Friday, February 17, 2012

Guest Blog: Jeannette de Beauvoir asks "Why Write Historical Fiction?"

It’s a valid question. It’s hard enough telling a story in the here and now … without contending with whether or not some style of clothing, a city’s layout, or the presence of a certain technology is going to be anachronistic and break the spell one hopes to cast over the reader.

And yet I find myself constantly drawn to write stories that take place in the past.

Note that I didn’t say I’m writing about the past. That’s for nonfiction writers, academics, those who want you to understand what life was like then. I’m happy enough to give you a window on what life was like then, but the real function of the past, I think, is in its role as backdrop to the issues and drama that I want to explore with the story’s characters.

It’s something that historical fiction has in common with fiction that takes place “somewhere else” — it seems to me that putting one’s characters and stories against an unfamiliar backdrop serves to strip away readers’ assumptions and help them see the people and situations for what they are, unclouded by the presence of the familiar. The past is indeed a foreign country, and it’s sometimes by going somewhere else that we really understand who we are.

And it’s that connection that’s at the core of historical fiction. Look at it this way: we all keep photographs of our family, including our ancestors. It really doesn’t matter if Uncle Ernie was a terrible black sheep or if Grandmother’s eyes were slightly crossed … they’re part of who we are. Our family’s history is intrinsic to the persons we’ve become, and knowing about it is, in a way, knowing about oneself.

And in a sense the whole of history is our story, not just in the grandiose “birth of a nation” sense, but in the small things, the intimate details of life. We have a great deal more in common with people who live apart from us—whether the distance is created by miles or by centuries—than we may think. In one of my novels, one beginning in 1305, a father frets about his daughter’s involvement with unsuitable men, a young anarchist challenges the status quo (occupy the middle ages, anyone?), a sister-in-law gets nasty with her brother’s wife, a mother falls in love with the wrong person, and an unhappy cousin decides to get revenge over a property deal.

Could be 1305. Could be 2012.

What sparks my interest, as both an author and as a reader, is the thought of what people might do under certain circumstances, how they might react to certain events. The wealth of choice presented by history makes it easy to find a time and situation that presents any given challenge. How could someone choose betrayal? Place that character in an occupied country in WWII. How does someone cope with loss? Give her a ship’s captain husband in the 1700s. It’s easy to choose a backdrop where the character will absolutely be faced with the issues that I want to explore in my novel or short story.

So if you don’t already read historical fiction, consider it. It’s not just the dreaded list of England’s rulers, or the myriad battles waged by Napoleon, or the dates you were forced to memorize in school. It’s people, people dealing with the same issues, emotions, and decisions that we’re dealing with today.

And you may just learn something. If not about history, about yourself.

Jeannette de Beauvoir helps writers find their voices at Customline Wordware and writes her own historical fiction at and

1 comment: