Why I Write Historical Fiction

In my experience, people who call themselves writers write for many different reasons, and often for one simple one: they have a story (usually stories) burning to be told. I’m no different. Yet you may well ask: why did I choose the genre of historical fiction? What is it about stories in the past that draw me more than any other kind?

Believe me, sometimes I ask myself that question too. There are definitely days when I wished I wrote a genre that doesn’t require quite so much research. But, luckily, those are not most days.

One of the reasons I write historical fiction is a simple one, and perhaps the most obvious: I love history. I always have, something for which I credit my father. He’s a big history buff (WWII being his preferred time period) and always impressed upon my brother and me the importance of studying history, so that we (both individually and as a society) can learn from our mistakes and not repeat them, can see the patterns that repeat themselves throughout humanity. (I wish more people in the world would take this lesson to heart, but I digress). So I grew up with a strong sense that history was important. I always enjoyed the subject in school, and here and there – but with much more frequency once I hit my late teens – I began reading books of history for pleasure, and to learn on my own. Since I was a kid I loved to read historical fiction, and a pattern I picked up – and one that persists to this day – is that I will read as many historical novels as I can get my hands on about a certain time period/historical figure, and then I will delve into nonfiction on the subject.

In high school it was the Tudors, then the Borgias. The Borgias led me to a deeper interest in the history of the Italian Renaissance, and from there to Italian history in general (something that should come as no surprise, given the novels I’ve written!) I also tend to like royal history in general (be it English, French, Spanish, what have you) – a couple years ago I went on a series Wars of the Roses binge. The Salem Witch Trials are another event that particularly interests me and that I’ve read quite a bit about (I’ve even been to Salem twice). Lately, Italy during WWII and the Spanish Civil War are two periods that I’ve gotten interested in and am planning to read more about – just for the heck of it. Maybe a novel will come of it at some point, and maybe not.

So having a love of history certainly put me in to want to write stories set among the historical periods I loved so much and, as I alluded to above, I’ve always read a lot of historical fiction. It started when I was young, with series like Dear America and the Royal Diaries, and authors like Ann Rinaldi. When I was in high school I discovered Philippa Gregory, and that sort of sealed the deal for me. I have a vivid memory of sitting in my high school cafeteria, reading The Other Boleyn Girl for the first time, and thinking, “This. I want to do this.”

I definitely had the makings of a historical fiction author early on. But there’s more to it than even all those things, for me. History, whether consumed in strictly nonfiction form or through a historical novel, is a lens for all sorts of things. Something that I try to keep in mind when writing about characters that lived hundreds of years before I was born is that we are all human beings. People three hundred years ago wanted, at a basic level, the same things we want today: love, respect, freedom, financial security, the ability to live the life of our choosing. Some of them, of course, wanted power, wealth, control, fame. Just like today.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of fiction is its ability to hold a mirror up to ourselves, the way it allows us to see ourselves reflected in different characters. Historical fiction, in many instances, allows us to see ourselves reflected in people from the past, in people and circumstances from time periods we never lived in, in places and countries we’ve never been to. At least, to me, this is what well-done historical fiction should do. And this allows us – as reading of any kind will – a greater capacity for empathy for people in the past and present alike.

On a larger scale, another thing I love about historical fiction is its ability to allow us to reflect on the circumstances of our own time, on how far we have come on certain issues and how far we still have to go. Sometimes it’s difficult to see the issues that affect us personally clearly, because we’re so close to them. Sometimes we need the distance that historical fiction can provide to get a closer look at these things.

My second book (which I hope to be able to share some more information about soon!) ended up being something of a meditation on questions of female beauty and objectification. I didn’t intend for that to happen; they’re themes that emerged organically as I wrote (and I love when that happens!) It was something of a sobering and thoughtful moment for me when I realized that the questions my protagonist was asking about these issues, back in 1470s Florence, are questions that we still do not have the answers to today. So if, when this book finally makes its way into the world, I can provoke some thought among my readers about these questions and issues, then I have done at least one of my jobs as a writer.

In The Violinist of Venice (which you all will be able to read SOON!) I think (I hope, anyway) that there is a place for readers to reflect on lots of different things, namely the way the world worked for women in the past, and how that differs or not from today. I think perhaps readers might consider things like what it means, truly, to be happy, and what it means to have the strength to live a life of one’s own choosing. I think it definitely communicates the power of music, which is something that, to me, is timeless.

And maybe that’s what historical fiction shows us best: what things, what questions, what aspects of being human are truly timeless.

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2 responses to “Why I Write Historical Fiction

  • saraletourneau

    Wow. I loved every word of this, Alyssa. Your analysis into how and why you leaned toward historical fiction writing makes complete sense. It’s funny how the things we enjoyed or did as children or teens influence what we write about in the future, doesn’t it?

    The funny thing about looking back on my own writing background is that, even though I write fantasy and read mostly fantasy now, I didn’t actively read in the genre that much when I was a teen. I started off with – believe it or not – children’s historical fiction, like the American Girl franchise and Scott O’Dell. (Did you read either when you were young, too?) History and geography were also my favorite classes after English / writing and foreign languages, too. Of course, then when I read my first fantasy series, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I loved the fact that history played a huge part in the story. And now that I think about it, history is significant in my WIP, too…

    I think my favorite paragraph in your post was the part about the power that historical fiction, and fiction in general, can do for readers. Fantasy has its own abilities in this, too – but sticking with historical fiction, I loved how it transported me to different places and time periods, and also how it helped me connect with characters whose lives and circumstances were so different from mine (just as you were saying). It provides a mirror into the past that we otherwise wouldn’t have, and shows us how far we have – or have yet to go – in certain areas of life.

    Liked by 1 person

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