Why Write Historical Novels? by William Dietrich
History is a lot of bother.
The contemporary world jams a thousand newspapers and a million websites with its doings. Why would any writer or reader venture into the past when the present has all the terror, pathos, romance and possibility that an author might need?
History helps us get at the mysteries of our essential solitude. We’re all isolated individuals, grappling with difficult problems and wondering how much of our emotional humanity is shared. Are we figuring out life for the first time, or have countless generations experienced the same crises?
History says they have. Humans differ around the world but are remarkably alike in character. The past gives us continuity and a sense of belonging to a grander story than ourselves.
The love letter of an ancient Egyptian teen in an American museum could have been written yesterday. He may have lacked a wristwatch and air conditioning but his feelings were as contemporary as an iphone.
A good historical novel doesn’t put me in an alien world, it transports me to a highly recognizable one. The thoughts and emotions of our species have stayed pretty constant the past several thousand years. Their historic dilemmas thus clarify my contemporary ones, allowing me to look at problems in new ways.
We learn from the past because we’re constantly reliving it.
History also allows the author to dip into the very best stuff. In modern life there are slow news days and big ones. Not everything is epic, or even exciting. The historical novelist, however, can go right to Waterloo, Joan of Arc or King Herod. History compresses excitement and identifies turning points not always apparent at the time. You can’t find a contemporary war as dramatic, exciting or terrifying as World War II.
We’re a curious bunch. We wonder how our ancestors lived, just as we wonder about the life of a movie star or football player or Prime Minister today. Reading a story set when there were no toasters puts burning the morning toast into perspective.
It’s amazing how fast the past becomes obscure. The term swashbuckler is five centuries old but exactly what it means has become puzzling. A buckler was a small shield, and one explanation is that a swordsman would “swash” his sword along its surface to make an intimidating noise.
Critics are apt to dismiss a swashbuckler today as simplistic swordplay between cardboard characters, but it has worked, from The Three Musketeers to Pirates of the Caribbean, because sword fighting is less ugly than a boxing match and more intimate than a gunfight.
The face-to-face test of skill and endurance is daunting. Yet it happened for thousands of years. We still appreciate the courage it took as opposed, say, to pushing a button for a drone strike.
History is colorful. Sailing ships were more majestic. Ball gowns were more beautiful. Cavalry charges were more glorious. Cathedrals were amazing in an age before hydraulic cranes and earthmovers. Mystery was more profound, before instant communications and Wikipedia.
Why history? For an author, it’s better back there.
William Dietrich’s author website: www.williamdietrich.com
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Writing Historical Novels