Mental Health And Historical Novels, by Jane Kirkpatrick
A reader question: I notice you have a background in mental health. Do you use that to develop your historical characters? I write regency novels and am a clinical nurse as well and wondered about blending contemporary mental health with historical novels.
My answer: I do use my mental health background while writing historical novels, all the time. My stories tend to be character driven and it is sometimes a balancing act to identify human causation known in contemporary times but perhaps not described in historical times. It’s great when I find, for example, that there was a medical diagnosis of ”wasting women”, a form of eating disorder in the late 1800s which was how some women dealt with depression or spousal abuse. That sort of historical detail gives credence to modern trials people have while not “rewriting” history. Finding an actual diagnosis from the period suggests a thread that weaves past and present together. That’s the real hope of blending my background with historical writing: that I will be able to connect my character of the past to present day readers as part of the human community.
I was drawn to story as a way of healing or using my professional mental health experience because story is so powerful. I worked for 17 years on an Indian reservation and I know that some of the healers there said that when they went in to meet with someone ill they asked three questions. The answers determined how far from health the person had fallen. The three questions: When was the last time you sang; when was the last time you danced; and when was the last time you told your story. That’s how powerful our stories are and I suspect the importance of those answers fit the life of a Paiute man of 1700 as well as a German girl of the 1850s traveling west. To be known by another is a profound experience and we are best known when someone listens to our story.
The research being done on post traumatic stress disorder in children (Baylor University) just confirms the power of story and mental health. It notes that when a child has been abused, for example, or has lived through a hurricane, tsunami or fire, his/her brain may shut down, go on survival mode and not be available to the usual counseling interventions for healing. The child has trouble focusing on almost anything for any length of time and checks out perhaps 100 times per day. But what does reach a child (and frankly I think adults as well who are in wilderness places in their lives) is music, movement such as dance/quilting/gardening; art and story. I often tell people who are struggling with issues in their lives, can’t concentrate, to find a good children’s book so they can be engaged and nurtured through the words and metaphors.
My characters also use coping methods like quilting or preserving apples, painting or woodworking as ways to deal with the strains in their lives. They might not call them “coping mechanisms” but they could talk about how they feel when they complete a cabinet or give away a quilt. I don’t think those feelings are different because they happened many years before. Thinking of those ways that characters dealt with emotional challenges lends to the action and the thematic deepening of the story. Afterall, for many pioneer women a quilting gathering was one of the few opportunities a woman had to share their stories with others. What happened in those gatherings could well pass for “group therapy” today and they fit right at home in the 1850s.
The word parable comes from the Greek word pebble meaning to “toss along beside” and the Greek word for comfort means “to come along beside.” I think mental health, counselling, etc. are naturals for coming along beside another to help them on their journey. Stories have been doing that for generations. Exploring how someone feels, their psychology and their dysfunction are natural aspects of character development, whether it be a medieval lady-in-waiting or an Australian ship captain. So I feel right at home as a mental health professional writing of men and women who lived many years before. I’m no longer surprised when a reader tells me they discovered themself and a way to manage a problem in their contemporary life by reading how one of my characters did it.
Jane Kirkpatrick’s author website: www.jkbooks.com
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