Historical novels are carving out a special literary niche as readers begin to more fully grasp their unique value in understanding whom we are and where we came from. All novels should present the possibility for the reader to learn and grow in some dimension, but by tapping the fertile landscape of our past this expanding genre offers endless layers of opportunities for learning about ourselves.
I often ask a simple question of readers who express an interest in exploring historical fiction: where was your DNA two hundred fifty years ago? We are all made up of particles of history. That isn’t just a metaphor, it is a scientific fact. The genes that define you were walking around in the 18th century, when my Bone Rattler novels are set, and long before then. Considering where they were—and they may have been on different continents at the same time—becomes a wonderful key for opening the treasure chest of your past, and historical fiction can be a potent guide to understanding what you find there.
We are all players in the great orchestra of humanity, and while the instruments get passed on to new members from time to time, the music doesn’t change nearly as much as we might think. Those who ignore that reality, who decline to turn and face earlier links in our human chain, diminish their lives and their ability to fully grasp who they are and the society they live in. In the words of novelist Michael Crichton, “if you don’t know history, you’re just a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”
I was fortunate enough to discover that I was part of such a tree at an early age, and I have derived nourishment from those roots ever since. It helped that my ancestors choose paths which easily aroused a youth’s curiosity—Highland Scots who migrated to Virginia highlands and other Scots who fled an English army to take up farming in Maryland, as well as multiple ancestors who fought in the American Revolution and Welsh forebears who survived the bloody attacks on Jamestown in the 1620’s. But whether your DNA resided in a German cobbler, a Scythian warrioress, a Venetian weaver, or an African chieftain, it survived an amazing journey. Understanding that journey, and realizing you are engaged in its current leg, enriches our appreciation of our families, and provides important insights into whom we are, not just physically but.also intellectually and spiritually.
Great novels are about characters, and history is derived from characters. The first important step in embracing historical fiction is the recognition that we are all derived from historical characters. Historical novels breathe life into figures who otherwise have become little more than flat paper cut outs in our textbooks. The skilled novelist enlivens these players from the past by using historically accurate venues, vernacular, fashion, and technology. Such aspects bring important color to characters but as valuable as these external attributes may be, the vital elements in reviving people from the other side of time are the internal ones, the hearts and souls of a novel’s cast. By thrusting us into those hearts and souls, such novels translate distant humans into terms we can relate to, allowing those humans to become part of us.
I didn’t get hooked on Wolf Hall because I yearned to know about Tudor court politics, I was hooked because I could identify with the very human, very conflicted character of Thomas Cromwell. Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose and Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael novels were successful not because of the late Middle Age history lessons implicit in their pages but because of their poignant, internally resonating portraits of two complex figures who had traded in Crusader armor for monks’ robes. Such historical mysteries can be especially effective at this translation process, for they inexorably draw the reader into conundrums that can’t be solved without getting inside the heads of these long ago characters. The reward, and the challenge, of getting through my own Bone Rattler series is that none of its mysteries can be resolved unless the reader has assimilated elements of 18th century Highland and Native American culture.
Historical fiction ultimately lets us walk beside these participants in our past, allowing us to discover that in reasoning, aspiration, curiosity and passion they differ very little from ourselves. They may speak and dress differently but such differences are only minor variations of hue on the great human palette. Glimpsing how human our forebears were doesn’t simply add to a novel’s entertainment value, it helps us grasp the depth of our own humanity. I write two series set in very different times and places but at their core each is about that shared humanity, about values and elements of natural justice that transcend specific times and cultures and therefore become links across the centuries.
Discovering such bonds with the past has immeasurably enriched my life. Knowing that we share traits and experiences with others who came before us adds new texture to our lives and new strength to our spirit. After better understanding the experiences of both my ancestors and my characters I look at certain places and institutions in profoundly different ways. Our forebears are, inevitably, companions in our life’s journey, who shadow us as we confront the trials and celebrate the joys of our lives, just as we will become silent companions in our descendants’ lives.
Too often in today’s instantly connected culture our feelings, and any opportunity for contemplative decision making, are obscured by the constant noise of social media. A well-crafted historical novel isn’t just an oasis where such distracting influences are banished, it can become a refreshing trek of self discovery. Connecting with those whose blood flows in our veins isn’t simply a pleasant distraction, it is empowering. This is our time to rise up out of the great sea of humanity, but knowing its depths and currents allows us to be more effective navigators in our own journey. Discovering that the past isn’t really past, it just has new faces, is the great reward of historical novels. By investing time in a well-crafted historical novel you might learn to find yourself, from before.