Why Write Historical Fiction?

I get asked this question all the time. As if there’s something less-than about drawing on historical details rather than, say, fantasy elements or futuristic dystopias. There’s the implication that history is boring. That it’s already happened, much of it has already been written down (or in the case of the Tudors, written down, fictionalized, fantasized and made multiple TV miniseries). That story’s been told, why not write something original?

The glib answer would be, Because it’s there.

Everest_and_Changtse,_1921

If it’s a good enough reason for Mallory to climb a mountain, it’s a good enough reason for me to write a novel.

Of course, it’s more than that. It’s because the elements of history are often more fantastical than fantasy. Maybe there are no dragons, but there’s plenty that requires you to suspend your disbelief.

It’s because retellings are fun. Just look at the recent retellings of Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and The Island of Dr. Moreau.

It’s because there are elements of all the genres in history. Not just fantasy, but also romance, mystery, even dystopian. As J. Anderson Coats has said, history is the ultimate secondary world. Because it actually happened.

For me, it’s all of these things held together in an inescapable web. The shock of Game of Thrones-type brutality. The incredulity in discovering a piece of truth so beautiful, you’d think it was fiction. The sure knowledge that this really happened.

But maybe not exactly the way it was written down.

Because what I love most about historical fiction is being able to dive into characters, look at what they did and how they were seen and excavate new possible motivations. Create a believable character from bones and tell the story of her life. Not as it was seen, but as it might have been lived.

As we all know, there are very few stories out there in the world, there are just infinite ways of telling them. This is why it has never bothered me that Philippa Gregory wrote The Other Boleyn Girl. Or that The Confessions of Katherine Howard came out the same year as Gilt. And it delights me when other people feel the same. It delights me even when they don’t. Because people can read my Anne Boleyn, and say, “She was nothing like that.” And I can answer, “But how do you know?”

Mary Howard Fitzroy

Mary Howard Fitzroy

I recently read a review of Brazen by another writer of historical fiction. A writer whose current YA novel centers on the life of Mary Howard—just as Brazen does. At first, I was nervous—would she hate it? Bitterly disagree with my character or (God forbid) find fault with my historical accuracy? But upon reading it, I discovered that she relished the fact that my Mary was so different from hers. That two writers could look at the same facts and come up with two utterly different—and I’m sure, equally compelling—narratives. The history may be the same, but the stories divergent.

That’s why I write historical fiction.

How about you?

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About Katherine Longshore

Katherine Longshore is the author of GILT (Viking/Penguin May 2012), a story of friendship and betrayal set in the court of Henry VIII, and TARNISH (June 2013), the story of a young Anne Boleyn. You can learn more about her www.katherinelongshore.com

6 thoughts on “Why Write Historical Fiction?

  1. I love historical fiction as a window into the soul of another world. As a reminder that human nature — the longing for love, the ambition to create, the will to be remembered, and all the other things that make us who and what we are — hasn’t really changed all that much and that despite all the differences, I can relate to people who lived hundreds of years ago. (And, of course, the terrifying thought that boys my son’s age used to charge around at the heads of armies brandishing swords and the certainty that they were RIGHT.)

  2. kadywinter says:

    I love your reasons, Katharine, and your books. I write historical fiction because it’s my unrealizable dream to travel not just to far away places in periods that no longer exist. Researching and writing about times and places long gone is the closest I can get to going there. Reading great historical fiction is a close second, of course!

  3. Great post, Katherine! I’ve loved historical fiction ever since I was a kid because I love being transported to a time and place with a character and plot that “might have REALLY happened” the way the author has depicted it. Pretending I’m there, living delicious lives or dangerous wars, the intrigue and mystery. The research is fascinating, too. :-)

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