A friend asked me recently why I write historical fiction rather than non-fiction, especially since what I tend to read is non-fiction: history or biography. Why I didn’t just sit down and write a history of what happened in 1812 and cover just the whole of that year? And it was a question which stopped me in my tracks.
And the answer is: Because I think historical fiction is a great communicator, if you’ll pardon the hackneyed expression. Because I remember when I was studying at St. Andrews and skiving, and so I wandered into Innes’ Stationers and Books, climbed the stairs to the panelled haven where the book department was, sat down on the stool they had there and started reading Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond sequence.
And for the first time, someone was talking about the Renaissance and Europe as interconnected–artistically, economically, militarily–and doing it through a set of characters with whom I became wholly engaged. It may have been history made easy, but it was also history made embracing. And that was an extra-ordinary experience for me.
Some years later, I met Lady Dunnett, and she became a friend–well, she and Sir Alastair both. And yes, she is still sorely missed.
So, here I am, years later, and the truth is, yes, I could continue to go to the historical conferences, and research all this, and I could write non-fiction. And it might cause some positive ripples in the small world we historians inhabit.
But look at how many people were engaged by Patrick O’Brian’s work. Probably more than half the bearded blokes (never saw so many beards in all my life!) at the conferences leading up to the bicentennial of Trafalgar were O’Brian devotees. And that’s how many of them had come to it. O’Brian had been their window to the past.
And the fact of the matter is I want to see our history, our past, alive and available to all. Not just to those of us in our linen-fold panelled libraries. Not saying I don’t like faculty libraries or their reading rooms. But I want more than anything to see people today realise that the past isn’t names and dates, it’s people–good people, bad people, all of whom loved, lived, fought, triumphed, had families, contributed, didn’t contribute, died or survived to fight another day…
And historical fiction can do that. And do it most effectively. It can, if skillfully written and well-researched, bridge the gap between our modern-day lives and views and theirs, however many centuries ago they lived. It can throw open the shutters of our minds, show us their lives–their strengths, their courage, their fears, their failures–and in the process, teach us not only about the challenges of the past, but about answers for the present.
And how cool is that?