Escape, Understanding and Empathy: A Passion for Historical Fiction

Hand of Fire by Judith StarkstonYou’re in for a treat today as Judith Starkston shares a bit of her passion for historical fiction. Over to you, Judith.

Mary has asked me what makes historical novels inherently different from contemporary fiction, or if, indeed, they are different.

They certainly feel different to me. Let me see if I can diagnose why. I recently read a number of contemporary mysteries and crime novels by some giants in the field in preparation for a conference where these influential writers were going to be speaking. I was drawn into the stories, terrified and involved with characters I cared about. I loved brilliant plotting and unexpected twists. But I didn’t get to leave my world.

I think it’s the process of putting your reader somewhere they’ve never been and cannot ever go that distinguishes historical fiction (and fantasy) writing from contemporary. As a reader I love that feeling of total escape. The themes and traits of human nature remain the same, for the most part, but the context changes completely. While fantasy offers the full escape, it doesn’t offer the other big draw to historical fiction that contemporary lacks: the reader escapes into a real world from the past that he or she gets to learn about while having fun. I love expanding my knowledge of history in this mode. For example, I have never studied medieval Japan, but Susan Spann’s Shinobi mysteries take me there and now I have a delightful taste of a piece of history I’d been deprived of (Blade of the Samurai, Claws of the Cat, Flask of the Drunken Master). The reader has to trust the writer to get the historical details right—that matters so much—but once that trust is in place, what a ride into the past. I know the Romans from years of teaching Latin and the related culture to more generations of students than I care to admit to, but I can go deliciously deeper inside that familiar world with Kate Quinn’s Roman books, for example (Mistress of Rome, Daughters of Rome, Empress of the Seven Hills, Lady of the Eternal City). I like to experience the time machines historical fiction writers offer when they allow me to escape my world. But the escape is the key.

So how does a writer of historical fiction create the escape? World building combined with storytelling.

Developing an immersive world is hard work that has to feel seamless to the reader. There’s a tendency among some writers to throw in clothes and other accessories and hope for the best. Then there are those who tell you every step of every process going on in daily life and the reader isn’t “there” but somewhere in an expository history lesson. Deft strokes in all the senses put a reader into another time. A room can live inside the imagination of a reader if you’ve noted three key details, tiny though they might be. The writer has to have the full room in his or her head, but then selects and pares to the minimum essential elements. Research and genuine knowledge of the period is a basic requirement for a historical fiction author.

But equally important to what makes historical fiction so appealing to me is an immersive story that recreates (as much as we can) the way people in that time period would think and act. I am seduced into liking and sympathizing with someone whose beliefs are entirely different from mine. Because that person is from the past, it is easier to allow myself to step into a different worldview. For example, Nancy Bilyeau’s Tudor series, The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry, present a heroine who is a Dominican nun at a time when Henry VIII closes the monasteries and puts Catholics on the run, so to speak. I can sympathize in any period of time with people who are persecuted for their beliefs, but Bilyeau’s Joanna holds a dedication to the goal of restoring Catholicism as the true church in England that is not an immediately accessible source of passion for me. ‘Her concern, not mine’, I’d think, if she were a modern contemporary of mine. I might even think she had a meddlesome tendency toward religious strife-making. But throw me into the past with a skillful writer and I climb right inside Joanna’s mind and am more than happy to think and believe with her, to be passionate at her nail-biting side. And isn’t that one of the most profound transformations for fiction to accomplish—to place ourselves into another way of seeing the world and to try on how it feels to be another person?

So, while I’ll always enjoy my fair share of novels set in the contemporary world, don’t take away my fictional trips into the past. I’m all for escape, understanding the past and empathetic expansion of my soul. And that’s what historical fiction is all about.

In my debut Hand of Fire, I carried my readers into the mind and world of a Bronze Age priestess and princess, Briseis, who both challenges and loves that most conflicted of heroes in the Trojan War, Achilles. Her voice had been silent for too many millennia. My current project, a historical mystery, features the indomitable Queen Puduhepa of the Hittites. Puduhepa placed her seal beside her foe’s, Ramses II, on the first surviving peace treaty in history, but she didn’t realize until now that she was a sleuth. I’m guessing that the world of the Hittites is a new one for most readers, and I’m thrilled to bring the dry historical record to life now that the archaeologists have freed it from the earth (and I do mean “dry” literally, the primary source materials are clay tablets). Puduhepa is way too much fun to leave to the scholars!

Here’s a taste of Hand of Fire: The Trojan War threatens Troy’s allies and the Greek supply raids spread. A young healing priestess, designated as future queen, must defend her city against both divine anger and invading Greeks. She finds strength in visions of a handsome warrior god. Will that be enough when the half-immortal Achilles attacks? Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis.

You can follow Judith Starkston on her website,  FB and Twitter or check out her novel on Goodreads Hand of Fire or Amazon.

Many thanks for sharing your perspective, Judith. 

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

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