I get asked a lot of questions about writing and history. From, “How long does it take to finish a book?” to “”What is your favorite thing about Anne Boleyn?” But The question I get asked most frequently is “Why do you write historical fiction?” And I don’t have a single answer.
I have many.
The most glib would be, “Because I get to talk about codpieces and bumrolls.” As a former student of costume design, I love the lushness and extravagances of Renaissance fashion. The almost exhibitionist quality of the enhancements of always gets a laugh. But I don’t do it for the clothes.
The advice often given to new writers is, “Write what you know.” I know how to sew a dress, drive a manual transmission and make a mean cappuccino. I have experience teaching preschool, traveling the world and acting on stage. I will never know how it felt to be a woman in the 16th Century or experience life in the Tudor court. I love to write what I imagine.
I love immersing myself in a completely foreign, dazzling and dangerous world. A place where beauty was prized and opulence expected. Where a single word could raise you up or get you executed. Where who you know—and with whom you ally yourself—is more important than honesty or affection. A place utterly and tyrannically dystopian, before the term was coined.
If I were feeling self-deprecating, I might say, “History is a crutch. It provides characters, setting, structures—I just write the dialogue.” Except that would be patently untrue. Sometimes I think it’s more difficult to penetrate the noise generated by the past 450 years of anecdotes and rumors and extract a story that feels fresh and new and hopefully escapes the prejudices created by others.
The good and honorable answer to that oft-repeated question would be that we ought to be exposed to history so we are not doomed to repeat it. By showing a world where girls are held hostage to the belief in their weakness, perhaps readers might be more aware when they see it in their own lives. But any novel written to preach a moral is not fiction as much as propaganda. Something I wish to avoid.
So why do I write historical fiction for teens?
Because it makes me, as one of my friends said when I posed the question on Facebook.
I write historical fiction because I love the lush setting, the extravagant clothes, the jigsaw-puzzle structure already laid out before me. I love finding the right voice for a well-known figure, the bright detail in a palace no longer standing. I love the sense that I might connect a modern teen to the sixteenth century by a thread of understanding, and that through that thread a reader may discover her own path to solve a problem.
I love history. I love writing. How lucky am I that I get to combine the two?