Hi! Today kicks off a brand-new Corsets, Cutlasses, & Candlesticks monthly feature in which we’re going to share what we’re reading. I don’t know about you, but I (Jess) am endlessly fascinated by what’s on other people’s nightstand (or Kindle, or next to the bathtub, etc).
The topic of this post is supposed to be something “Halloweenish.” But I don’t remember this till I turn the page of ye olde spiral bound, paper-pages August-to-August planner and see written for today, in pen: Blog Post: Halloweenish. TODAY?? Today!! Heart-pounding suspense writ all in present tense: will I get a blog post written and posted today? I sit down at my desk, raise my hands shoulder-high, then bring them down on the keyboard like a virtuoso or at least super-dramatic pianist. RRrrrrring! It’s the phone. (which doesn’t really rrrring, but makes a what is for me a shakes-inducing – but not quite satisfying – bleep-bleeeep.) Anyway, Caller ID tells me it’s my daughters’ school calling. There’s been an accident, my 8th grader has lurched and fallen on the school-bus, and has taken a gash to the head. Alarm! Adrenaline! Maternal Terror! I race to the school, a drive riddled with badly-timed stoplights, bikes “sharing” (HOGGING!) the lane, excruciatingly slowly wandering pedestrians meandering, really, just – I mean, don’t they have a schedule to keep? They’re NOT EVEN KEEPING TO THE CROSSWALKS!! At last I scream into a parking spot at school (that is, Iiiiii scream, but the vehicle contributes only eerie silence to this scene because it’s a Hybrid, and also the brakes are perfectly tuned), run full-tilt into the building via the nearest entrance, pound up the stairs, burst into the office. My daughter’s there, blood-soaked hoodie in her lap, blood-soaked towel pressed to the back of her head, black mascara in streaks down her cheeks, eyes puffy and bloodshot. Scary! Cue the sawing Psycho violins!! But she’s actually fine. You know how everybody tells you, helpfully, when you’re bleeding from a gash to the head, that, no biggie, gashes to the head bleed like that? I tell her that. And I tell her that I don’t see any brains coming out, and her little sister tells a funny joke about brains. But what’s really scary is that it also happens to be school-picture retake day, and my poor kid was out sick on the regular picture day and today she’s by now a sweet, ghoulish mess. I hope she will pose for the photo “as is” to immortalize the morning, and to sum up her middle-school experience, which hasn’t really been all that gory, but still, it would be a hoot, especially in the Class Composite Picture. Again with the sawing Psycho violins. BEWARE! BEWARE!
In other news, here are a few books that make for terrific Halloweenish reads. The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. You’ve probably read this already. The Enola Holmes mysteries by Nancy Springer. How I love them. The Case of the Left-Handed Lady, The Case of the Missing Marquess, The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets…AND MORE. You are in for a treat if you haven’t yet read this series about the younger sister of Sherlock. Fabulous.
I own over 200 books about the middle ages. (My bio says 194 but I might have to give up counting.) They all live together on two crappy pressboard bookshelves in the hallway outside my bathroom, because that’s the only place there’s room for them. I’m apparently in need of taller shelves because the books are spilling onto the tops. (Please ignore the lawn-mower manual and car-wash towels propped in front.)
They range from the ridiculously scholarly
to the just plain ridiculous.
I hope you’ll indulge me geeking out over one of the latter: Rulers of Britain by Plantagenet Somerset Fry.
Age I first read it: upon acquisition
Acquired: 2002, at a library book sale at the Burlington Public Library (Burlington, NJ) for $1
Best things: cheesy watercolor pictures, brightly-colored heraldic endpapers, apocryphal yet humanizing stories (Alfred and the cakes! Edward I’s toilet humor!), dual-column page structure, the fact that it was written by a guy whose actual legal name seems to be Plantagenet Somerset Fry
Drawbacks: not scholarly in the slightest, more-than-slightly inaccurate and/or oversimplified interpretations of medieval society
The materials on the medieval bookshelf aren’t all intended for research purposes, though. Some of them, like this one, are interesting because they give me a sense of how the middle ages are presented to a popular audience.
When I’m writing, I have to take into account what my audience knows (or thinks it knows) about the middle ages. I need to meet readers where they live if I want to get them to see the past more as it really was.
