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Independent thoughts

Saturday, July 4th, 2009

What comes to mind when you think of the 4th of July?  For many, the 4th of July means:

  • Fireworks
  • A day off work
  • Spending time with family
  • Brats or hamburgers on the grill

Almost as an afterthought, some will mention, “Oh, and it’s the anniversary of the day we, as a nation, declared our independence from Great Britain.”

Sometimes we get caught up in memories of past family holidays, and forget the true reason for the day.  For those who haven’t been keeping track, today marks the 233rd anniversary of Congressional approval of the contents of the  Declaration of Independence.

For many, it takes more effort to pull up memories of the Declaration of Independence, and how it was the start of the War for American Independence (the Revolutionary War officially started in 1775, but the United States of America was essentially created with the Declaration of Independence).  The distant history learned in school is more difficult to remember than last summer’s fireworks at the beach.

One common misconception is that the Declaration of Independence was written in a single sitting.  In reality, writing the declaration took weeks of work. You may want to compare Jefferson’s rough draft with the final draft.  While there are similarities, there are also significant differences.  There’s nothing wrong with multiple drafts–expect to write many, and rewrite the same section several times.  Even (or especially) the best writers write in multiple drafts.

On this Independence Day, remember some of the names of the key players in the Revolutionary War.   Of course there are far too many to list in a single blog entry, and several are familiar to most, such as Paul Revere, Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, and George Washington.   However, what’s more important than the names are the stories those names represent.

The stories behind the names have provided inspiration for countless poems, papers, books, and plays, as well as many features on the History Channel.  What’s (perhaps) less obvious is the fact that these stories can also provide inspiration for your own writing, whether your work covers the Revolutionary War or something completely different.  Integrating historical events adds color to your black and white print.

Paul Revere’s midnight ride was immortalized in the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Longfellow’s poem is somewhat historically inaccurate (see disclaimer below).  The very idea of the story itself, though, of a lone man warning the townsfolk and leaders of the revolution of an impending sea attack, hits directly at the heart of heroism. Similar warning systems (such as the signal fires used in the Lord of the Rings series by Tolkien) can be used in your stories, wherever battles occur.   Historical disclaimer: There were actually three known riders, plus others who have been lost to history.  Read the Wikipedia article–the poem, as well as the story, has an interesting past.

Ben Franklin’s role in the Revolution was primarily that of a diplomat, working closely with France as an ally of the newly formed united States (another aside — originally, the ‘u’ in ‘united’ was not capitalized).  Without France, the revolution would not have been successful–France provided generals, a navy, and financial assistance (for more, read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/France_in_the_American_Revolutionary_War).  However, what’s notable about Franklin is that he fought the Revolutionary War armed with a pen and years of political savvy. It’s amazing what a writer can do.

Along those lines, Thomas Paine was perhaps the most inspiring writer of the Revolutionary period.  His inspiring pamphlet, Common Sense, was the primary motivator for the majority of the intellectuals to move from sedentary acquiescence to violent uprising.

At the time his pamphlet was written, people living in the colonies were unhappy with the fact the monarchy was ignoring their needs.  However, these people were so used to the idea of a king being in charge that they felt nothing could change the way things were.  Thomas Paine set out to convince them otherwise.

Democracy (more accurately, a Republic, as the US would eventually become) was a foreign concept to the people living in those times, even more foreign as living under the rule of a king would seem to us today.  At the time, there were some examples of Republics (Paine mentions Holland and Switzerland), and he uses those as reasons for people to pursue independence.  He argued against the need for a king. In those times, this was a radical view.

Paine’s simple logic ignited the populace into action, through the use of words that empowered the people, rather than continuing to obey the desires of a king.  This pamphlet defines the moment when the nation abandoned a monarchy in favor of democracy, with such fervor they were willing to fight to the death to do so.  Now that’s powerful writing.

As writers, what can we learn from history?  There are many events from the past that can be adapted to a current work (such as a lowly peasant that warns his city’s leaders that an enemy is sneaking around a mountain).  We can also look at the strategies used by writers like Paine to make such a convincing argument for revolution.  Those same strategies can be used to stir passion in the hearts of our readers, and make them feel like they’re living the story, not simply reading it.

One final note–as you enjoy fireworks tonight, time with family, or simply having a day off, remember General George Washington, as he led armies of revolutionaries to battle for their freedom.  Imagine each explosion as a gunshot or cannon firing, as he and his men fought from the muddy (or frozen) trenches, and each bright flash as a brief moment of heroism as a man defended a friend.

Research history for interesting stories. Use the inspiration provided by these stories to enhance your own writing style.  Integrate these ideas into your works to make your stories sparkle, like the fireworks lighting up the sky.

Happy 4th of July!

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