Using Your Own Experiences And Interests In Your Historical Fiction, by Gary Worthington
Were people really so different, say three hundred years ago? The answer is, “No.” Also, “Yes.” It all depends.
Naturally there are differences such as in what people ate and drank; how often they bathed; their life expectancies; the roles expected of each sex; the available occupations and professions; the way illnesses were treated; how often people traveled even short distances when transport took so much longer and lacked many comforts; how long it took to hear back when exchanging correspondence with family or friends in other locales; how homes were heated; and whether or not people had artificial light to extend the hours of certain activities.
Naturally there are also universals in human nature regardless of the era, from the emotions such as love, hate, greed and envy, to some basics in the organization of society such as marriage and funeral rites and the need for most of us to do work in some form to obtain necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter.
Despite the differences there are ways we can use our personal knowledge and lives in stories of earlier eras. Following are some instances of how I used my own life and interests in writing historical fiction set in India. Hopefully these examples will inspire you to think of possibilities from your individual experience.
I grew up in a small agricultural community. Our house was at the edge of town with a farm across the road. In high school I worked on a farm, feeding cows, driving a tractor, readying the fields and planting crops. This gave me a feel for what life is like in an agricultural setting. I use the experience frequently, as in a story of a farm boy in ancient India in my novel Elephant Driver (included in the book India Treasures and available as a stand alone ebook).
My experience as an officer in the US Navy during the Vietnam War period has been helpful in understanding how a military is organized and how people in military service might think. Although as a member of the JAG Corps of lawyers I was never in an actual fighting situation, I think my training and the subsequent daily interactions with others in a military environment help me better understand warriors. I can then depict them more realistically in tales of military campaigns and battles, such as my novella ‘Saffron Robes’ in India Treasures about the Mughal emperor Akbar’s lengthy siege of India’s great fortress of Chittorgarh.
When I was growing up my family did not have much money, though luckily I always had enough food to eat, clothes, and stable housing. Of necessity I had to work for almost all of my spending money and for most of the expenses of my university and law school education, as well as striving hard for good grades to win scholarship help. These experiences made me realize even as a teenager that if I was going to succeed in a career and earn enough money for the lifestyle I wanted, it would require sustained, long term effort.
That strong work ethic carries over into my stories, in which the protagonists typically take charge of their own destinies, work hard, and make the most of opportunities that become available. The farm boy in Elephant Driver is again an example. Jimuta, the main character, is given a highly unusual chance to leave his extremely hard existence as a parentless agricultural worker behind and become the driver of a huge war elephant for the great emperor Ashoka. Jimuta uses that opportunity and others to advance his career far beyond anything he could have imagined when he was laboring in his family’s fields.
I’ve always been intrigued by elephants, and in preparation for the Elephant Driver tale I read extensively about those fascinating animals. I rode elephants in India at tourist sites. I made appointments to visit with the elephant keepers in two different zoos in my region of the United States, learning from the handlers’ insights and experiences with their uniquely individual animals. In one instance, my wife and I had the opportunity to be with a keeper and an elephant on an excursion across the grounds before the zoo was opened for the public for the day. All these experiences help me write with more authority in depicting elephants in my fiction.
Astronomy has been an interest of mine since childhood, and as seen by humans, the constellations remain recognizable over the past few thousand years. I was able to use one of my favorite groupings, the lovely Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters, in a tale set 3,500 years ago in the Indus Valley civilization in what is now Pakistan and India. The eleven year old heroine of my novella ‘Three Peoples’ in India Treasures is also fond of that arrangement of stars, and her knowledge of the positions of constellations as the seasons change help her find her way home after she escapes from being a captive of an invading Aryan tribe.
The visual arts such as painting and drawing are another personal passion I’ve used in several stories. For example, ‘The Art of Love’, also in India Treasures, features an artist in 488 CE in India who is ultimately healed of his grief at the death of his bride-to-be through his creation of a now famous mural in the Ajanta Caves. In a quite different story, an Indian warrior prince has a love for art that influences him not only to search for paintings when he is looking for treasure to steal in a looted city, but also to acquire enough wealth to hire artists for a personal studio.
I’ve been fond of trains from the time my relatives gave me an electric toy train as a child. In one of my favorite tales in India Fortunes, inspired by an actual event, I have the protagonist take the controls of a giant steam locomotive and drive a train crowded with refugees to safety as it is attacked by persons of another religious faith during the 1947 violence when Pakistan was separated from India. Besides doing extensive book research, I spent much of a day at the Rail Transport Museum in Delhi, including exploring an actual steam locomotive of the type I wrote about. I also visited the railway training school in Udaipur to learn more about how the switching system operates and how trains avoid colliding when using a single track.
In a future article I’ll write of how I use my interest in architecture as an important element in stories involving palaces in India, as well as in writing a tale about the design and construction of the Taj Mahal.
I could go on. In a way, of course, everything we write comes from our own experience, even if tangentially.
During the process of writing a long piece of historical fiction many opportunities arise to incorporate experiences and interests accumulated over the course of your own years on this planet. Your stories will be richer for having so much of yourself in them and your readers will benefit from subtly absorbing your insights.
Gary Worthington’s author website: www.garyworthington.com
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