The Lure of Historical Fiction

“Historical” fits with quite a few writing genres and sub-genres. For example, you have historical romance, but that divides into Regency, Victorian, Medieval, WWI, WWII, and many, many more. I know people who will devour a historical romance but would cringe to pick up a history book.

What is it about history plus fiction that attracts us, especially those who don’t see the point of studying history?

A Lifelong Love

The first time I studied history was in fourth grade. In the Commonwealth of Virginia in fourth grade, you’re introduced to Virginia History, which, as luck would have it, was also American History for many years. Before that, my father, a history buff, passed on his love of history by telling me stories about famous people.

Fourth grade Virginia History was followed by seventh grade Virginia History, and this was more in-depth than the fourth-grade tales of Pocahontas and Capt. John Smith, much of which wasn’t true anyway. Even so, this curriculum focused on concepts and dates and not much on the people. However, it was the people who fascinated me.

I longed to know how girls my age then lived in other times, and when it wasn’t in the history book, I turned to the school librarian. Despite the paucity of history about women and girls, she managed to find some books for me.

For me, there’s nothing more satisfying than to immerse myself in some other time, to learn and understand everything about how people who were different from me lived, what they longed for, what they aspired to. To my surprise, they really weren’t all that different from me. The historical era might be different, but humans are basically the same.

I was lucky in high school to have great history teachers, who focused on the people and not simply memorizing dates. These were the teachers who first honed my research skills, perhaps too well. In college on research jaunts to the library (way too long ago for Google or Wikipedia), I’d pull books specific to whatever paper I was writing at the time, but that very trip through the card catalogue would lead me to tomes that had nothing to do with the paper but whose topics fascinated me.

Doomed to Repeat It?

All throughout my schooling, which led to a degree in history, teachers consistently explained the importance of not only teaching history but learning history. (I did teach history briefly but lost that job because of budget cuts.) If we don’t study history, we’re doomed to repeat the negative aspects of specific eras. As I studied more, I saw the correlations between the past and the present. All historians do, and we need to listen to them more, not dismiss them as stuffy academics.

This is true even in our personal history. We have to learn from the events in our lives so we can repeat the positive actions and not repeat the negative. (Would that my training as an historian had helped me there.)

Now, more than ever, history is important to us as a nation. In my HHO (humble historian opinion), we’re poised to repeat some of the most negative events in history, from more than one era, and it’s through history we’ll recover ourselves.

But Why Write Historical Fiction?

For me, again, it’s the people. People shape history, but history also shapes people or at least our memories of them. As a lover of history and a child of the Cold War, I was naturally drawn to historical events I was part of simply by being alive at the time.

Last week I went to see The Post, the Spielberg movie about The Washington Post‘s publishing of Daniel Ellsberg’s The Pentagon Papers. I was in my freshman year of college when this happened, but as I watched the movie more of that history came back to me. I remembered what it was like living under the Nixon Administration, remembered the anti-war protests on my small campus, and how my professors talked about what the Post did. Some hailed the paper. Some reviled Katherine Graham and Ben  Bradlee as traitors.

I also remembered how far women have come in almost fifty years. Not far enough, but as I watched Katherine Graham find her voice and her own strength, I remembered my personal history doing the same.

History is about the people who lived it and survived its events. To understand who we are today, we cannot ignore history.

I was alive during the Cold War. I remember the nuclear attack drills vividly. The false ballistic missile warning issued in Hawaii recently brought back the terror I felt as a child during the Cuban Missile Crisis. So, I write mostly about the Cold War and its aftermath. I write historical fiction, which does sound a bit oxymoronic. Because I don’t want my grandchildren to not know there was a time when we all thought we wouldn’t survive to be adults but that we did, and this is how we did it.

Yet, in my written work, it’s about the people, the characters who live the history in my novels. They are us, parts of everyone I’ve ever known; they are the fiction. The history is immutable.

I am and have been many things: child, daughter, spouse, teacher, bureaucrat, writer, pilot, flight instructor, but I am, first and foremost, an historian.

One thought on “The Lure of Historical Fiction

  1. All through school, history was my worst subject. Then I started studying my family history. The past came to life. Those long-ago events I didn’t care about before now had new meaning. Before I knew it, I was rewriting folklore to fit my overactive imagination. Now when I write a book, researching history is one of my favorite parts. Even if I don’t use it in the book, my characters have that knowledge which makes them more genuine.

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