Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 17, 2023

Writing About the Past: History vs Legend

by Eldred Bird

Photograph of the Statue of Saint Patrick holding his staff in one hand and the other hand held up with two fingers pointing upward, on St. Patrick's Church in Belfast.
St. Patrick's Church,Donegall Street, Belfast.

St. Patrick’s Day is here, and l have the honor of supplying the WITS post this year. Luck of the Irish, right? To be perfectly honest I’m mostly Scottish and Nordic, but I prefer Irish whisky. I think that qualifies me to write today’s blog.

Refreshing my memory about the history of this particular saint got me thinking. How much of what we hear about historical figures is true and how much is made up? How and why does it happen?

How Myths and Legends are Born

Most myths, legends, and heroes have their roots in actual people and events. St. Patrick is no exception. He was a real person who did a lot for Ireland. Funny thing is, he wasn’t even Irish. He was brought there as a slave during Roman rule. The color that was originally associated with him was blue, not green. Most of the traditions and symbols we associate with the holiday came centuries after his death.

So, how did things change? Let’s take a look at a few ways it can happen.

Word of Mouth

The tradition of storytelling predates the written word—it was the way history was preserved for future generations. As stories were passed from one generation to the next by the elders, details were lost, added, or embellished.

Every storyteller had their own particular style and would often alter the details to teach a lesson. Ordinary people grew into heroes and strangers were painted as villains. Tweaking the details could turn an everyday occurrence into a cautionary tale and get the heart racing.

Stories evolved through retellings by ordinary people as well. Have you ever heard of the Telephone Game? One person whispers something to the person next to them, who then passes it on to the next one in line. By the time things come back around to the original teller the message will be completely different. It works the same way when a story makes its way around a village or even the world.

Artistic License

As authors we understand the need to make a story more interesting. If you want to get your point across you have to keep the audience engaged. One way to accomplish this is to add a few juicy details here and there to spice things up. 

Historical fiction is fertile ground for taking real events and people and stretching the truth for the sake of art. If the story becomes popular enough, some people will start to believe bits of the made-up details and pass them on as gospel. 

I’ve actually had a debate with someone who thought “Hamilton” was pulled straight out of the history books. I can assure you that the founding fathers did not sing and dance their way through the events leading up to the revolution.


We’ve all heard it said that history is written by the winners. This is more or less true, whether it be governments, warriors, or major corporations. The ones left standing will be the ones telling the story, so the details will generally support their point of view. Some figures and events will be blown out of proportion, while others are buried deep. Other accounts may still exist as well but will be less popular and thus less accepted.

Some sources will flat out change history to benefit their causes, completely ignoring facts in the process. I can’t think of a single government that hasn’t done this at one time or another to sway the masses in their favor. They push their chosen narrative until it becomes the de facto truth.

Finding the Truth

Image shows a blue background with the word facts typed out in white typeface over and over filling a paragraph. Above the words is a man's hand holding a magnifying glass.

As writers of fiction, we make our living by making things up, but the truth is usually the best foundation to build our stories on. So how do we find it? Honestly, sometimes we don’t, but there are ways we can sift through history and end up a bit closer to the actual facts.

Common Threads 

My favorite method to search for the truth came from my father. What he taught me was to read historical accounts of the same events written at different times by different sources, then look for the common threads. If you pull on the threads that are shared by the majority of accounts, you are more likely to be closer to the truth in the end.

The other thing he taught me was to look at what’s missing as well. What the authors of the historical accounts chose to include and exclude may tell you more about society at the time the piece was written than the event itself. 

Final Thoughts

Man has been telling stories and leaving a record since the first drawings were scratched into the walls of caves. Who’s to say the size the beasts those early hunters drew aren’t a bit inflated? I’m sure the truth is out there somewhere. We just have to dig it out and piece it together.

So, what does all of this have to do with St. Patrick’s Day? Not a whole lot, but then St. Patrick’s Day really doesn’t have a lot to do with the real St. Patrick either, does it?. 

