Why Write about History—Isn’t it Past?

When I was a kid, I wasn’t much interested in history.  It seemed just a bunch of old stuff—old music, ancient buildings, incomprehensible books, crumbling artwork—all irrelevant to modern life.  I wanted new things, modern stuff, the best of my own time.  I couldn’t understand some people’s fascination with people long dead.

I’m not really sure when the transition happened or if there was a single tipping point.  Maybe some of those boring history classes made an impression along the way.  Maybe some of the fiction I read or movies I watched fired some previously inactive neurons.  Maybe my attraction to the novels of Jules Verne had something to do with it.  For those of us reading science fiction in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, it was hard to ignore the flourishing subgenre of alternate history.

In a parallel thread of my life, I had become captivated by submarines, and while learning more about them I soon found out about their history too.  That history includes brave men daring to submerge in rickety craft made of inferior materials, with insufficient understanding of the dangers.  It is a history of bitter failures, tragic disasters, and rare successes.  Some of the men involved are famous, some obscure: Alexander the Great, de Son, Cornelius van Drebbel, David Bushnell, Robert Fulton, Wilhelm Bauer, Horace Hunley, and others.

When my muse first urged me to write, it didn’t take me long to start writing stories with historical settings. As you can see from my ‘Stories’ page, I’ve written a few of them, mostly tales involving the sea and various vessels.

But I want to get back to the ‘why’ of all this.  Why do readers read historical stories?  Why do authors write them?  First, for both reader and writer, the setting and some of the characters come ready made.  The author doesn’t need to spend much time creating the world of the story, and in many cases need not describe some characters beyond stating their names.  So there’s a comfortable sense of familiarity with historical stories.  We can already picture the setting and characters in our minds.

Also, I think there can be—really should be—a sense of relevance to these stories, a sense they share with stories set in the modern day.  We all know we’re connected to history by vast chains of cause and effect; our world is a product of what happened before.  So there’s an attraction to reading about characters in the past grappling with problems, when we know how it all ends up, and when we know what effects linger from that time to ours.  At least we know what the history books say about the events of the time.  The trick for the writer is to bring these characters to life, give them real dimension, and to make a point about life for us today, to relate the story to a modern dilemma.

A major challenge for the writer of historical tales is to get the details right.  Any anachronism or other incorrect detail in the story can make a reader lose interest in the story, and respect for the author, in an instant.

Before I close, I’d like to mention the types of historical stories, at least the types I write.  First is the alternate history, where the story takes place in a world where things proceeded differently than our own.  This website contains some great discussions about alternate history.  In these stories, it is necessary to describe the world of the story so the reader knows which event triggered the split from our world.  But the author need not worry as much about getting details right because, after all, he’s not writing about actual history.  The other type of historical tale, one I actually prefer, is the ‘might have been.’ Here that type is called ‘Secret History.’  In this type, the author uses an actual historical setting and characters, creates a situation for the characters, and resolves it in a way consistent with how history books record the outcome.  In other words, everything in the story might really have occurred.

I’d love to hear what you think about this.

Poseidon’s Scribe

January 23, 2011Permalink