To quell my anxiety I turned to research, seeking out authors’ accounts of how and why they write historical fiction in hopes of justifying my own speculation on the matter. The articles I found helped inform and guide my thinking about historical fiction.
And then I began to realize that I do know something about historical fiction. True, it’s not one of those genres that I instinctively seek out—more often, it finds me. And, in the way that truly successful historical fiction can, it made its way into my heart without ever striking me with the thought that I was enjoying history (something which would have horrified my sixteen-year-old self, and which surprises me even today). And in examining what made me, a somewhat forgetful young woman with an aversion to date-memorization and name-recitation, fall in love with books like Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner or Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, I think I’ve come up with some answers to the question of why you might want to write historical fiction:
Because you want to explore an unfamiliar world. In a way, your reasons for writing historical fiction might not be so different from another writer’s reasons for tackling speculative fiction. It gives writers and readers alike the chance to experience another way of life vicariously. With the speed at which technology advances, political power changes hands, and trends come and go, the past can sometimes seem even more remote and unimaginable than any sci-fi universe—so historical writers, like authors of speculative fiction, are in the business of introducing their readers to new worlds. That opportunity is alluring to writers and readers alike; as Katherine Paterson says of her historical fiction, “…If I wrote only about what I know, I would never write. I write to find out.”
Because you love to learn, and you love to teach. But, unlike speculative fiction, historical fiction is firmly grounded in the rules of the real world—perhaps more so than any other fictional genre, since the events of the past are already written. For those who love research, historical fiction offers a chance to put that passion to use. What’s more, it can offer writers a way of sharing that passion with others. Events that may never have piqued a reader’s interest when encountered in a history textbook come to life when presented in the form of a story. And once that story takes root in a reader’s mind, it can plant seeds of curiosity that drive the reader to explore history all on his or her own.
Because you want to get to know not only the “what” of history, but also the “who.” One of the most powerful strengths of historical fiction is the ability it has to put a human, relatable face to events that seem far-removed from us now. Historical fiction gives writers a chance to explore long-gone times and places and to meet characters they never could have confronted otherwise—characters with whom both readers and writers can connect, even across the boundaries of time and culture. It’s no coincidence that, despite the fact that I count some works of historical fiction among my favorite books, I couldn’t immediately call to mind any that I’d read. When I think about The Kite Runner, I think of it first as a story about people, and second as a story about the conflicts in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the relationship that I built with the novel’s characters spurred my interest in that time periods and the conflicts that surrounded it, and I began to see the people I’d read about in the paper and in textbooks as individuals, each with their own story.
Because you want to give a voice to someone who hasn’t had it. I see a lot of subversive potential in that power to put a human face on history. Every society has, somewhere in its history, a group of people whose stories have not been heard. Sometimes social and economic factors (like the fact that slaves were not taught to write, or that the lower classes often lacked the leisure time required to do so) keep certain minorities from sharing their stories. In other cases, their stories are intentionally rewritten or overshadowed by the voices of the majority, significantly altering the way we learn and understand history. We’ve all heard that the “winners” in any conflict are the ones who get to write the history of it. However, a writer of historical fiction can subvert that trend. Laurie Halse Anderson managed it in Chains, a novel in which she featured an African-American slave girl (someone whose viewpoint, I’d argue, is thrice-suppressed—for her race, her gender, and her age). When done respectfully, empathetically, and often, imagining history from the perspectives of those who are or were historically oppressed can give a much-needed voice to their struggle.
Because you need to make sense of the world we live in. The statement that we must learn from our history or else be doomed to repeat it may be a cliché, but it’s nonetheless true that, as Katherine Paterson says, “History gives us a pair of powerful eyeglasses with which to examine our own Times.” Sometimes as writers and readers we aren’t yet ready to confront the horrors we experience within our lifetimes—whether that means terrorism, war, or the prejudice we witness in our own society. But we can understand them better, and we can comment upon them or experience much-needed catharsis from them, through the lens of history. Ron Rash says it best in Publishers Weekly: “That may be the best that any work of historical fiction has to offer—not just to its author, but, more importantly, to its readers—a chance to grapple with the mysteries and complexities of the past, in hopes of seeing the present a little clearer.”
Now it’s your turn to educate me. Readers and writers of historical fiction, what draws you to the genre? What are the strengths that I missed? Do you disagree with any of the ones I listed? Let me know in comments!