I spent a good many years teaching history to high school sophomores. Most of them would consider “fun” and “history” mutually exclusive terms, though a few were able to see the possibility that the two can co-exist.
I love history and read it in most forms, but my favorite is historical fiction. It’s in some ways more real than nonfiction, fleshing out the dry descriptions in textbooks and bringing people of another time and place to life in our imaginations. For my students, I made a list of historical novels (all of which I’d read) and let them choose one to read and discuss with me. A fair number tried to scam their way through it, but others confessed that although they didn’t anticipate enjoying a historical (or any book, in some cases), they got caught up in the story and gained an appreciation for the era and the people involved. Dr. Zhivago, Rebecca, Exodus, Shout at the Devil, The Winds of War, The Far Pavilions, and Shogun are just a few books that changed my students’ views of reading and history.
Why does historical fiction appeal to us? Talented authors weave facts and story skillfully together, so readers learn without finding the material pedantic and dull. But along with customs and events of the era, readers want the tension of an intriguing plot. Will our hero find his true love? Will the protagonist’s family live through the war? Will Simon and Elizabeth solve the murder of Red John before Peto is executed for it? (See my newest, The Lady Flirts with Death, for the answer to that one!)
Some events of the past are subject to debate, and an author might suggest an answer to an unsolvable question. Was Richard the Lion-Heart gay, or did he simply prefer waging war to making love to the beautiful Berengaria? Were Anne Boleyn and Lucretia Borgia calculating vipers or innocent young women carried along on currents they couldn’t control? Read Book A and you get one answer. Read Books B and C and you find something totally different. It’s always a mistake for readers to draw conclusions based on one novel’s premise, because an author might take a slanted view and even change events to create drama and sell books. Still, it’s interesting to look at the bare facts history gives us and see what a creative author does with them.
Although I strive for accuracy in my books, I’m aware that a good story sometimes requires tweaking. There are limits to what’s fair, however. I’m okay with Shakespeare telescoping the time of Macbeth’s reign from years to months. I’m less pleased that he maligned a king no worse than most who never killed anyone outside the heat of battle. And poor Lady Macbeth? Don’t get me started!
To achieve accuracy, research is vital. While authors can’t go back in time and ask direct questions or make personal observations, we can read journals and accounts that clarify practices and beliefs. Understanding any generation other than our own is difficult (just try it with your children!) and we can’t put ourselves into the mindset of a time far removed from our own, at least not completely. I can’t comprehend being a woman raised to believe I was the property of my father and then my husband, protected by them because my fluff-filled brain isn’t capable of competent decisions. Neither can I picture myself wearing a donkey’s skin to relieve the pain of arthritis. Still, research can help me imagine how it was, and a little immersion doesn’t hurt. Having created and worn an authentic Tudor costume, I can attest to the fact that the world has a different feel when you’re tightly laced into an outfit you can’t get into or out of by yourself, when you can’t take a deep breath, and when you are unable to bend at the waist in any direction!
Like most readers, I’ve learned a lot from historical novels, from characters like Brother Cadfael, Hester Latterly, and Ari Ben Canaan. The more we as authors delve into history, the more we evoke a period, creating characters that are real to our readers. That’s when history is indeed fun.
Peg Herring, July 1, 2014