Plus, it was a buck. Whoo hoo!
I get asked this question all the time and I do my best to answer it by expressing the passion I feel about my characters, my stories and my writing. Because sometimes, I get the feeling that the question that’s really being asked is why don’t you write something I want to read?
Historical fiction is a tough sell—any one of us who writes it can tell you that (except, perhaps, Philippa Gregory or Bernard Cornwell). Especially to teenagers. It all too often reminds us of schoolwork and multiple-choice exams, of that teacher who assigns a chapter in a textbook and then snoozes through the class period. I unreservedly admit that I would probably react the same way if someone said, “I write statistical fiction.” Or “I write stories about dishwashing.” There’s something onerous about being forced to do something that makes it that much more difficult to try to find pleasure in anything associated with it.
I visited my old high school last week as part of the Humboldt County Author Festival. I spoke to two different assemblies and then had a round table discussion with the student-run book club. I told them outright that I don’t remember my high school history classes at all (except for the fact that the guy who sat in front of me junior year always—always—chewed gum. That boy had enormous jaw muscles.) I didn’t take any history classes in college. (Not one. I got out of my CSU requirement for US History by taking a multiple-choice exam.)
I didn’t fall in love with history until I got a taste of experiencing it when I lived in England. At eleven a.m. on November 11, everything in the town I lived in stopped. I was on my way to the library and when the church bell tolled, all the pedestrians—all the traffic—stood still for a minute of silence to remember the day World War I ended.
It made history feel very real. People lived and died and starved and suffered and celebrated. And people remembered. And this is why I write historical fiction–because it is real and visceral and more than just dates and battles and multiple-choice.
So how do we get readers to come to that same epiphany? We know that the things that went on in history can be more desperate than a dystopian, more horrific than horror, more romantic than romance, more fantastical than fantasy.
Perhaps part of the problem is the pigeon-holing of genre. I’m sure authors of vampire novels will tell you that vampires are a tough sell because people are tired of them. And authors of dystopian novels will say that the market is so flooded that no one wants to see another dystopian. At the end of the day (or the book) the genre shouldn’t matter.
The story should.
I hope that my stories could be set in any time period and in any setting and still have resonance. Gilt is about a girl who must extricate herself from a dysfunctional friendship before it’s too late. Tarnish is about a girl struggling to find her place in a repressive world. It could happen on a space ship, in a modern high school, on the high plains, or between two fallen angels. I just happened to set it in the Tudor court. I’ve even riffed on J. Anderson Coats’s idea that history is the ultimate secondary world and detailed how the Tudor court was actually a dystopian society.
Genre shouldn’t matter, but unfortunately too many of us get stuck in the mindset of I only read paranormal or I don’t like sci-fi or Historical fiction is too much like school. We all need to unstick the labels—authors, readers, publishers, reviewers—and get back down to the reason we fell in love with reading in the first place.
Today the authors of Corsets, Cutlasses, & Candlesticks tackle the following question for the ages: Why do we write historical fiction? Read on and find out!
J. Anderson Coats (The Wicked and the Just):
History is where stories are. It’s not the only place, but it’s one I’m drawn to because of its many weirdnesses. History is full of interesting, dysfunctional, disarming individuals who have things to say. They had their offputting beliefs, but they’re a lot like us when you scratch the surface. They had friends and enemies (and frenemies), tried to find meaning in their lives, made good and stupid choices, worried about the future. When written well they are like any good characters in fiction –familiar, touchable, and very human.
Jessica Spotswood (The Cahill Witch Chronicles):
I grew up near Gettysburg, PA, with a Civil War history buff for a father. The first books that I fell in love with, the books that taught me to love reading on my own, were all historical to me: Little Women, The Secret Garden and The Little Princess, and Little House on the Prairie. As I got older, I loved Austen and the Brontes, who brought the drawing rooms and moors of the nineteenth century to life. And the book that made me want to write my own was Gone with the Wind. I read it when I was twelve and then promptly set about writing a series of knock offs featuring strong-willed girls who loved to ride horses and kissed dashing soldiers. I’ve always wanted to write the kind of books teenage me would want to read – so historical fiction is a perfect fit.
