Writing Historical Novels Which Have Contemporary Relevance, by Jane Kirkpatrick
One of the things I like best about writing historical novels is creating a new historical experience for readers that also has relevance for today’s world. I love discovering something they might not have read about before in history. For example, why pioneer women never gave up their long skirts even though most of the deaths along the trail were from skirts catching fire at the campfires where they cooked or from tripping as they ran and were overtaken by stampedes or wagons. From a doctoral dissertation of a Kansas historian I read that a woman would not join an overland wagon train of fewer than seven other women. The reason for that was that when they got out onto the prairie where there were no trees, the women would stand with their backs to each other in a circle and hold out their skirts for privacy. One by one, the other women could step inside that ring to tend to personal hygiene needs. They kept their long skirts, risked death in fact, for the comfort of privacy. I called that ‘the necessary circle’ and I imagined in my novel about an overland journey that the women would share stories while they stood with their hands grasping their skirts, their faces outward to the grasses of the prairie. Maybe they solved some problems of the day or perhaps shared a recipes.
What is the relevance for the contemporary world? While I was writing that historical novel and had my women standing in the necessary circle, a news item informed that the Afghanistan Taliban had restricted Afghan women from attending public baths. No other kinds of baths existed there. To restrict a woman’s access to private hygiene care was to strike a woman at the most intimate level. Perhaps those leaders also knew that women gathering together in a public bath could be trouble; they might discover that power exists within a necessary circle.
Learning about fabrics used in old quilts led me to the discovery of the word tendering. I’d titled my novel A Tendering in the Storm but didn’t realize that tendering was a term that meant the shattering of material or fabric when exposed to caustic substances. That’s exactly what had happened to my character, an actual historical woman named Emma Giesy, who had made a poor choice as a widow by marrying a man who turned out to be very different from his charming courtship. Instead of feeling safe and secure she had to make choices to protect her children and herself. She was shattered during the years of indecision, the years of exposure to a caustic man. Emma was also a quilter so it was a fitting title for her struggle and the struggle of many who wait too long before trusting in their instincts and finding another route to safety.
In another historical novel came the discovery of lilacs first arriving from Europe into the colonies, in the area of New Hampshire sometime around the 1750s. What I loved in this history of lilacs was that lilacs and tulip bulbs weren’t listed with the agricultural products, such as wheat seed or corn, brought by ship. Instead, flowers were included on the kitchen listings along with medicines and herbs – essential things. Somehow these early pioneers knew that things of beauty – items that had no function except to bring pleasure to the beholders or offer healing were seen as important for those starting out in a new life. Since then I’ve made it a point to have fresh flowers in my home to remind myself that survival is not just about the foods we can eat but about what feeds our spirits. Writing historical novels taught me about what is essential in my contemporary world.
Jane Kirkpatrick’s author website: www.jkbooks.com
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Writing Historical Novels