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Why I Love Historical Fiction

In 1983 I walked into Wilson Jr. High School and into Mr. Perdy’s World History class. My life has never been the same. He opened up a world of people and places. It was in his class that I watched 1963’s Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor & Sir Richard Burton.

I was blown away with the costumes, the plot & the culture clash of Romans and Egyptians. (I really didn’t get the whole Ptolemy Hellenistic thing yet.) But what I understood most of all was that this was a story about people. People who loved, hated, got drunk, got jealous and got scared.

To my 12 year old mind, this was a revelation.

I once had a graduate school professor who said that “The past is a foreign country.”

That statement is true.

There are many things we take for granted today as moral and ethical truths. However, when we peer into the lives of our ancestors, we are shocked by what they thought was acceptable. The further back we go, the weirder things get.

Oh sure, human desires haven’t changed. We’re still human, but how we express and fulfill those desires does change over time. How we try to build a life for ourselves, create a legacy, or even navigate our world are – those things are circumstantial

And THAT is where great story begins. What do the characters want? Why can’t they have it? What are they willing to do to go get it? When you right historical fiction, the question of Why can’t they have it, tends to glare at me.

A story about an interracial romance is nothing new. But set it in 1830s Mississippi and you’ve got tension.

A story about brave soldiers and civilians fighting the good fight is old hat. Set that story in 1945 Nagasaki and you have tension galore!

A story about a talented seamstress might make interesting chick lit. Place her in the court of Louis XVI of France and you have a story!

  • Every Time Period Presents It’s own Problems

Placing a story within a historical context presents both reader and writer with fresh and interesting problems, fixes and themes. Besides, there is a tension in telling a story around the facts of an historical event. Even if your story is completely fiction a to wrap it around the basics of things that already happened can be a challenge a but it’s a challenge I relish. Whether your story is about the life of famous and powerful, like in The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory or you’ve created a cozy world of fictional characters in a historical setting, like in Promised to the Crown by Aimie K. Runyan, your still writing within the parameters of factual events.

Besides, nothing excites me more as a reader than when I discover a new perspective on a piece of history I thought I knew. It lights the imagination and gets me to dream.

For example, everyone knows how Blacks are portrayed in Gone with the Wind. Now compare that with the complex and heartwarming look at Black women in Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Different story, different perspective, different representation. A

  • Historical Fiction is a Great Way to Introduce Under Represented Cultures

Writing a western story about Native Americans fighting it out with cowboys can be dated. Writing about how the cowboys were Black, turns the tale on its head.

Take a story arch-type we’ve all heard before. The plucky band of heroes fighting the good fight. Sounds good, right? OK, maybe a little trite? Well, let’s see if history can spice it up?

You could write about German guerilla’s fighting the Nazis, or Spanish guerilla’s fighting Napoleon. How about a story involving Quantrill’s Raiders.

But with a little research you could find something better.

Like the story of the thousands of Filipino’s who enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight the Japanese in World War II.

Who are these people? Why did they enlist when the Philippines had their own army? What happened to them after the war? All these questions can lead to in depth characters and better story telling. It can also shed light on a period of history not a lot of people know about.

Good story is good story. But when I read a good piece of historical fiction I not only enjoy a story, I also learn.


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