Ever wonder why an author of historical fiction chooses to write about a particular era?
I suppose there are a lot of reasons. Some might be commercial--an author casts about for a topic or event in a time period that is enjoying a current craze, or picks a historical character that bookstore browsers will instantly recognize and want to read more about. Faced with several possible subjects, the author picks the one that she is most certain will sell.
Other reasons are personal. Perhaps an author knows something of his family history and wants to explore the time or setting or events that affected his ancestor's life. Perhaps he traveled to a place and became fascinated by certain aspects of its history. Perhaps she learned a lot about the history of an era or place for a different reason (an academic degree, perhaps? :) ) and decides to explore what she knows in a completely different way, by writing fiction. Perhaps the reason remains elusive, other than a writer feels a certain affinity for a time or place and desires to recreate it for others. Some might ascribe this to past lives or simply intellectual curiosity. In any case, to write historical fiction that fully engages the reader, that makes her feel as though she has escaped her own time for a spell, the author must feel a passion for what he is writing about.
I often wonder why I am so absorbed by the sixteenth century, France in particular. I think I explained in an earlier post how I fell in love with France on the day of my very first French class in eighth grade, at the age of twelve or thirteen. I devored Jean Plaidy novels and spent hours outside of class studying French. The highlight of a whirlwind high school tour of Europe for me was the Loire valley and its châteaux. I still remember standing in a window in the gallery at Chenonceaux, staring out over the river rushing beneath me and wishing I had lived then. I thought the love story of Henri II and his mistress Diane de Poitiers, represented by the intertwined H & D's that one sees everywhere at Chenonceaux, was the ultimate in romance. (Now that I'm a middle-aged matron myself, I feel much more sympathy for Henri's wife, Catherine de Medici.)
Not able to get enough of French, I decided to major in it in college and then went on to earn my doctorate. In graduate school, one is required to specialize in a particular century. For me, it was a struggle to choose between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (with a bit of competition from the nineteenth century--I love those long novels by Stendahl and Flaubert). I remember one professor asking why I wanted to specialize in the sixteenth century and not medieval (of course, he was the medieval specialist trying to convince me to join his field). He pointed out how the medieval era is so much more feminine--the whole play of chivalry and fin amors, the importance of the Blessed Mother--than the sixteenth, with the rise of the state, the revival of classical literature, voyages of exploration and imperial wars. It's true, at first glance I would seem to be more drawn to the medieval era. But something about the sixteenth tugged at me. I think it's the amount of questioning that went on, the upsetting of long-held world views and the dawn of a new age, arrived at, ironically, by studying the past. I've always been fascinated by the religious conflicts of the time, especially the fact that people were willing to disrupt their families or actually die for their beliefs. I know these things happened elsewhere and at other times, but the combination of these issues with the amazing architecture and exquisite art of the era was just too strong for me. I felt too comfortable with the medieval mindset; I needed examine my own religious and philosophical beliefs alongside the curious and courageous men and women of the sixteenth century.
The literary critic in me can't help but wonder what underlying issues prompt a writer of historical fiction to choose certain topics, and on a broader level, what needs in society fuel the waves of popularity. Why, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, does the Tudor era hold such fascination for people? Is it the religious thing, a yearning in an age when many people write religion off entirely, to read about people who had to make life-threatening decisions about it? Is it the divorce issue, people looking for parallels or justifications for today's easy divorce? Is it the astounding wealth and rampant materialism that speaks to us? If I had to choose dissertation topic again, I think I would look at different eras in history and see what historical subjects were popular with readers of the time and why.
Anyway, I love to hear the stories of how authors fell upon, or chose, their topics. If you write historical fiction, tell us why you're working on the topic you are. If you're a reader, what do you most enjoy reading about and why? If you're a lurker, please come out of hiding. I'd love to meet some of the people who frequent the blog but haven't commented. I promise I won't bite. Pull up a chair and share, newbies and regular commenters alike. There is much here for discussion.