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History Repeating Itself And Historical Novels, by Anne Perry

We are told that those who do not learn from history will be condemned to repeat their mistakes.  There is a lot of truth in that.  Certain types of events, and the emotions and reactions they cause, repeat themselves every so often.  If you are looking for a setting for soldiers, war, courage, loss etc, and all the other feelings that go with that, I don’t need to tell you that you are spoiled for choice.  You might think of making it sharper and more surprising by choosing a war people are less familiar with, but which contains all the specific elements you are looking for.

How about threat of very immediate invasion to a relatively small country which is ill-prepared?  Some time ago I read a very powerful speech, actually a pretty terrific piece of oratory, on exactly that subject.  I was not familiar with it, although I recognized the situation perfectly.  It was not Winston Churchill on World War II, so I thought it must be someone, possibly Lloyd George, early in World War I.  Not at all, it was actually William Pitt the Younger early in the Napoleonic Wars.  Even to the details, the points were exactly the same.  Perhaps if I read them, the great classical Greek orators would have said the same things to the Athenians facing the Persian invasion?  We still run the Marathon, even if we have forgotten Pheidippides, and the reason for it.

Do all enemy occupations and native resistance forces have more in common than time and place which separate them?  Perhaps Judas Maccabeus and the Judean resistance to Rome have much in common with Queen Boudicca’s British resistance, again to Rome?  Or Hereward the Wake’s Saxon resistance to the Norman Conquest?  Or any other throughout history!  Some succeed and some fail, but they all have the same passion, sacrifice, loyalty, betrayals etc.  They all have to work in secrecy, and with terrible loss.

What about physical exploration into the unknown?  Great journeys – treks to the North or South Poles, Marco Polo from Italy to China, Burton to find the source of the Nile; Magellan, Vasco da Gama, James Cook around the world by sea.  Scores of others, take your pick.  The emotions, the fear, the exhilaration, despair, triumph, the bonding between people who have shared something no one else has seen – these must be the same.

Of course the voyages of the mind will share the same exhilaration of bursting upon a new world of discovery also, and probably a persecution for daring to question the status quo, sometimes even to death.  And yet they cannot stop searching for the truth – in science, art, philosophy, anything at all that matters.  So all the various concepts of Utopia share most of the same dreams – and disasters?  Are all religious revivals and persecutions similar in the passions and doubts they awaken?  Probably, because our needs are always the same, our loves and hungers, our dreams and the things we fear.

Marriage customs will differ, but love will not, jealousy will not.  Religions differ, but does faith?  Maybe the hungers of the mind to believe are always the same, and the dark nights of the soul when we doubt.

Consider putting your story in a new and more unexpected time and place where we will not see what we expect, and so will be taken unaware and look at it in a more vivid way.  Take us on your explorations.


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We Shall Not SleepA Christmas HomecomingTreason at Lisson Grove: A Charlotte and Thomas Pitt NovelAcceptable Loss     Powder Monkey: Adventures of a Young SailorFortress of Spears (Empire)The Keeper of Secrets

Writing Historical Novels

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Interesting that you should end the way you did, for in my first novel, unpublished as of yet, I have done exactly as you recommended and chosen a time and place relatively unknown in which my characters play out their lives, for at least part of the story anyway. However, based on your theme of history repeating itself, the novel is set in the Victorian Era and I do attempt to create parallels between the changes that the Industrial Revolution created and how people reacted to them, and all that is currently occurring during our own Digital Revolution: in essence, all that has come before shall come again and that as you said, the issues and stresses that we face today are bound to be similar to those faced in the past and in the future to come.

    August 6, 2013

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