville. The price of silver dropped dramatically, and within just a few months 90% of the men in Leadville had no jobs – some even started calling it Deadville.”
  • “I was in the press a lot, and my husband JJ disapproved. He thought that a woman should be mentioned in the newspaper only 3 times in her life: when she was born, when she married, and when she died.”
  • “When I was sent back home, I was made the teacher of the local school. I was fourteen at the time. I had a hard time teaching the school, there were very few books that were suitable for teaching children. The children brought in anything they had. We used Dick Whittington, Robinson Crusoe, and the story of Blue Beard for our books.”
  • “My children stayed at home while I toured and performed; it was customary for maids to raise children until they were old enough for boarding school.”

Even if your character would not have talked about an issue directly, you can use a roundabout technique to include it in your monologue. For example, if Cleopatra would not have cared about the ordinary people enough to describe their lives in a straightforward manner, she could still talk with disgust about ‘those people’ and their filthy habits.  Similarly, Marie Curie, who didn’t like reporters, may point to a pile of letters on her desk and talk about how much she dislikes answering endless questions from reporters because it leaves her less time for her experiments.

Quoting your character:  Using words that your character actually spoke or wrote will help give your monologue an authentic feel, so see if you can slip a few of his/her original words into each of your stories.  However, it’s best to only quote a few phrases or short sentences at a time.  You must also put things in context with your own words – teach us about the character’s time period and what’s happening around you, don’t just read us her whole speech or repeat paragraphs from his autobiography.  Make the stories your own!

Check your verb tenses: Sometimes you’ll want present tense, such as “I want to make the world a better place”; sometimes you’ll need past tense, such as: “I dropped the atom bomb”.

Vary the emotional expression and content:  Try to include different emotions throughout your monologue so that you don’t have the same feeling all the way through.  Is there somewhere you can add you add fright? happiness? pain? disappointment? skepticism? delight? boredom? surprise?   Short sentences can often convey tension, long sentences can convey calmness.

Remember the 3 Guiding Questions: You don’t have enough time to tell everything about your character’s life, so think about the Three Guiding Questions when deciding which stories to tell.  What is the most important thing about your character’s life? Which story best highlights the hardships you faced or obstacles you overcame? Which story shines a light on how historical, political, or social events affected your character? What story shows future generations why they should remember you? What stories make us feel like we are witnessing your life along with you?    Your stories should relate situations  that you faced along the way to achieving that most important thing about your character.   Your stories should be teaching us something lasting and valuable about your character, not simply relating a funny or difficult event.

Slip in the facts… Rather than being direct about facts (which can be dull), try slipping them in when you’re saying something else interesting.  So instead of saying: “I have 2 brothers named Alex and Robbie.”,  try: “My brothers and I went to live with grandmother for the summer” or ” third children rarely become rulers, but I was queen…”     In general, the audience doesn’t usually care exactly how many brothers you have, their ages & occupations, where they live, etc.  The audience is much more interested in hearing about your unique and unusual experiences and emotions than about your family genealogy.

Teach your audience something: A great way to engage your audience is to teach them a word or phrase – perhaps something in a foreign language or a technical term.  You should also frequently be teaching your audience about historical details of your time period.  Whenever you mention a word that will be unfamiliar to your audience, tell them what it means.  For example you could say, “…a member of the cephalopod family, such as squid, octopus and slugs.”

Unknown information about your character: You probably can’t verify every detail about how your character reacted or behaved in a particular situation.  But as a human being, you know how a person feels when they’re waiting to hear the championship results, or when their spouse dies.  Even if you don’t have verification, you should imagine how your character would have felt based on what you know about your character.

And did I mention… the three guiding questions?!

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    S. as Julius Caesar

    S. as Julius Caesar