Truth is Stranger Than Fiction* – Bringing the Past to Life – Non-Fiction Workshop with Carolyn O’Hara – 17 February 2021

Carolyn O’Hara’s infectious enthusiasm and passion for historical non-fiction writing brought our screens to life, guiding a busy Zoom session of nineteen participants through her Bringing the Past to Life workshop.

A talented poet and non-fiction writer, with articles published in a variety of magazines (Scottish Memories, Highlander and Best of British) Carolyn has also recently published her first non-fiction book.

 Carolyn opened the evening with a brief resumé of her journey to publication – a journey triggered by the discovery of an old family scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings (her great-grandfather’s Ayrshire PostOculeus’ columns for 1898). Initially, the scrapbook inspired a Scottish Memories magazine article. Family encouragement, plus eight years of meticulous, dedicated research, finally resulted last August in the publication of –

Oculeus – the Musings of a Liberal Victorian in Ayr.


So, why should we write historical nonfiction? What are the advantages and disadvantages? How old is old? When do events become history? And what historical material can we use to instigate our writing?

Historical non-fiction, Carolyn explained, requires no imagination – when working with facts we know how the story unfolds and ends.  We can explore human behaviour, examine the past and contrast to our present. Hopefully our contribution could add to historical resources.

But we need to be wary of getting information wrong and cope with the challenge of verifying recollections and memories while accepting historical non-fiction has limitations – we are, after all, stuck with the facts!

Events more than twenty years old, normally qualify as being history, although this can be age-dependent – an incident which is common knowledge and familiar to older generations (Carolyn gave the example of the 1980s AIDS epidemic), may be unknown territory to younger generations.

Inspiration and information can be gleaned from various resources. Carolyn’s treasure trove was her scrapbook. However, she suggested, we should look to family artefacts, photographs, letters, diaries, obituaries, documents as well as old newspapers, books and advertisements for suitable material to write about.


Finding the right ‘voice’ for our writing is important. We should ask ourselves – do I have a personal connection to the material? If yes, Carolyn recommended we write in a subjective voice which is more emotive and links us to our piece. If we have no connection, an objective voice, usually third person and more formal, might work better.

Carolyn set us the short task of writing two pieces based on the historical text of our choice; one written using a subjective voice, the second written using an objective view. We’d been supplied with newspaper clippings, documents etc. to use (our homework) or invited to use our own material.

Maggie B used a family obituary from the early 1890s, including the wonderful detail that her ancestor had suffered – ‘serious mischief of a constitutional nature’. Fiona A had an oil painting of military ancestor and a pamphlet relating to his trial.  Damaris had a photograph of her grandmother and her twin sister with a fantastic handwritten and illustrated US college sorority summons. Nigel had a file of documents dating from the 1780s, including handwritten letters written by his 6x-great grandfather.

Their contrasting articles proved writing subjectively on historical subjects they had a personal link to came more naturally, had more feeling and brought social history to life.

On the other hand, Ajay used one of Carolyn’s prompt newspaper clippings – a newspaper report of an attack on Bloemfontein during the Boer War. With no connection to it, he found easier to write objectively. I agreed with Ajay – I used a snippet from the Air Advertiser from July 1821 promoting a Grand Subscription Concert in Air – and my objective article came easier than my subjective effort.

(Please, no correspondence about the above spellings – apparently it is as it appears in the 1821 newspaper. Ed.)


Writing exercise No. 2 – ‘The Chronicles of You’. Carolyn asked us to ponder a global or local event from the past – write about what happened, how old we were, how it affected us at the time and if it impacts us still today. Taking an unusual, interesting and personal angle on a well-known historical happening can result in a unique article.

Jennifer wrote about her horror on watching 9/11 unfold at her workplace and how she was reluctant to fly afterwards. Carey used the same traumatic incident but wrote from the perspective of the schoolgirl she’d been in 2001. Matt remembered his first experience of ‘where you were when you heard the news’ – Princess Diana’s death in a Parisian tunnel in 1997. Suzy had us laughing at her memory of the Dundonald Pram Race of 1985, then Fiona McF moved us with her recollection of praying her football fan husband would return safe from the horror of Hillsborough.


Other points on non-fiction writing discussed were:

Quotations – how best to use them.

Places for Research – libraries, history websites and blogs, Scottish History Network, Ayrshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, local history groups and more.

Note taking – Carolyn cautioned against random, informal note taking and recommended an organised and systematic approach to recording research.

Choice of structure – chronological (best if using letters/diaries) or thematic (best if using newspapers, books, documents)

Linkage – advice on how to keep the flow of your book by linking the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next.

Research notes – do you acknowledge in the main text of your book, or provide optional footnotes or a page of notes at rear of book?

Read your work aloud – or use the Read Aloud facility on the latest incarnation of Windows.

Getting your work out and published – magazines to submit to – Family Tree, Scotland (formerly Highlander), Reader’s Digest, Best of British, History Today.

Non-fiction book – Skyhorse Publishing.

Sharing your work – history blogs, talks at Rotary Clubs, Women’s Guilds etc.


The Bringing the Past to Life workshop was informative and motivational. Thank you, Carolyn.  Our members produced amazing short articles in response to her writing exercises. Articles which, in my opinion, once researched, written and polished, will deserve to be published. Several may well confirm the Mark Twain* quote – ‘Truth is stranger than fiction.’  Particularly if you’re writing about the Dundonald Pram Race of 1985.

Linda Brown

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