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  • Writer's pictureJudy

Jan. 21, 2024: Primary Documents- The Stuff of Inspiration

Yesterday I presented at the Annual Sources Conference at the University of Central Florida. This is a conference devoted entirely to primary and secondary sources and their value in teaching and learning about historical time periods and the past.

Primary documents. Letters, diaries, maps, photos, and more.  Those things created or captured during the time period. They give a depth of understanding that simply reading a summary of the time or event does not provide.


While my presentation focused on using these incredible documents to help student piece together past events, they are also an incredible tool for writers! 


Yes, everyone knows that for writers of historical fiction and non-fiction, primary documents become the foundation of our research and planning. However, as a writing teacher, I love to use them with my students for a variety of other reasons.  Using primary documents as a writing prompt can really help to harness creativity, insightfulness, empathy, and spontaneity.


I have used the following document-based activities with both my elementary students and my college students. Additionally, adult writing groups with which I have worked, have enjoyed and embraced them as well.  Sometimes taking a break from your current work-in-progress and just having a little creative writing fun can be refreshing.




-       Examine photos or paintings or other artwork and “put yourself” in there.

o   Select someone in the picture, and start writing what you imagine their thoughts could be at that exact moment.

o   Depending on the art work selected, the emotion could go in a variety of directions- painful, insightful, comical.

o   You could even get silly and select an inanimate object in the picture, and write from its point of view.  A fun way to play with personification!


-       Look at a collection of historical artifacts from a specific event or time period.

o   Create an imagined profile of the person who would have used them.  Give the person a name authentic to the time period, and fill out as many details about them as you can.

o   Describe how, why, and when they would use or interact with each of these artifacts. 

o   Create an imagined “day in the life of” sketch based on the artifacts.


-       Find an historical map of your town or city.

o   Write a description of an area of town that is decidedly different today.  Be sure to describe it as if you are right there.

o   Create a fun “blended-scene” in which a person from today finds themselves in the town of the past, or a person from the past finds themselves in the town of today. Write about their thoughts, impressions, and reactions.



-       Look at a timeline of a major historical period, like the Civil War, the voyage of the Titanic, or the Wright Brother’s flight.

o   Select one event on the timeline, and write an alternative scenario, and then write about how that would have changed everything else that came after.

o   Focus on the people involved in that event and write about how their lives would have changed if your alternate scenario had in fact, happened.


-       Find a poster from a specific era, for example World War I.

o   Imagine you are part of the team creating this poster.  Write about what your goal was, what you needed to consider, and why you made the choices you did when designing the poster.

o   For those illustrators in the group, perhaps even designing another poster that meets the same goals.  Or takes the opposite position.



Writing activities like these are just a fun way to get your creative writing juices flowing.  They help you stretch your thinking, explore point of view, dabble in character development, and dig into descriptions.  And who knows, maybe one of them will spark an idea for your next great story!

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