Why, of all things, do I write historical fiction? It requires long hours of research into the most insignificant of details. Did they use the word Neanderthal in the late 1890s? What patterns of wallpaper would grace a Victorian parlor? What’s for dinner during the Civil War? These questions also differ by region or socio-economic class (I wanted to be an archeologist as a kid, but I hate hot weather. Go figure).
So what is the allure? Well, for someone who has spent hours gleefully comparing Sanborn maps (future blog topic — are you in for a treat!) the question can be a difficult thing to qualify. History can rapidly become a litany of names, dates and places—great people doing great things at a point in time.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m fully cognizant of the debt we owe to those who have gone before us and their sacrifices. The danger is in those tales taking on an epic quality and the people in them becoming caricatures and losing their humanness. If we can’t relate to them, their deeds become mythology.
We lose the sense of realism. The sense that they are like us. Without the realness of day to day living—decisions agonized over, mistakes made, and foibles displayed—we loose touch with our connectivity to our collective past.
Most folks have heard Mark Twain’s “Truth is stranger than fiction,” but may not realize the quote continues “but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.”
Actual stories about actual people are mind-blowing. I can’t make up this stuff. Not creative enough. So writing historical fiction gives me a place to story.
Face it, my first tale was about a guy who decided it was better for his family to die rather than leave them in this evil world. He got away with it for nine long years and is brought down by the daughter of a former Pinkerton spy captured in Richmond during the Civil War.
My second story involves 10 men executed in 1862 because a northern spy disappears. The ripples from that one act reverberate 30 years later. Ok, a few (several) of my elements find their origins in my vivid imagination, but the underlying stories? I’d never made it believable.
So historical fiction gives my stories a base, leeway to create and boundaries for realism. I can sift through actual events, discard the mundane (we ALL have mundane), emphasize the wow, and spin it into something (I hope) others want to read. A connection to the past. A way of testing here and now by realizing it’s not that different from there and then. A way to uncover the same struggles across time.
I write historical fiction to offer that conduit. An opportunity to peer into a time and place different from our now. Not to stand back and observe, but to get in and sift through—dirty our hands. To see not just what they did and said, but to live why they did and said. To see the world with other eyes.
It’s that understanding that builds connection and when we connect it opens up the possibility that maybe our own do and say is just as meaningful.