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Sunday, 8 August 2010

Why do writers reach for the past?

There is a great article on the guardian blog about historical fiction and historical accuracy, for example whether accurate equals good.
It also says that much of today's fiction is actually historical fiction in that it is set before the writer's lifetime. Most fiction that attracts me is set either in the past, in a foreign country, or in an alternative past.
So what is it that makes so many writers reach for the past? For myself it is a combination of factors - first that history is in one sense fixed - i.e the technology and social history can be pinpointed to one or two decades. I can research the particular time in the confidence that it will not suddenly shift about. A contemporary fiction writer has to deal with the fact that technology is moving on in ever quickening leaps, so that the type of gadgets we have now maybe obsolete in two years time, thus immediately dating their "contemporary" book. One example is how forensics for crime writers has made  baffling jumps in biological science. Keeping up with it is only for those who have a similar obsessive scientific interest.

For me another appeal of writing historical novels is that a wide range of writers have usually already written about the period and I can therefore indulge my love of books and writing - not so for the contemporary fiction writer whose research will be first hand, and quite possibly out of date by the time the book hits the shelves.

I love to read biographies of famous figures of the time, but also the literature of the period. There is a great joy for me in discovering (and even on occasions using) English words that have passed out of common usage. I enjoy the history of our language, and own many etymological dictionaries and also a wonderful Victorian thesaurus which gives me unlikely out-of-date synonyms for common words.

I have to confess I did not deliberately choose to write historical fiction, I just chose to write about a subject that interested me. But now I find I am more and more interested in the past and how its mysteries have shaped us. To me the past is a foreign land, full of people who I would expect to know but somehow don't - our ancestors have views quite alien from our own. Only a few days ago I was reading that one of the main entertainments for people to watch on feast days and at village fairs in the 17th century was the torturing of cats by holding them live over a bonfire. This was considered hilarious sport by our forbears. Clearly a society in which this was a suitable spectacle to entertain young children was radically different from our own.

The picture is from the classic poetry myspace site -


  1. Thanks for posting the link to James Forrester/Ian Mortimer's article, Dee - it was fascinating reading. I'm quite a fan of his and had heard that he'd turned his hand to fiction so I shall be picking up his book as soon as I've finished writing my own.

  2. Hi Alis, yes I'm deep in the last throes of the WIP, how's it going? Interesting article, wasn't it.

  3. This is a great article, really interesting. Guardian review section is often fantastic.

    Love what he says about Shakespeare at the end! Although, out of all Shakespeare's histories, I only really liked Richard III...

  4. Thanks for stopping by,"now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by our hosepipe ban."