Reading Hero of the Empire triggers this question: How is writing impacted by how we today consume information?
Surely, there’s an impact. Prevailing advice for writers is to be readers. This implies reading affects writing. If true, then how we read must impact writing as well.
So what can we expect of writers in the world of shortening attention spans, hyperlinks, and social media?
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One answer may be in Candice Millard’s Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill. The book does a wonderful job telling the story of Winston Churchill in The Boer War.
The non-fictional tale is especially helpful to those who know little about Churchill’s earlier years or the Boer War. In fact, it’s the book’s ability to efficiently inform that makes Hero of the Empire a fantastical read.
All wars and the people in them are complicated. Telling a true story about someone in a war requires more information than what happens to the lead character. We need to know the context of the war. What proceeded the lead character’s life? And are there other characters involved?
Often, non-fiction books devote chapters to backstory and context. This can break the linear movement of the story. In one chapter you read about what’s happening to the lead character. The next chapter, you’re rewound in time to the geopolitical movements leading up to the war.Click To Tweet
Not so with Millard’s Hero of the Empire. Instead, you’re treated to chapters broken into parts of a thousand words or so.
What Churchill is currently experiencing in the story timeline is the focus of one part. Then you’re given a little history about an event or person mentioned in the previous part.
Next, you get back into Churchill’s experience.
hero of the empire’s winning format
The effect is not dissimilar to reading a Wikipedia article. You’re reading about some topic or person but come across something in the article that interests you. You click to read more about this something new and, after satiating your curiosity, you go back to what you were originally reading.
Hero of the Empire’s short parts providing backstory and context are like sub-histories. You’re not getting the details about such-and-such or so-and-so, but you’re getting enough to satisfy your immediate curiosity.
And Millard places these sub-histories at exactly the moment you think, “I wonder what that was about.”
What’s perhaps most impressive, though, is that Millard doesn’t bog the story down with too many sub-histories.
Sticking with the Wikipedia analogy, if you’ve spent time on Wikipedia you know the trap you can fall into. You can spend hours clicking from one Wikipedia article to another Wikipedia article.
The same challenge could face Millard in Hero of the Empire. Millard could overwhelm you with sub-histories, continuously leading you from one bit of backstory to another.
blessed Sub-histories and parts
But Millard seems to know when a sub-history is informative and when it would be a distraction. For nearly all of the book, the sub-histories are helpful and not a hindrance to the reader. Indeed, the sub-histories are a large part of the joy in reading Hero of the Empire.
Another enjoyable aspect of the book is the parts themselves. The book is broken into chapters, and within each chapter are parts. The parts are short and easily consumable while steeping a cup of tea or riding the bus to work.
Plus, the parts make each chapter easily digestible prose. The frequent breaks are appreciated by many of us grown accustomed to online reading. The parts and the sub-histories of Hero of the Empire may present an approach for other non-fiction writers.
We’ve become a people of limited attentions, overwhelming schedules, and incessant interruptions. Following Hero of the Empire‘s format can only help to extend an author’s work to more of today’s readers.