Friday, 14 March 2014

Why Write Historical Fiction?

I'm a huge lover of history and have been for as long as I can remember, but I knew many people in school who didn't see the point in learning about something that had already happened. This point of view always frustrated me, because not only does learning about history encourage us to make sure we never see anything like the Inquisition or the Holocaust again, but there is so much history out there for us still to learn.

We all know the phrase "history is written by the winners". Let's face facts: 99% of the time the winners have been white men, but what about everyone else? What about the women and the children and the people of colour? Where are the stories of the people who, sadly, make up 'the minority'?

Where are the stories about Ching Shih, the notorious Cantonese pirate who terrorised the seas in the early 19th century?

Where are the stories about Fatima al-Fihri, the woman who founded the world's first university in the 9th century?

Where are the stories about Bessie Coleman, who, in 1921, became the first African American to hold a pilot's license?

(I know all three of the examples I've given are women, rather than men, who aren't white - but did you know that March is Women's History Month?)

Historical Fiction is a medium through which writers can give a voice to those who have previously been mute.

That's not to say that the stories of white males should be discredited, but just as the world isn't made up entirely of white men now, nor was it made up entirely of them 1000 years ago. Historical Fiction gives us the chance to explore history through the eyes of a person whose story might not have been written down otherwise. Obviously fiction is fiction - we shouldn't believe everything we see written down, because some liberty always has to be taken when it comes to writing Historical Fiction - but more often than not the Historical Fiction writers I have come across have always tried to be as historically accurate as possible.

Historical Fiction gives a voice to the past in a way many non-fiction books don't. It makes these untouched stories readable in a way non-fiction often can't. And ultimately, as cheesy as it sounds, it makes history fun; especially for people who find it intimidating or uninteresting.

It can also be used as an explorative tool. Historical Fiction always does one of two things: say something different about the past, or use the past to say something different about the present.

We can use fiction to take readers back to Nazi Germany and say: "Look. This is what happens when hatred wins." Or we can take them back to the Spanish Inquisition and say: "This is why people should be left to believe, or not believe, in anything they want." Or we can take them back to France during the Revolution and say: "See? You do have a voice, and it does matter."

In an interview on the radio (which you can find here) Hilary Mantel said "history is not something that's behind us, it's something we move through", and I couldn't agree with her more. What people sometimes forget about history is that the people who lived in the past didn't know what was going to happen tomorrow, in the same way we have no idea where we're going to be next week.

We can look back now and say "what's the point in learning about WWI? We know who won." We do, but the people living through it had no idea what was going to become of them. That leaves storytellers with an infinite amount of inspiration.

Kings, Queens, Presidents, Dictators, Emperors, Pharaohs... They're more than just paintings, sculptures or names. They were people, just like you and I, and salt tasted just as bitter on their tongue as it does on ours.

This is why Historical Fiction is so important. It's not about bodice-ripping or adding "Ye Olde" to the front of every other word, it's about people, how those people sculpted the world we live in now, and why it's so important that they did.


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