Historical Fiction–Why?

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!

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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!

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6 thoughts on “Historical Fiction–Why?

  1. Yes to all of this! When people roll their eyes at me for my “easy” and “useless” history major, I want to scream! It’s so great to hang out here among kindred spirits.

  2. Love these! I’d add I love the way historical fiction makes people from other eras accessible and real. In other words, like us.

    • susan hill long says:

      Yes–everything changes across history, except that in every era, the people, like us, are altogether human.

  3. Rachael Hodgson says:

    Historical Fiction makes history come alive in a way that reading from a textbook doesn’t. I think that it’s great to start with Historical Fiction and then study the period from textbook because you’ve already been transported into that era. It’s the closest you’ll get to time travelling.

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