Why Historical Fiction? Isn’t it boring?
That question came to me recently and besides the surprise, it gave me a moment to wonder about my own writing journey.
Recently, my grandson proudly announced that his favorite high-school subject is history. It brought me a big smile. It was mine as well. My decision to write historical fiction though, came from a more indirect route than the generally respected academic pursuits that often lead to laurels of their own.
One reason to write historical fiction, of course includes a well-targeted academic reader market. College History and Political science departments are usually looking towards expanding their curriculum and historic fiction, especially the meticulously researched titles that go into an historic character or time in depth. Historical fiction titles are especially useful inspiring further research. But beyond the academic world, there are still strong reasons.
Why write historic fiction? For me, the answer is almost simple. It’s because of how historic stories just seem to cling in our memories. Humans have been telling stories to each other for maybe 100,000 years now (assuming the general acceptance of developed language among Neanderthal and other people of the era). From the simplest re-counting of events and puzzling out the reasons and the results, have come two of the greatest cultural traditions we can boast of: Music, beginning with vocal and percussive; and the Bardic tradition – the father of literature. (Indirectly, IMHO storytelling also led to another huge human tradition — cuisine, as people need to have something to eat when they hear, watch or read stories.) So for me, the idea of gathering the clan around a fire, eating and then explaining what happened, either close by and personal or far away and long before, sums up a great deal of what it means to be human.
Whether a writer works in a specific period or cultural setting, or with a defined series of events, they are uniting the people in their stories with the people who read about them – drawing the two together across the years and miles. Since the reasons why a reader might be attracted to a given time or place setting are as diverse as the minds of individual human beings, historical fiction writers are left with a relatively unlimited range to work inside of.
When the time came to concentrate on my own fictional ideas and turn them into novels, an historical context was the only real choice for me. I’d been an historical fiction and fantasy reader my entire life. Probably my earliest reading influence, which I’ve often credited when asked, is L. Frank Baum’s Tick-Tock of Oz. I still own the ragged first edition my grandmother found in the attic. Mr. Baum created a world populated with characters who may have looked or sounded odd, but behaved in ways I recognized. It connected me with the idea that time and place may change, but real, flesh and blood humans and storybook characters operate under a remarkably similar set of behavior guidelines. Reading that fantasy book led me directly to reading historical fiction. Learning or reading the stories in school, of what happened to flesh and blood people and how they reacted or how they inspired events, connected history with stories from the minds of writers: His story (or her story).
From the days of the earliest African Griots, through the Classic Historians such as Pliny or poets like Virgil, paralleled by the Bardic traditions of the Celts, Britons, Saxons and Vikings; children and their parents have drawn an important sense of community and worth from historical stories. Tales held in common became cultural touchstones. Proud identifiers. Nations grew around shared tales and shared heroes. With each re-telling, emphasis was finessed again and again to meet the goals of the storyteller.
Later, through Papa Tolkien’s work, I also was drawn to a belief that mythology and folklore are history retold or re-tooled for effect. For every Grendel monster that emerges from the Northern European tradition, for example, I believe there are dim, barely remembered collective memories that have become myth and legend when originally they were told as stories of events. My most recent novella, Troll, investigates one of those persistent characters, but I believe even dragon tales came from a chance encounter with something large and terrifying, long, long ago. Passed on through the generations it most likely changed and evolved a bit. Or maybe not.
I understand that many genre fiction writers including Tolkien found great inspiration within ancient song cycles such as the Finnish Kalevalla epic. Music and rhythm being excellent mnemonic devices, it’s no wonder the “historians” of their ages wove their tales into song. We are lucky to have inherited such a diverse and compelling tradition. But we also have inherited the provenance of human experience in physical artifacts as well. Historians who collected and preserved personal writings, drawing and letter correspondence of historical figures have given many writers the inspired look inside that resulted in wonderful, fictional prose based upon actual events and real words from the viewpoint of those involved directly.
The step from the concept of recounting events to that of creating stories from imagination is not as much of a leap as it might be. That next step is taken when a listener begins to “what if…” as they consider the events they’ve heard of, either in private musing, or in discussion. Creating variations of potential behavior is something that recent research (explained in this month’s National Geographic magazine) seems to believe is hard-wired into our Homo-Sapien genetics. We are rarely satisfied with the way things are, so the leaps of behavior that result in hero stories, migrations and acts of invention, development of healing arts, great food, wine and distilled spirits as well as great written literature, evolve directly from our innate dissatisfaction and desire to see things better, or at least different. And our unusual belief we can affect and change our world, which seems unique to our species.
Of course, one other characteristic of our species is that we seem to be unable to learn from our mistakes, collectively. Rather, we seem to slowly repeat them until generations later, some of us catch on. As a result, the tales endure – because we need to hear them more than once. It may be partly because our evolving cultures didn’t always hold the story tellers and bards in the same, high esteem as their forebears. Some stories were relegated to the trash heap while others are exalted. Then when they re-emerge, generations later, they seem new and compelling despite any vague recognition that may have persisted.
When the stories of a people were transmitted verbally, they were immediate and compelling. Much more likely to inspire imagination. When stories evolved into history and education becoming organized, rote memorization, they began to fade. Now it seems as though history has taken on new definitions that often includes the words, boring, or tiresome. That kind of descriptive damages our awareness of the how thread connecting past experiences contribute towards our present. It also removes the sense of familiarity which brings more complete understanding. That is where fiction writers can step in and save the day.
Familiarity explains the way stories may cover the same ground in different times and with different players yet still resonate today. It’s one of the foundations of fiction writing and the reason most fiction created within a cultural milieu can be easily accepted by any given reader. We can often recognize ourselves even in foreign or impossible situations. Even in fabricated settings. Our ability to recognize common ground can be enhanced by reading stories with an historical perspective as long as the “history” is carefully packaged within accessible dialog and honest portrayals of the figures as people the reader can identify with.
Like most writers of historical fiction, I consciously try to make my own work accessible and honest to my readers, within the nuance of place or period. I write in other genres as well, but all my stories are developed with a sense of local past as present as possible in the characters’ lives and in the place where the story is set, even if the setting never existed.
Another important component is the texture of details. Even the most mundane smells, utilitarian objects or sounds can directly connect a reader with a character’s experience. I learned about the value of detail from an eighth grade teacher who took extra time to make sure we could almost hold in our hands, the details of fabric, or the tools or technology that supported the lives of each specific community or event he taught us about. That almost tactile sense of history he taught us is still a strong influence in my own writing. It’s the hands-on recognition I usually find in the writing I most enjoy reading. It’s not how different people were in past times, but rather, how similarly they were affected by stressful situations, how they expressed happiness — how much they were like us today. How a step into a muddy puddle has always been as uncomfortable as it is now.
Through historical stories, we join our lives to the continuum of all humanity. While individually, we may occupy only a tiny segment of time and place, that segment is truly part of the whole sum of human experience. Through historical fiction, I can expand my limited experience to include remote sections of our long shared human story, and in reading or writing about them, find a clearer, more complete vision of myself.
So there it is. I write historical fiction for some pretty selfish reasons, really. I hope that anyone who reads my stories will enjoy the experience as much as I did the research, the drafting and the polishing; and hopefully see a small glimpse of themselves, too.