Teaching Writing

Where To Begin?…Historical Fiction and Origin Stories: Prompts for Writing Outside

“The thing that most attracts me to historical fiction is taking the factual record as far as it is known, using that as scaffolding, and then letting imagination build the structure that fills in those things we can never find out for sure.”
-Geraldine Brooks

Have you ever come across an old structure, like a dilapidated building or a bridge over a creek in the woods, and asked yourself, “What’s the story here?” Have you ever walked away from the structure and found your imagination going wild, coming up with tales of how it came to be? Have you imagined the makers? Not just the story behind why they made something but the various tools and instruments they used to make it. Did you ever think, “Who invented that thing?”

In the next two prompts you’ll be asked to use this imagination and combine it with real, historical facts to write stories that will creatively answer these questions. In the first, you’ll be asked to think of a real invention important to society and, using your imagination, fill in the details of how the inventor first got the idea and how he went about making it work. And in the second one you’ll be asked to write the made-up story behind the very real (and a little spooky!) abandoned mansion on Cumberland Island.

Writing “Sparks”

Spark from Springfield Armory – Write the story surrounding a real invention important to the world.

Content focus: History of inventions
Age-level recommendations: intermediate writers; 12 and up
Time: 1:13

Park Ranger Pearl from the Springfield Armory National Historic Site talks about the many uses of one of their tools – the Blanchard Lathe –  and asks you to think of another important invention from history. While she asks you to write about that history, for the purpose of this prompt, we ask that you use your imagination to fill in the parts of the story that you might not know about, such as the thoughts and feelings of the inventor.

Note that these videos are available in English and Haitian Creole.

Spark from Cumberland Island National Seashore – Write the imaginary origin story (pourquoi story) of the Dungeness Mansion left on Cumberland Island.

Content focus: Origin or Pourquoi Stories
Age-level recommendations: intermediate writers; 12 and up
Time: 3:02

Park Ranger Ethan from Cumberland Island National Seashore, tells the story behind the Carnegie family’s dungeness mansion left abandoned on the Island and asks you to make up your own characters, plot, and events surrounding how the spooky building came to be.

More about Historical Fiction and Origin Stories:

Below are related resources gathered to further support inquiry and exploration of this topic. If you have additional resources to recommend, please share them online via the hashtag #writeout

Writing Historical Fiction: A guest column write Writer’s Digest by the author of the 2013 YA novel,THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL.

Teaching with Pourquoi Stories: A resource created for the Illinois Education Library about teaching with Pourquoi Stories.

Preparing to Teach Historical Fiction: This blog post from NCTE is part of “Build Your Stack,” a initiative focused on helping teachers build their book knowledge and their classroom libraries. The author includes ways to support reading but also “getting beyond reading” by also writing poetry.

This post is part of the Story-powered Prompts for Writing Outside collection.