Unlocking the People’s Histories: Q&A with tutor Sarah Wise

03 May 2016 / News

In your experience, what is the most interesting thing about looking back in history to a particular social/cultural group?

8421640The sheer unlikeliness of events — I’ve never felt the need to make anything up, ie to write fiction, because actual happenings were often so bizarre, colourful and unpredictable.

If you could read (and write about) any archive in the world, which one would you choose?

Since my three foreign languages are very rusty, I’d have to stick to English-language sources and plump for the mile-after-mile of holdings at the National Archives in Kew. It’s just the most stunning treasure trove of voices and opinions. Much of the material remains uncatalogued, so when you haul up a box, you’re never quite sure what gems may be lying in among the documents.

Characterisation in non-fiction: how important is it?

It can very much help to bring the past alive for the general reader, or non-specialist, just so long as you’re not imposing your personality, or voice, on to someone from the past. It’s key to listen out for their authentic voice as hard as you can, and better still, bring characters from the past on stage so that they can speak for themselves.

I know that archaeological remains have constituted an important part of your book research in the past. What was the most revealing object you worked with and why?

The Museum of London Archaeology service (MOLA) very kindly allowed me to keep some rubble and broken crockery from their dig on the site of the Old Nichol slum in East London. I never thought I’d actually hold some of the ruins in my hands. I pass them round at talks, and they do cause a bit of a thrill, despite the dust that comes off them!


Did you enjoy reading Sarah’s Q&A?Tutortakeover

On Tuesday May 10th Sarah Wise will take over Arvon’s Twitter account to answer questions, give tips and engage in conversation on non-fiction writing.

Date: Tuesday May 10th 2016

Time: 2pm – 3pm

How to participate: Tweet your questions at @arvonfoundation AND use the #Tutortakeover hashtag. Sarah Wise will answer your questions.

A few ideas to spark off conversation might be:

  • Historical non-fiction writing
  • Archival research for writing projects
  • Possible research methods including walking, archaeology, photography and oral history
  • Writing about less explored social groups in history
  • How to Crack a city’s history
  • How to make historical characters come to life

Totleigh-Sarah-WiseJoin Sarah Wise at Totleigh Barton in August for 5 days of non-fiction writing.

August 22nd – August 27th 2016

This course is suitable for writers who already have a creative non-fiction project in mind (a local history, social history, biography, travelogue) and would like some advice and encouragement. It examines ways in which the UK’s rich archival holdings can suggest new stories and angles; and it aims to open up pathways of research that seem to be blocked. We will explore a variety of research methods and creative writing techniques including: archival research, photography, walking, oral history and archaeological remains, all of which can be used to create exciting and moving narratives.



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