Report on HNS 2013: Religion in Historical Fiction by Lisa Yarde

Posted by on Jun 26, 2013 in Historical Fiction Influences, Historical Tidbits | 4 comments

This is a blog report from HFAC member, Lisa Yarde, of the 2013 Historical Novel Society’s Fifth Annual North American Conference. We will be trying to repost as many of these reports as possible. Do please chime in if you also attended to add your two cents!)

Hello from beautiful St. Petersburg, Florida! I know you might be thinking, “Wasn’t she just on vacation in Barbados? What’s she doing in Florida now?” Or not. I am very happy to be attending the 2013 Historical Novel Society’s 5th Annual North American conference. This one is occurring at the Vinoy Renaissance Resort. I’ve been to the HNS conferences before, but after several years’ lapse, I’m here and a member of the society again. I missed the Friday night banquet due to some luggage and travel issues – miffed, but I got over it. The setting has veered between being hot as all hell to a torrential downpour in a matter of minutes. Gotta love that unpredictable Florida weather! To make up for all that, the sessions have been spectacular! I’m sharing a few highlights of each one I’ve gone to so far.

Depicting Religion in Historical Fiction, presented by Stephanie Dray (Lily of the Nile), Kamran Pasha (Mother of the Believers) and Mary Sharratt (Daughters of the Witching Hill), and moderated by Teralyn Rose Pilgrim.

As you may know, I have written about Muslim, Jewish and Christian characters, so I’m particularly sensitive to this topic. I’m a huge admirer of author Sherry Jones, but each time I write part of the Sultana series, I can’t help remembering the tribulations Sherry so graciously endured when her Jewel of Medina was published. How does an author tread the fine line between engaging readers and courting controversy by discussing religion in novels?

As the discussants all mentioned, religion matters. Belief has shaped society and given it purpose. Authors at times are afraid to offend or think the characters of various religions will seem almost alien and won’t foster connections with readers. Stephanie talked about how ancient world religions are foreign to most, yet she discovered in writing about Cleopatra’s daughter that Isis worship is a forerunner to Christianity and many would be surprised at how some of its practices mirror those of the past. Scandalous! Kamran, as a practicing Muslim, is quite conscious and sensitive to the need to write with authenticity about his own religion, as well as the others he depicts. The biggest takeaway he offered was about overcoming one’s own prejudices to write about belief faithfully. In his words, “Be cool with what you got” which means that if you are grounded and comfortable in your own convictions as an author, you can write with ease about other religions. There is the image we each hold of a religion and then there is the experience of that belief system, two very diverse concepts. Mary suggested that in writing about religions, authors refrain from criticism of beliefs which diverge from their own; personal conviction should be treated with respect because everyone has different POVs. Sound advice.

As with any controversial topic, some readers are liable to take offense where religion is involved. The panelists all suggested that this risk only adds to the discussion, so authors should not be afraid to take on the topic. Religion divides and unites universally. I think Stephanie put it best, “All spiritual people seek the same thing. Religion is a human experience.”
Do you read or have you written works that incorporate religion and practices of faith? What do you think of novels that do this? How have your own personal beliefs been affected by what you have read? Are there recent novels you can think of which have handled religion very well?

 Lisa Yarde, June 25, 2013  The third book in Yarde’s Sultana series will be out in July. Check this website for details.


  1. A topic close to my heart, as all of my fiction (and non-fiction) treats in a big way the topics of belief and non-belief.

    Yes, religion is a “touchy” subject in fiction, but it shouldn’t be. Authors have been successfully confronting other emotion-laded arenas such as politics (the March/April Writer’s Chronicle discusses this nicely), which has its own share of landmines and challenges, and are by contrast encouraged for this in some circles (the old “all writing is political” debate). Doesn’t the structure of drama render religion as another dimension of the “political,” albeit on a more personal level?

    I believe the “touchiness” we feel is a symptom of the general self-consciousness that religion evokes in any kind of public discourse these days. It shouldn’t be so. Faith, belief, unbelief, all these things should be open to sincere exploration, portrayal, and, yes, scrutiny and even criticism. If writers aren’t at the forefront of this sort of thing, who else in society will be?


  2. I think generally that readers of historicals are a little more accepting of religious material, maybe because it’s all “way back when.” My Simon & Elizabeth mysteries cover England’s struggle with religious changes, which were often made for very worldly reasons. I hope readers understand after reading such books and perhaps can take a more educated view of today’s problems. After all, if you’ve read about the Crusades, the exportation of terror from the Middle East in modern times doesn’t seem quite so unusual.

  3. Agreed with both of you. Religion is so personal that there’s serious concern about seeming to pass judgment writing about a religion or its adherents in one way or another. I don’t think a critique on a particular religion should be the goal of writers of fiction. Sometimes speaking the truth does raise very uncomfortable feelings no matter what we do; for instance, the connections between Islam, Judaism and Christianity that make fundamentalists in each group cringe, even though they can’t deny the relationship.

  4. I believe that a good writer, if they treat religion or any other subject as they would their characters — honestly and unselfconsciously — can avoid being tendentious or passing judgement. I agree with what you say, Lisa, that speaking the truth can raise uncomfortable feelings, but I believe that readers do not object to having such feelings stirred (good literature often does make one uncomfortable, after all) if the feelings are the result of some truth that arises from the narrative or a character. A reader may disagree with such a “truth,” and perhaps even the author does as well, but if it emerges from something endemic to the story and is not injected from on high by the author’s own bias or point of view, it can be accepted, even appreciated.

    The challenge with historical fiction, that I face at least, is in preventing or limiting the bias and baggage that the reader may bring into the world that I’m trying to create. For example, if setting a novel in Rome and Palestine 2000 years ago, I attempt to frame a fictional world that is not “historical” but is fresh and new, with an unwritten future, as it was for human beings actually living in that time.

    So here’s the thing — if I make a reference to “Rome” and “Romans,” I probably don’t have to worry about readers dragging along associations with Mussolini or Federico Fellini or the Roman Catholic Church. What Romans were then are not what Italians are now, and because the book takes place two millennia ago most readers I expect understand this. I don’t need to contort “Rome” into “Roma” or other nonsense in order to achieve the verisimilitude that I’m after.

    However, it may not be so easy when treating other peoples and places, for example “Jerusalem” and “Jews.” For many readers the name “Jerusalem” is likely to invoke Christo-centric associations, including received assumptions about the history and characters from that part of the world that I wish to avoid — Christianity hasn’t happened yet, folks. Likewise with the English word “Jew.” The people called Jews today aren’t the same people they were then (and, naturally, didn’t call themselves by that name), and all the intervening, popularly-known history, from the Crusades to the pogroms, did not exist. To achieve the “newness” and to erase, so to speak, that unwritten future, does one use an Aramaic- or Greco-ized version of those familiar nouns, keeping them recognizable yet different enough to be different? Or could the mere act of avoiding the use of the word “Jew,” for instance, be itself construed as biased or insulting?

    It’s this sort of self-consciousness that needs to be exorcized from the premises of a novel that treats religious subjects and themes. Perhaps no one else here finds themselves plagued with these sorts of conundrums, but I do.