Why Historical Fiction?

by Genevieve Graham, Author
Under the Same Sky
Sound of the Heart
Somewhere to Dream

I was NOT a good history student. I took history in high school because I had to, and I slept through most of those classes. What could be so fascinating about stuff that happened hundreds of years ago? What difference did those dead people make to me?

And yet now I find myself writing Historical Fiction. Where did that come from?

When our oldest daughter was eight or so, my mother handed me a book. Neither of us knew that book going to change my life. It was Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander”. Her words swept me into the 18th century and into the wild unknown of the Scottish Highlands. I thought that was a great idea. I’d just write about them. There must be books and books and books researching those people. This was going to be a breeze.

Well, there were books and books and books. Most of which put me to sleep. And many of the websites I visited had conflicting information. I told you I was never a good student. But now I was stuck. My story wasn’t changing, so I’d have to. I decided to try researching a different way. I visited websites of historical reenactors, the men and women who are so passionate about the time period they represent that they think nothing of wearing seven layers of heavy tartan wool on hot summer days (I met these two guys in the picture two summers ago. They weren't even breaking a sweat. I sure was!). I was so excited when I got emails back from them, answering my questions, making suggestions, being  generous with all the knowledge they feel a responsibility to share.

With my second novel, “Sound of the Heart”, I was faced with yet another challenge. My hero, Dougal, is unceremoniously dumped over the side of a cliff, into a freezing stream below, and left for dead. Only he wasn't dead. (I don't think that's much of a spoiler, since it happens about halfway through the story, and it is his story, after all.) So this time I wondered how he would survive, and I decided to research the same way. I went to visit (online) Lawrence Clark (like Scotland's “Survivorman”) who runs Bushcraft Ventures Ltd. I told him where in Scotland, what month, the weather … and he came back with a wonderful serving of facts: Dougal's priorities (getting warm was first), what he could eat in that particular spot (juniper berries and rosehips for now, plus willow shoots to reduce pain), how to start a fire (using fungus and birch bark), and how he could help his wounds recover (birch and fungus again). I suppose I could have learned that from books, but Lawrence took the time to really explain it to me and gently correct my mistakes.

When Lawrence and I were working on this section, what hit me was how this scenario would play out exactly the same in 1750 as it would in 2012 (except for the rescue helicopter). And that feeds into my favourite part of historical fiction.

Historical Fiction tells stories about what might have happened years ago. All the real life heroes and heroines have since died, meaning we can't call them and ask for an interview. Historical research teaches us the tangible things, the customs, the political and economic climates, but it cannot really delve into individual adventures. Some (non-fiction) biographies do a beautiful job at that; however, those are mostly to do with characters who were important during their lifetime. If you consider the “every man”, a fellow raising cows in the Highlands while he awaits the next battle, orphaned children surviving when all around them die of disease or attack, the neighbours of someone famous or their long lost uncle … those aren't stories told by history. Those are left to the fiction writers.

When I write, the stories come with a kind of push. A pressure I'd be stupid to ignore. I write what I sense, and these are stories I have never thought of before in my entire life. The story almost writes itself. Which makes me wonder ... how am I seeing such details? How do I feel so close to these fictitious characters? Where are the stories coming from?

And because we weren't there to ask, and because the stories come to me from somewhere in my mind I can't identify, how do I know they aren't true?

Let's be honest. I write primarily for me. I love imagining myself sharing my characters' adventures. When I lose myself in my characters' world, become one of them, history is no longer dull. I picture myself in Dougal's place at the bottom of that riverbed, starved, beaten, and frozen half to death, and I survive right alongside him. After all, the survival techniques I learned applied just as well then as they do now. What he did then, I can do now. What he did then, I can write now.

Historical Fiction puts me in the middle of an adventure that might once have been. It's up to me to triumph and have my own happily-ever-after. That can only happen if I convince myself that the stories I'm telling are real, and the only way for me to do that is to write them as if my happily-ever-after depended on it.

No comments:

Post a Comment