Historical Fiction and the Living Past

 As you know, I write and talk a lot about  historical fiction, focusing on American history. (I also write  American historical fantasy, but that’s another discussion).  I’ve written before that history is more than dates. History is people, too. In the best of historical fiction, as with any story, a child becomes a hero who gains power over her situation, a theme that contemporary readers appreciate. For my  first post of the new year, I revisit my thoughts on the matter, and reinforce my belief that  all history is a story.

“Historical fiction helps young readers develop a feeling for a living past, illustrating the continuity of life,” says Karen Cushman, a  master writer of historical fiction. Historical fiction, “like all good history, demonstrates how history is made up of the decisions and actions of individuals and that the future will be made up of our decisions and actions.”

 But, historical fiction defies easy explanation. For some, historical fiction is first and foremost fiction, and therefore anything goes. Others condemn the blending of invention with well-known and accepted facts, and consider the genre a betrayal.

Nothing about history is obvious, and facts are often open to interpretation. Once upon a time, it was considered factual that the world was flat, that blood-letting was the proper way of treating disease, that women were emotionally and physically incapable of rational thought. In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but he didn’t discover America. In fact, some would say he was less an explorer and more of a conqueror. History tends to be written by those who survived it. As such, no history is without its bias. The meaning of history, just as it is for the novel, lays “not in the chain of events themselves, but on the historian’s [and writer’s] interpretation of it,” as Jill Paton Walsh once noted.

For these reasons, writing historical fiction can be very challenging. I explore my own process in researching and creating  a protagonist living during the Revolutionary War:

“In order to understand [the protagonist’s life] , I had to explore the larger contexts of her story: as the daughter of a royal military officer, living on the (then) frontier, during the time of a profoundly changing political and social upheaval that ultimately led the revolutionary war. Some facts, such as dates of specific events and troop movements (and so on), are fixed points in time. Much of what happened has been glossed over, reduced to dates in a textbook. Other facts have been ignored. But history is more than dates. History is people, too… Staying true to the times and the people, I did imagine discussions, often extrapolating from their own writings if I could find them. Also, I didn’t want to oversimplify the contradictions of a [the times]  that focused on independence for some, but not for others."

Writing historical fiction is an act of defiance, according to Elizabeth Partridge at the Horn Book:

“To write about ordinary people caught in times of huge, historic change, I inhabit an oddly transparent double-world: there is my ordinary, rather mundane life, and then there is the world of the book I am working on. I’m immersed in a time of conflict and bitterness, digging in and sorting out as best I can, to raise up the stronghearted who help make the world a little better. These days I’m working on lives as different as Frederick Law Olmsted and his tireless efforts in the nineteenth century to create open, free, public parks in our cites; and Hung Liu, a contemporary Chinese American artist whose paintings focus on society’s outcasts.

Setting word against word, I’m rubbing flint against stone, trying to set off sparks. I’m looking for readers I know are out there: kids with courageous hearts, who know things aren’t right. Kids who want to make things better, but don’t know how.”

Crystal King at Literary Hub introduces ten authors, focusing on why historical fiction is more important than ever:

“Famous essayist and diarist Anaïs Nin used to say, We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.’  Nowhere is that more true than in historical fiction, which allows readers to step inside the minds of those who have shaped the world we live in, and to imagine the all-too human side of history.”

Justin O’Donnell at Publishers Weekly makes an argument why historical fiction is here to stay:

“… history isn’t really about the past. It’s about human nature. We use the genre as a lens to see ourselves in a different age. To write on the human condition is to write with a reliance on history. Elements such as political consciousness, large-scale conflicts, revolutions, opposing factions, questions about government, economy, society, culture: all of these contribute to that theory…

“Kerney wrote that “history is all around us, a continuum on which the past, present, and the future interact constantly.” It is precisely this interaction—this conversation between past and present, and present and future—that is driving this “new” trend in literature. Historical fiction is not vanishing at all, but changing for the better.”

Ellen Klages, at Brightly: Raise Kids Who Love to Read, explores the many reasons why reading historical fiction is more important than ever:

“Good historical fiction opens a dialogue between the past and the present. The attitudes of the past, from the more enlightened perspective of a present-day reader, may seem wrong-headed, even ugly; many social norms were not questioned, not then. There are no warning labels on history. People smoked and didn’t know it was bad for them. Women and minorities were treated like second-class citizens and denied fundamental rights. Unfortunately, that same racism, sexism, abuse of power are all part of today’s headlines... I think it’s important for kids to be aware that the past was often less than savory, that they learn about what actually happened, not what some would like to pretend it was like."

David McCullough, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote, “We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by and large historically illiterate…We have to know who we were if we’re to know who we are and where we’re headed…If you don’t care about it –if you’ve inherited some great fortune, you don’t even know that it’s a great work of art and you’re not interested in it – you’re going to lose it…” 

 History is literature, McCullough says. And our history is full of amazing stories.

-- Bobbi Miller


  1. This is so smart. Historical fiction is more important than ever.

  2. I love historical fiction - reading and writing it. I think it helps get kids interested in history and makes the learning of it fun and interesting.


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