Posts Tagged ‘alternate history’

Historical Novels: Why Write Them

I write historical novels because reading historical fiction is my drug of choice and has been since I was an adolescent lost in reverie about faraway places, bygone ages and people. The conventional wisdom in the publishing industry contends that mainly women read this genre and that men prefer science-fiction, techno-thrillers and the like. In my younger days I read every James Michener novel.  Literary tastes are formed in childhood and mine were shaped by these broad canvas sagas filled with lengthy descriptions. The need to learn about foreign cultures and historical personages led me to sprawling novels like Chesapeake and Centennial.  I fed my addiction also with those great Victorian novelists Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, and the Brontë sisters, leaving a taste in my mouth for the behemoth book and, of course, those long paragraphs, eschewed by many novelists and editors today.  At the tender age of thirteen, I was audacious enough to take my teacher’s suggestion and read Moby Dick. I have read it at least twice since then. The ominous tale of the crazed pursuit of the white whale mesmerized me as did its exotic crew members Queequeeg, Tashtego, Daggoo and Fedallah. The long digressions about whales and whaling did not put me off. My thirst for knowledge about the unknown kept me reading as I merrily skipped over multi-syllabic words whose exact meanings I did not know, not stopping to look them up in a dictionary. Call me “Hagar, an Omnivorous Reader.”

Even in historical novels that stick to characters that actually lived and are identifiable from history, of necessity, the novelist will have to introduce some invented supporting fictional characters to fill out the imagined history. If the story is written on the backdrop of historical period and the events and people are largely imagined, the novel could be called historical fantasy.  It may or may not use fantastical elements like time travel and ghostly apparitions, such as in Diane Gabaldon novels. There are also “what if” historical novels, which try to create an alternative view of events. These are termed “alternative history” or “revisionist.” I weave both historical figures and invented characters into my historical novels.  In my novel The Pluperfect Phantom I incorporated fantastical elements into my story based on events in Chicago’s history.

Historical novelists love to imagine the how and the why of the past. They are time travelers who wallow in plotting the dramatic development of historical people, places and periods. If they did not wallow in the past, perhaps they would venture into the future and write science-fiction. Authors have been known to venture into several genres. For instance, Margaret Atwood has delved into science fiction with Oryx and Crake and into historical fiction with Alias Grace based on notorious 1843 murders. Historical novelists love to research in their unquenchable thirst for knowledge. If they were not novelists, they would be history teachers.  They write historical fiction because they love reading historical fiction.