Remembering the Joys of Writing Historical Fiction

I found myself in need of a reminder about why I love to write historical fiction. Lately, with everything else I have to do, I’ve come to realize how much more work writing historical fiction is than other genres. As I’ve been digging myself out from under books and articles about Victorian England for my new novel, I realized that this is my first foray into writing a completely historical story in ten years. That can’t be right, I thought. I write historical fiction. It’s in my tag-line, isn’t it? Then I remembered that I added the word (Usually) so I felt better. After counting on my fingers, I saw that, yes indeed, it has been ten years since I wrote a novel that was completely set in the past. I began writing historical fiction in 1994 with my first novel, the American Civil War story My Brother’s Battle, which I worked on until 2000 (with massive rewrites in 2012). I wrote my second novel, Victory Garden, about the woman’s suffrage movement and World War I, between 2001 and 2003. From 2003 to 2005 I wrote Woman of Stones, a Biblical novella. Then, starting somewhere around 2005, I underwent a period of writer’s remorse. I was getting a few pieces published here and there in literary magazines, but I wasn’t getting anywhere with my novels and I was frustrated. The truth is, I didn’t write much except for journaling and grocery lists until 2009, and four years of not writing for me is a sad time, indeed. I floundered a bit during those years, not really sure what I was supposed to be doing with myself. If I’m not supposed to be writing, then what?

The writing muse returned in 2009 when I came up with the idea for a 300 year old vampire mourning his lost human wife. The spark that became the Loving Husband Trilogy reminded me how important writing was to me, and it was a fortunate coincidence that the indie author revolution had taken off by the time Her Dear & Loving Husband was ready to be published in 2011. I spent four years working on the Loving Husband Trilogy, and while the history of the Salem Witch Trials, the Trail of Tears, and the Japanese-American internments during World War II are an important part of the stories, the main story between James and Sarah was set in the present day. My following novel, That You Are Here, is set entirely in present-day Portland, Oregon. I wasn’t surprised when I knew that my next novel would be set in Victorian England. It’s based on an idea I’ve been kicking around for about 15 years. What I am surprised to find is that writing historical fiction is a little harder these days. I still love it, but I found I needed to give myself a little pep talk about why I love writing historical fiction.

My love for writing historical fiction stems from the simple fact that I love history. I think my interest started in high school when I had a cute young guy as my history teacher—I made sure to pay extra special attention in class. But my interest in history outlasted my 10th grade year, and in college I even considered becoming a history major. I’m fascinated by history because, though we can look back to see how the pieces fit together to create the picture of who we are today, there is also a sense of “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” I’m always amazed to learn about these people from the past who on the surface seem so different from us today—in their dress, their speech, their beliefs, their scientific knowledge—and yet they aren’t at all different in their hopes and dreams. There is something fulfilling about writing historical fiction that I haven’t found in any other genre. First because I get to indulge in my own interest and learn about different periods that caught my attention, and second because historical fiction helps to make history more palatable for those who might be bored by nonfiction accounts. In these fictional snapshots, I can take one moment in time and flesh it out, add characters, both real and imagined, show their dress, their manners, and the events that happened then. Through writing historical fiction, I have been able to imagine life in Salem during the witch hunts, Tennessee during the Cherokee removal, California in the Manzanar Relocation Camp, Biblical Jerusalem, New York City in the 1910s, and now Victorian England.

For someone who loves history as much as I do, the opportunity to write about these different periods, or any historical period, is a blessing. It is fun, after all, to discover interesting little details to share with readers, and it’s even more fun to immerse myself in the period through television, movies, documentaries, books, museums, and music. When I write historical fiction I feel like a time traveler with one foot in the present and another in the past. Yes, that’s right. Writing historical fiction is fun above all else. I remember now that whatever time it takes to complete the research is set off by the enjoyment of finding a special fact or tidbit that adds life to the story. I had forgotten. Sharing these snapshots in time with others is one of my great joys, and through historical fiction I hope to help others develop their own love for history. If I can prompt someone’s interest in a certain time period, then I’ve done my job.

Have I said how much I love writing historical fiction?

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