I can go on and on about stories until my voice goes raw or my hands cramp up, depending on how I’m talking to you. Because of that, it often surprises many people that I don’t have a single degree in literature. For now, my highest degree is actually in history.

Why is that? Well, I maintain that a history degree — assuming that you’ve had a wide-ranging focus and look at many different cultures — is one of the best fields to truly teach you how to write. That’s because most lit degrees teach you about other books, but they don’t tend to teach you about people. Make no mistake, both history and stories are fundamentally about people.

I’d always been interested in history because of that. Well, I say always, but it really started when I was in fourth grade and my father (a Navy captain) was assigned to the American embassy in Rome, Italy. In the United States, you have many historical locations; but one thing that many Europeans don’t understand about the United States is just how large the country is. Similarly, Americans (even if you expand it to mean all of the people living in the Americas) don’t quite get how Europe is so very old. In the United States, you have to make a special trip to see history. In Europe, it’s probably within walking distance.

I lucked out in that regard, because — as I said — I was in Rome. Rome. A city with history dating back nearly three thousand years. There are plenty of older cities, but few cities have had as much impact on culture, language, government, theology, philosophy, military tactics, architecture, literature . . . in fact, it’s arguable that no other city has sported that influence, but that’s not the point here. I was a nine-year-old kid surrounded by stories. I visited museums and monuments and churches (if you’ve never been to Rome, their churches are museums; they just don’t have as many plaques up explaining things), took trips up and down the country looking at ancient ruins and imagining what life must have been like when those places were new.

Fundamentally, everything I saw was there because someone thought it important enough to place there — and someone else thought it important enough to preserve. That meant each and every inch contained untold stories. Stories of what had been, of what currently was, and what could have been.

Stupid deus ex machina resolutions aside, it’s a concept that Doctor Who fans are familiar with.

It was there that I started understanding what that slogan “history is ‘his story'” was trying to do. It’s a silly little slogan, though we don’t use it anymore because it was ticking off too many supporters of gender-neutral language. (Hey, all I can say is blame the French, they’re the ones who messed up the English language.) As the late (and very great) Dr. J. Rufus Fears loved to repeat, history is not a result of anonymous social forces; rather, it is formed by the actions of ordinary people across time, performing what they felt were the best actions available. Each and every one of them had their own story.

The more I studied history, the more I understood a fundamental truth: human nature is the one constant in history. Times and geography and technology will change, but the basic impulses that underlie human desire do not. We use different concepts to express ourselves, come from different cultures, face different circumstances; but in the end, we’re the same species that invented agriculture.

And that is why so many ancient stories endure. The oldest known “true” work of literature (that is, a tale of moral instruction with a hero, as opposed to a mere chronicle or a purely religious text) is The Epic of Gilgamesh, and it still resonates with modern audiences. It is older than the Bible, and yet we can identify with it. Our cultures and circumstances have changed, but we are still the same humans.

It’s a good thing, too, because otherwise no story would enure.

I mentioned Dr. J. Rufus Fears. If you want to get a real feel for how history is made up of individual people with their own stories, look up his Great Courses lectures. As of this blog post, they are all on sale. (Great Courses lectures are normally very expensive. If you’re viewing this post after the sale has ended, you might find them used for much cheaper on Amazon). I also recommend books like The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England by Dr. Ian Mortimer, which truly feels a lot like a guidebook to the location and period in question (with a very, very slight modern bias, particularly on gender issues); or the History of Christendom series by Dr. Warren Carroll (with a heavy yet self-aware Roman Catholic bias) which, though textbooks, lays out events as a series of choices made by people and not simply a series of events that just, y’know, happen.

I plan on doing a series of blog posts on worldbuilding, and so I’ll be revisiting the idea of history in writing from that perspective. For now, tomorrow is New Year’s Eve: a time for reflecting on the past and what it means for the future. If there were ever a holiday to celebrate history itself, it’s this time of year. But it’s not actually needed, because history is made up of stories — and stories happen at every moment. All you have to to is watch, observe, and be inspired.