History for Teenagers-A Dangerous Proposition by Peg Herring

Posted by on Oct 18, 2012 in 16th Century England, Historical Fiction Influences | 1 comment

Looking over a local library’s event schedule yesterday, I came across the
name of an author I hadn’t thought about for years—make that decades. He
 must be ancient, and if he’s still out there promoting, he’s earned an
audience. I might just go and thank him for the memories. As a teenager, I read the tacky kind of historical fiction: lusty pirates,
helpless women, and a rush from one perilous situation to another. I even
read a few bodice rippers, though I quickly tired of skipping through the
sex scenes to get back to whatever story there was.
 As bad as they were, those books did two things for me: they kept me
reading, which I later learned is the best way to become a good reader.
 Practice makes perfect in reading, just like in everything else, so I got
better at grasping nuances and analyzing style. And they introduced me to
 the “story” in “history,” the idea that people in the past were people,
with zits, sore feet, and body odor. It was quite a revelation.

As time went on, I moved away from the “cheapie” historicals and read 
better stuff, but I never lost my love of historical novels. I discovered 
James Michener, Ken Follett, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Taylor Caldwell,
Rosemary Jarman, Jean Plaidy, James Clavell, and Edward Rutherfurd, to 
name a few. Along with tons of historical fiction, I found authors who 
make nonfiction read like a story, like Thomas Costain and Robert Massie.
 I loved fictionalized biographies such as those of Margaret George. I
 found myself rooting for Richard III, Berengaria, Boadicea, and, most of
 all, Elizabeth Tudor and her tragic mother, Anne Boleyn. That interest
 eventually turned into my Simon & Elizabeth mystery series (Her Highness’ First Murder and Poison, Your Grace), which led me
 to understand that it isn’t easy to write historical fiction.

My 
estimation of most authors I’d read rose as I struggled to balance history 
with plot, character with truth, and detail with myth.
 As a teacher, I used the books I’d read as a reading list for my students.
 While some complained about the fact that I’d read all the books and could
 quiz them about the details, others learned that history is more enjoyable
 in novels than it is in textbooks. There were humorous moments, such as
when a girl reported that a character in her book about ancient Athens met
 a really smart guy called “Sew Crates,” or when a young man told the class
 that Poland once had a really good piano-player named “Choppin.” Still,
 many students asked for more books about the era they’d explored in the 
novels, and I even read books students suggested be added to the list. (I 
didn’t think I was interested in WWII submarines, but I found after 
reading the book one young man loaned me that I was.)

I still read historical fiction, though writing squeezes my reading time
 most days. The swashbucklers of my youth don’t appeal anymore. I tried to
 read a favorite author’s work again recently and was appalled by the bad
writing, terrible dialogue, and historical inaccuracies. Sadly, there are
 still bad historicals being published. Some authors don’t care about
 portraying an era accurately; they just want to write down the fantasy 
that’s in their heads. Others are so enamored with the era they’re writing 
about that they become pedantic. I started one just last evening that has 
six pages on why the author chose to write about the period, then a map of
 the area, then a list of important people from the time, then notes on 
terminology used in the book. I have a feeling the author might be a
little too caught up in history, but the first chapter was good, so I’m 
willing to give him a little more time now that we’re past the
 preliminaries.
 I’m not a teenager anymore, but I still want a good story. It’s just that
 these days I know a little more, so that “story” has to fit the “history”
that surrounds it.

Peg Herring, October 18, 2012

One Comment

  1. Peg, fun post. LOL on the “Sew Crates”. Yes, it is amazing how schools can suck the life out of history. Just like you, I didn’t realize how much I loved it until I started reading the historical and period novels, from Johnny Tremain and Little Women to historical romances…many of which, like the Angelique books, were deeply steeped in history. We need to make a concerted effort to get kids reading these kinds of books so that they, too, can fall in love with the past.