What methods do you use to sort out the truth from the myths? Let us know in the comments. 

Have a happy and safe St. Patrick’s Day!

* * * * * *

About Eldred

Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing KarmaCatching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking RoomTreble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.

When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking, and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives).

His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.

Image Credits

Top image by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Second image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

19 comments on “Writing About the Past: History vs Legend”

  1. Your father's a wise man. I have always tried to read at least three versions of the same historical event, but I hadn't made it a deliberate practice to look for accounts written at different times. I will from now on. Thanks for sharing this, Eldred.

    1. I had never thought about either until he told me. He's the one who got me into collecting old books. Reading accounts written at different time really tells you what the focus of society was like at the time the piece was written.
      He was also the one that got me to look for the accounts written by sources other than those in power. One of my most treasured books is an accounting of the Civil War battles written from the southern POV. The contrast is amazing.

        1. HI Lynette,
          I wonder if you get more vocabulary and phrasing that was common in that era as well. In a diary, a person wouldn't necessarily worry about proper English and such, reading those accounts would most likely make your story more authentic sounding.

          1. Yes, Kris. The language is much more authentic because there is no concern about grammar or word choices meant to please another. Relationship discussions can be as simple or complex as the writer sees them. Some concern themselves with the latest "thing." Others don't. Of course, most have been edited by a surviving loved one, so there's that to consider. (Makes me wonder what was left out.)

        2. The book I have, From Manassas to Appomattox, is the 1896 memoir of Confederate General James Longstreet. It covers the battles from his point of view. Quite interesting, as much of it was complied from official communications.

      1. I love reading letters home from Civil War soldiers, both Union and Confederate. When they write their loved ones, they speak mostly of camp life and how they miss their families. When they write their male relatives, friends, or lawyers . . . they tell the ugly truths of war. Both sides speak mainly to survival rather than political rhetoric. A lot of common ground there. The women are the same. They write their husbands and brothers about the mundane rather than the rigors of life without them, in most cases. But their lady friends and relatives, they speak of their fears or the deprivations caused by war. Makes the telling of the stories more human. In the simplicity, the stories are "heroic."

        1. Michelle, Yes! I absolutely agree. Diaries are more one-sided in that they don't show the division between sexes, but they usually discuss the mundane and the emotional. But the letters...Man. They are heartbreaking. If you get a chance, visit the World War I museum (a different war, but the same in many ways). Located in Kansas City, I've spent hours there, just reading the letters.

  2. Happy St. Paddy's Day!
    My Irish granduncles were great storytellers and told horrific tales of the Banshees. Someday I should look into the history behind those stories.

    To find truth, which isn't easy, I try to find several sources. There are too many false stories floating about.

    1. Finding the truth really does take a lot of digging. No one can 100% objective no matter how hard they try. It's human nature to put our own spin on things.

  3. An interesting post. I love your father's message for getting to the truth.

    The idea that history is written by the winners is exemplified by Richard III. When I was growing up, he was a very bad man who usurped the throne and murdered two little princes. The sons of the previous king, his brother.

    Now, we realise that our ideas are based on Shakespeare, who was writing in the time of Elizabeth I, the granddaughter of the man who beat Richard at Bosworth Field. Richard had been the Duke of York and was greatly loved in Yorkshire. No evidence he had his brother's children killed.

  4. Hi Bob,
    Interesting that St Patrick wasn't even Irish. It is good to examine what we take as full truth, especially as creators of fiction!

    Thanks for the fun post.

  5. Excellent points, Eldred. As I'm working on worldbuilding, this has come up again and again lately. Just having a myth isn't really rich enough. Giving it some conflicting versions, some changes, and some interpretation in different time periods can bring it to life. Love this post!

  6. I loved listening to stories told by my grandpa and then finding written folk stories on the same subject and seeing how they differ and how they match. Of course, there are some which were covered in more traditional print, but they didn't have the same nuances. Even the history features in the local paper weren't 100 % "just the facts" and had a lot of folklore woven into them.

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