An editor recently told me, and I’m paraphrasing here, that anyone who sets out to be a writer is “crazy”, and anyone who sets out to write historical fiction is even “crazier.”
And she is a champion of both.
I thought I knew what she meant. That you have to be a certain brand of risktaker to pursue a profession that is often solitary, thankless, frustrating, and costly. And that to add historical research to that is just the cherry on top.
Maybe that is what she intended to imply – I didn’t ask for an explanation. But recent events have led me to think that the pursuit of historical fiction is challenging for some additional reasons.
We’re killing history in our culture.
Let me explain. I recently moved to Williamsburg, Virginia. Founded in the early 1600s, it’s near the coast, has mild winters, and tree canopy roads. I feel like I’ve found paradise. I live only two miles from historical Colonial Williamsburg and have already enjoyed speeches by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, strolling the Governor’s Palace Gardens, sampling apple cider that tastes like liquid pie, and I think nothing of seeing horse-drawn carriages trot by as the noonday cannon shakes the earth.
But it might be ending.
A few weeks ago, Colonial Williamsburg went public with devastating financial news. Due to low attendance, they are laying off much of their staff and scrambling to reorganize or they will have to close in several years.
A bitter pill for a beloved American institution.
As you can imagine, much chatter is going on about what led to this decline, and while people talk about management, priorities, etc., there is one thing that everyone seems to agree on.
We’ve stopped valuing history.
In an effort to “teach to the test”, it’s been mentioned that English and math are god-like subjects and science is offered as important to keep us competitive in the world marketplace. All of which are fair and true statements. But it seems as if history may be going the way of the art and music concentrations.
In a recent article by Communities Digital News, they report on students who don’t know what the Bill of Rights is, who have heard of the Civil War but don’t know what it was fought for, who aren’t studying American history prior to the late 1800s.
What does this mean for historical fiction, which tries to eke out a presence among rising genres like domestic suspense?
A pessimist might say that it is doomed. But I’ve never been a pessimist. So, I offer these words of encouragement to those who, like me, read and write in this genre.
- Thank God for Lin Manuel Miranda, who helped make the Founding Fathers popular again. I hope, I hope, I hope that the popularity of “Hamilton” will encourage citizens young and old to dig deeper into the figures and issues that shaped our nation. (Which, if you study it, you will realize that we are discussing many of the same topics today.)
- Historical Fiction isn’t merely about facts. It’s about love, revenge, deceit, valor, struggle, bravery. These are everlasting human traits and a love of history and historical fiction connects our present with our past and our future. If we write compelling characters, we will engage the modern-day reader and open their minds to long ago worlds that they may never have considered.
- Despite many agents and publishers saying that WWII fiction is “saturated”, the fact is that readers are eating it up and want more. That era covers so many cultures, so many angles, that it won’t be going away any time soon. You have only to ask book clubs and reader groups what their recent favorites were, and you’ll find The Nightingale and The Lilac Girls and others like them topping the list. Readers love reading it. Writers love writing it.
- Dual time periods. This has been a popular writing structure as of late. (And as someone who recently released one, I can tell you that they are a bear to write.) Many dual time period books take place in both contemporary times and in some historical area – often linked by a letter, a journal, or some other artifact that intrigues a current character into connecting with the past. This structure gives me great hope for the solvency of historical fiction. It’s very nature – the connection of the present and the past – defines what we’re lacking in our Twitter and Snapchat focused world.
So what can you do? As a writer, you can mine the wonderful stories that our past has to offer. As a reader, you can read, share, review, and promote your favorite works of historical fiction. Go see movies that are set in a past era. Teach your children/grandchildren/neighbors anything they might be missing in school.
And, maybe instead of Disneyland – though I do love the Mouse! – consider a trip to a place like Colonial Williamsburg or other important historical sites. They’re a whole lot cheaper, and reap rewards that are longer-lasting than a Tigger-tail chocolate-dipped marshmallow stick.
Camille Di Maio just left an award-winning career as a real estate agent in San Antonio to pursue writing full time. Along with her husband of 20 years, enjoys raising their four children. She has a bucket list that is never-ending, and uses her adventures to inspire her writing. She loves finding goodies at farmers markets (justifying them by her support for local bakeries) and belts out Broadway tunes whenever the moment strikes. There’s almost nothing she wouldn’t try, so long as it doesn’t involve heights, roller skates, or anything illegal. “The Memory of Us” is Camille’s debut novel. Her second, “Before the Rain Falls” was released in May 2017, and her third, “The Way of Beauty” will be released in May 2018.