Sunday, April 26, 2009

The War that Inspired a Story - 1812: The War that Forged a Nation

I was reading an article that compared the situations around the War of 1812 to the situations around the current war in Iraq. While it didn't really enlighten me too much, it did pique my interest in the War of 1812, an event that I knew very little about. After bouncing over to the trusted source of info, Wikipedia, I went over to Amazon to see what books existed on the subject. After some research I found that "1812: The War that Forged a Nation" was considered a very accessible overview of the conflict.

I have to say that the book is a solid read, moves at a brisk pace taking you from the many issues that lead up to the war (both official and unofficial) up to the signing of the Treaty of Ghent and the battles that occurred afterward (since it took so long for word of the treaty to arrive by sailing ship from Belgium). Some people have complained that the language in the book is too familiar. But the writer is going for an audience who is not familiar with all the people, places and events. This is not a book for people interested in details and depth. It is an overview and told in a conversational style.

So now I know more about the War of 1812, now what? Well I can use it for story ideas of course!

One of the reasons I enjoy history is that if it is presented right, it's a story. The War of 1812 lends itself to all kinds of possibilities. First is the most obvious, a story that takes place during the war. You've got several factions to pick from, Americans, British, Native Americans, Canadians, Spanish, French and even a pirate or two. You can go wide and attempt to write something epic that covers the entire war, "Gone with the Wind" style. Or you can go tight, picking up a character caught in the war, and told from their point of view. The beauty is that the reasons for the war were never really clear (even to the participants). Sure there was the official reason of sailors rights and oppressive British control of the seas, but many other reasons were just as obvious and not stated (the United States thought parts of Canada would look great on their map). It would be easy to have a Canadian point of view in the story, or maybe even the reluctant militia man sent to cross over into Canadian soil - but not to defend his home, but to take land from the British (something many militia men refused to do).

Then there are the less obvious routes. Add some supernatural elements or even go for an alternate history look. Maybe the British ended up defeating the US in the war. How would that change things? Or maybe one of the reasons the US was able to win the Battle of Lake Champlain was because of some kind of new steam powered weapon.

Of course you could easily push the story into a space opera setting, with all the factions becoming alien worlds, sailing vessels becoming star ships and President James Madison becoming a purple skinned alien with eight arms and one leg. But keep him in the 1800's clothing of course, I mean who wants to get rid of that.

It's also easy to take one element of the war, something trivial or maybe something that just catches your eye and turn it into a story. Maybe a story based on the idea that the British could stop any ship in international waters, search and confiscate any run-away British sailors (or people they claimed were British) and put them to work on their own ships. Again you could put it into any type of setting and with some tweaking come up with something unique.

So for those of you who don't like history but love writing fiction, give this a try. There are a ton of events to pick from, all it takes is a little research and some imagination, and a whole new world of storytelling can open up.

Have you ever used historical events or figures to fuel your writing? If so, how did it work out? Ever have a historical event capture your imagination, causing you to want to know more?

No comments: