Have you ever wished you could step inside a time machine and be transported to a completely different time and place? Well, the bad news is: time machines don’t exist. But the good news is: there’s historical fiction!
Blending fact with fiction, historical fiction takes you to a memorable time period in the past. Typically, historical novels are written decades after the time periods in which the narratives take place. Sometimes, the historical events are remembered from lived experience, but most of the time the story is the result of an author’s meticulous research process.
And this is where most people tend to find fault with the genre. How can a story that’s made up by an author born decades or even centuries after the events he or she’s writing about teach us anything about the past?
History Come Alive
Sometimes, the hard facts just ain’t enough to really understand the past. History isn’t about facts and dates, but it’s about real people and their stories; what they thought, how they dressed, why they acted the way they did. Historical fiction takes you to other times and places in ways non-fiction can’t. You get to experience the past through the eyes of characters who lived it, which allows you to actually feel what they went through.
“The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.”–E.L. Doctorow
Therefore, historical fiction is more likely to leave an impact on readers. Think about it yourself. Compare reading a chapter from a textbook to reading a chapter from a historical novel. Which chapter are you more likely to remember? The one giving you the dates and facts, or the one that takes you right at the centre of events?
Recovering Untold Stories
Most people tend to assume that historiography is objective. But that’s simply not true. Historical writing follows literary patterns, too. Historians assemble historical events into a narrative with a plot. They choose where to put the beginning, middle and end of their story. They have to make choices about whose story to focus on. And more often than not, that’s the stories of white Western men. As a result, stories of women, people of colour or other minorities are hidden, forgotten or considered unimportant.
Historical fiction can give voice to precisely the people whose stories have been muted. It can open your eyes to people, places and stories you’ve never heard of before. Or introduce you to the silent (or silenced) heroes and heroines of their times. Reinjecting these voices into modern conversations opens up discussions about the past, the present and the very nature of history.
A Bridge Between Past and Present
It goes without saying that the past can teach us a lot about our own times. Historical fiction helps us set our own times in context. It makes us aware of the things that have and haven’t changed over time. We get to see how different, yet also similar we are to the people of the past.
Especially in times of turmoil, we should turn to history for lessons that may, or may not, have been learned. Most of the issues we’re facing today–police brutality, #MeToo, or Brexit–all are deeply rooted in history. It’s only by looking carefully into past societies, their customs, traditions, values, attitudes, that we can truly make sense of the world we currently live in.
Looking Ahead–A Window into the Future
Looking back at not only the achievements and victories but also the challenges and failures of our ancestors also helps us shape a better future. Because only by grappling with the past can we understand the present and make changes for the future.
“One of the beauties of historical fiction is how the genre can act as a barometer of how far we’ve come as a society. But historical fiction also shines light on how much further we have to go.”—Jenni L. Walsh, author of Becoming Bonnie
Throughout history, patterns have kept repeating themselves. For the simple reason that humans are creatures of habit. But if we want to break free from these patterns or avoid falling back into them, we need stories that challenge us to question precisely these patterns.
Wherever you want to go, there’s a book that can take you there. Just take a plunge into historical fiction and get to experience the world from a whole different perspective!
Do you enjoy historical fiction? What novels do you recommend? Let me know in the comment section below.