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Knowledge of our past is our inheritance. What we do with that knowledge will shape our destinies...

Monday, March 3, 2014

3 Things You Probably Never Considered About Historical Fiction

While at the LTUE Conference a couple of weeks ago, I participated in a panel about FTL (Faster than Lightning. It's okay. I didn't know what it was either and I was on the panel.) and Time Travel. I think this was supposed to be about how various authors use time travel and FTL motion in their writing, and we did discuss that to a certain extent. But we also talked a lot about time itself, how humans view it, and why we tell so many stories that take place in different time periods than our own.

1) Historical fiction is about collective penance for societal tragedy.

One woman on the panel put forth a theory that really spoke to me. She said she believed that the reason we tell stories about the past has to do with regret. We have deep regret--be it individual, or as a collective society--about terrible things that have happened in our past. It's almost like we can't believe we ever let things get that bad at one point, and have to revisit it, both to remind ourselves, and as a sort of unspoken pledge not to let it happen again.

For example, we can't believe we once let our society degrade to the point of letting a handlebar-mustached dictator kill six million people during World War II, simply because of their religion. We can't believe that we, as a race of human beings, stood by and let it get that bad. 

A Sudetan woman weeps while being
forcedto salute Hilter. 1938. (Source)
A Frenchman weeps when Nazi troops
 march into Paris inJune, 1940 after Allied
troops are driven back across France

"Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn." --C.S. Lewis

Perhaps returning again and again to the times of these tragedies is wallowing, but I don't think so. I think it's to remind ourselves not to let it get that bad again. To remember our mistakes so we don't make them anymore. And to re-educate ourselves and our posterity. 

Let's face it. There are few people left in the world who lived through World War II, and each generation becomes farther dissociated from the terrible tragedy of it. We want to convey the depth of our sorrow over things we are collectively ashamed of. We do this to keep it from happening again, but perhaps there's more than that, too. 

Perhaps we are doing penance for things that, though we had no hand in, we easily could if we let them happen again. 

2) Futuristic time travel is the opposite side of the same coin.

I would submit that the same applies for futuristic stories. As Dr. Phil is fond of saying, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. We've seen the tragedies of earth's past, and know what the human race is capable of. We tell futuristic stories because we fear our society might degrade into inhumanity again. 

After all, what is dystopian but a representation of our fear of the future, based on problems we see in the present? 

We tell these stories, much like we tell historical fiction, because we want to avoid what we know is possible. Perhaps we are even doing a sort of preventative, reverse-penance for tragedies we know will probably happen somewhere in the world at some time, but which we, as individuals, are largely powerless to stop. What's the best way to stop them? Tell these stories, educate others and ourselves, so that we might do everything that is in our power to maintain the compassion and humanity of our race.

Pondering on this idea was the first time it truly made sense to me that I'm drawn almost equally to historical fiction and dystopian.

3) Back story as historical fiction and a predictor for the future.

All great, well-fleshed out characters have back story. It's what makes them three dimensional; what makes our readers connect with them. To our characters, what has already happened in their past is their historical fiction. Apply the above principles to your character's back story to help you understand the psychology of why they do what they do. Why would they revisit their past? Why would they hide it or hide from it? Their past will predict their future behavior in some way, and it doesn't always have to be a negative one. Perhaps their behavior is predictive because they will repeat their past. Or perhaps they will do the opposite because they learned from it, as most of us, we pray, learned from the Holocaust.

If you understand your characters' motivations concerning their past, and how it connects to their future, and can convey that, even symbolically, on the page, that will make your characters more than just well-rounded. 

It will make them truly human. 

Perhaps dealing with alternate time periods in literature is difficult, because the sense of tragedy is so potent, but I also think it's vitally important. Perhaps more important than our mere human brains can comprehend. It keeps us human. It keeps us compassionate. And those are things that cannot be learned in academic books.

They can only be learned through true empathy with other human beings during the worst times of their lives, and through communion both with our ancestors and our posterity.

One of the worst periods in human history that I know of has to be during the reign of Ivan the Terrible during the middle ages in Russia. That's why, when I learned of it, I simply had to write about it. My book, Citadels of Fire, is due out May 27th. It will be the first of a trilogy dealing with this gruesome, tragic time period.

In a world where danger hides in plain sight and no one aspires to more than what they were born to, Inga must find the courage to break the oppressive chains she’s been bound with since birth. 

As a maid in the infamous Kremlin, life in 16th-century Russia is bleak and treacherous. That is, until Taras arrives. Convinced that his mother’s death when he was a boy was no mere accident, he returned from England to discover what really happened. While there, he gains favor from the Tsar later known as Ivan the Terrible, the most brutal and notorious ruler ever to sit upon the throne of Russia. Ivan allows him to take a servant, and to save Inga from a brutal boyar intent on raping her, Taras requests Inga to stay in his chambers. 

Up against the social confines of the time, the shadowy conspiracies that cloak their history, and the sexual politics of the Russian Imperial court, Inga and Taras must discover their past, plan for their future, and survive the brutality that permeates life within the four walls that tower over them all, or they may end up like so many citizens of ancient Russia: nothing but flesh and bone mortar for the stones of the Kremlin wall.

Click HERE to pre-order.

What do you think of this theory about why we are so drawn to stories in time periods other than our own?

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