Nonfiction History Arc: Specific Settings

We complete a three-part arc in Historical Non-Fiction with Specific Settings. Please think about what these three topics had in common as appeal and how they differed for this meeting.

Assignment for May 23, 2017:

Benchmark: Everyone reads Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Stories of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. (1996)

Resources:  Cords, Sarah Statz. The Real Story. 2006 Libraries Unlimited. P.149-153, 161, 164. Handed out 11/22/16


Notes sbmited by Diane Giarusso 


The NE RART delved into three nonfiction historical subgenres—Defining Times, Microhistories, and Specific Settings. In addition, over the summer we read an historical fiction and an historical nonfiction pairing on the same subject/topic.

Here is the list of appeal that we found most important to readers Historical Nonfiction.

SETTING—must evoke time, place, social aspects; details should reflect the author’s research

STYLE–Narrative Flow—reads like fiction in that it has a storyline where the author’s use of language, setting, and focus all come together with an artful integration of salient details

SUBJECT—Reader’s interest drives choices

CHARACTER—closely related to setting.  Seeing history through one or more characters gives the narrative a hook that allows readers to relate. Anachronistic characters are not tolerated.

PACE—closely related to style. Some readers want a slower approach with obvious researched detail; others want more integrated novel with the story line for a faster pace.

Thank you to Diane Giarusso, Tatjana Saccio, Beth Safford, Jessica Atherton, Jerusha Maurer, and Eileen Barrett for their contributions.

Leane Ellis December 6, 2017


This list is representative – not exhaustive.

 Berendt, John. The City of Falling Angels. (2005) Venice

 Bingham, Horace. The Lost City of the Incas, the Story of Machu Picchu and Its Builders. (1948)

 Flanders, Judith. The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London. (2014)

 Gilmour, David. The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions and Their Peoples. (2011)

 McCullough, David. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914. (1977)

 McPherson, James M. Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg. (2003)

 Messer, Sarah. Red House: Being a Mostly Accurate Account of New England’s Oldest Continuously Lived-In House. (2004)

 Morris, Jan. Hong Kong. (1997)

 Mortimer, Ian. A Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England:  Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. (2008)

 Norwich, John J. A Short History of Byzantium. (1997)

 Pye, Michael. The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe. (2015)

Rosenberg, Tina. The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism. (1996)

 Shorris, Earl. The Life and Times of Mexico. (2004)

Elective Titles

Al Hayden

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu – Joshua Hammer
Appeal Factors:

Still working through it, but better than the benchmark title! Much stronger narrative arc and focus on people in context of the history, rather than a timeline of the history itself.

Jim Riordan

Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World – Thomas Madden
Appeal Factors: Approachable writing style, narrative, very descriptive setting.

You have probably heard the 1950s song Istanbul (Not Constantinople) or one of its many covers? Madden’s book is the biographical equivalent of that song. Starting in Ancient times, with brief references to prehistoric settlement, Madden covers the thousands of years people have lived on the peninsula bordered on one side by the natural harbor of the Golden Horn, on the other side by the Sea of Marmara and jutting out into the Bosporus that today is called Istanbul. Even that name is just a Turkish corruption of the Greek word for “to the city.” And its had many names: Byzantium, Constantinople, Stambul or just The City. Just to name the common ones.

That is one of the great things about Madden’s book is that it is an opportunity to watch one geographical location evolve over centuries of time. Whether it’s the little settlement of Byzantium clinging to the tip of the peninsula trying to decide which side to take in the Peloponnesian War in 434BC to the creation of the modern Turkish state by Atiturk in the 1920s, the reader sets in The City and lets history come to them.

Madden does an excellent job of taking complicated and often unknown events in history and makes them accessible to a regular audience. He is also very careful to make sure the readers knows where in the modern city old land marks would have been located and where things are that can still be seen. This is a great book for history buffs of all kinds as well and arm chair travelers and actual travelers.

Leane Ellis

Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg (2003) – James M. McPherson
Appeal Factors: Topic/Writing style/Tone

The author takes a tour around one of America’s most hallowed battlefields, describing the events and personalities of the bloody three-day 1863 conflict at Gettysburg and shedding light on the significance of the battle. The book is concise and full of personality–both McPherson’s and the participants’ in the conflict. A prologue and epilogue flank the three chapters on the battle (each covering one day), relating why it happened and what followed. Along the way, he debunks myths about the battles, explains the politics about war memorials. It was leisurely-paced and short, and atmospheric relating facts I never knew.

Great companion for walking the National Park and American history buffs.