Renee Collins (Relic):
I started college as an English major. Very quickly, however, I realized that history offers the most fascinating stories, characters and settings you could ever ask for. So I changed my major to History and never looked back. Now, as a writer, I find myself drawn to those historical eras I learned so much about. I want to meet the people that lived there and tell their stories. And maybe even add an unexpected bit of magic.
Cat Winters (In the Shadow of Blackbirds):
I write historical fiction because, to me, the past is a treasure chest of story ideas. There’s a wealth of little-known footnotes and unsung heroes in history, and I deeply enjoy breathing new life into forgotten moments in time.
Sharon Biggs Waller (A Mad, Wicked Folly):
I understand why people assume historical fiction is boring. It can be a genre where facts are more important than story, and those who’ve been forced to read a thinly veiled history lesson in school know what I mean. In addition, historical fiction requires a good deal of research and sometimes authors want to cram all of their findings in, no matter what. They’ve done the work, now the reader must humor them! Historical details may be interesting, but unless they move the story forward or reveal something crucial about the character or setting, they don’t really belong there. This isn’t just a problem with historical writers. Any genre can be top-heavy with information.
No matter the genre, the story has to take pride of place, and that is the reason why I write historical fiction. Our past is a rich world full of potential stories waiting to be told. I’m a consummate daydreamer and I love imagining how we got to where we are, what were the struggles, what were the sacrifices? How did people love each other then? What were the risks they took to be together? And of course I love to know how people lived their everyday lives—what they ate, how they traveled, how they danced, what they wore. Whenever I travel, historical items grab my attention. For my debut novel, A MAD, WICKED FOLLY, it was the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the major voices in the women’s suffrage movement that I saw in a London park. But it can be something as simple as a photograph or an antique or a painting in an art museum. When I lived in England I bought a Victorian armoire in an auction and every time I opened the door I thought about the kinds of clothing that might have hung there. And I think historical fiction is even more inspirational for a middle grade or young adult novelist. The stakes for young people were very high in the past, even until just after World War II. Children were often treated as little adults. Kids went to work and even married young. Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort was 12 when she married and became pregnant with the future king of England at 13. Imagine that? 13! Hmmm, now there’s a story!
Laura Golden (Every Day After):
“Study the past if you would divine the future.”—Confucius
I cannot begin to tell you how much I love this quote. It is not only beautiful, but it succinctly sums up the core reason I choose to write historical fiction. Over the centuries we humans have made far too many mistakes and enacted far too many crimes against one another—things we tend to brush aside and often forget in the course of our day-to-day lives. But if we don’t remember our past, what’s to prevent us from messing up yet again?
History is more than dry facts and dates; it is living life lessons. History is a story written in stone, and yet it’s meaning and course is ever changing. History is a story in which the main characters (humans) are given second, or even third, chances to correct previous mess-ups and get it right. (How often we actually redeem ourselves is up for serious debate…)
To be blunt, I write historical fiction more for myself than for anyone else—though I certainly hope that kids and adults alike will grow to love history as much as I through reading wonderful historical fiction. It is through researching and writing my historical novels that I attempt to “divine the future”. History, and history repeating itself, fascinates me. We can’t change the past, but we can change the future if we strive to become students and learn from past mistakes.
Jennifer McGowan (Maid of Secrets):
I write historical fiction for the same reasons that I love to read it: the mystery of the past, the inherent escapism of exploring a time gone by. In addition to the inherent grandeur of the great houses and lifestyles of the nobility of any era, there are also the stories of ordinary, everyday people to explore. It’s fascinating to learn how people accomplished so much even though they did not have some of the advantages we take for granted today. My favorite eras are Elizabethan (of course!) and Regency England, followed closely by Victorian England. . .you could say I’m a bit of an anglophile!
Katherine Longshore (Gilt; Tarnish):
I write historical fiction because I like to explore the other side of what we learn in school. What I remember from my teen years is struggling to remember dates and battles and feeling like all I got was the thinnest skin of the onion–the outer layer that peels off easily in dry chunks, but is difficult to digest. What I like about history are all the other layers–psychology and real people and the motivation, action and reaction of events. I still struggle to remember dates, but the people who inhabited the Tudor era feel like family (a dysfunctional one, for sure, but family nonetheless). I want to write stories that make readers feel the same way.
There you have it! What about you? We’d love to hear why you love to write or read historical fiction!