According to Helen Ginger’s blog this morning “History Sells” and that’s good news for history genre writers everywhere. I’m not really addressing the financial possibility of that because for me writing is an art form, and as such if I put a dollar figure on the activity from the start I’m doomed to write dross. But knowing that other people out there love to immerse themselves in the past as much as I do is a consolation and a motivation – but why do they?
My last blog post addressed how people from a hundred years ago would view the passage of time differently and that’s just one of the numerous ways that our ancestors differ from us. I don’t believe there is any one thing in terms of the details that singles out why historical fiction appeals to people. Certainly it’s not the little things like time or clothes or what people ate or the weapons they used. Even though each history buff has a specific interest or period that draws their attention what makes a genre appealing to particular people is always something transcendent from the details. I believe there is something fundamentally different in historical fiction from all contemporary fiction and that is the presence of clearly defined roles and expectations. Whether or not we are talking about a heroine who breaks the rules the comfort lies in the rules itself.
Much as I think that overriding appeal of the fantasy genre is the ability to have very clearly defined good and evil, something unbelievable in contemporary stories, historical fiction allows men to be men and women to be women. Before everyone screams at me and throws cupcakes (or is that cream pie?) let me elucidate a little further.
As a man working in an office four days a week the idea of walking down Allen Street with a Colt .45 Peacemaker in my holster and a clear purpose in my mind, to arrest the bad guy or shoot him if necessary, is a form of freedom from restraint. In my historical world I can dust up a guy with my bare knuckles over a matter of honor and not be considered a macho asshole with too much testosterone. For a woman, though she might be inclined to grab up a saber on occasion, I believe it is often equally liberating to be free from worrying that if she appears beautifully dressed in satins and velvets, with her hair done up in a delicate net ornamented with pearls that she is not being frivolous or submitting to sexism. After all it is 1600 what else would she be wearing? I simplify, of course, but I think you get the point.
Historical fiction makes dipping into the mores and culture of past ages sexy and safe. I really wouldn’t want to be walking around in the French Revolution, particularly if I was a nobleman, nor would I want to be a woman dressed so tightly in a corset that I need smelling salts to revive me every time I had to breathe, but to have the freedom to imagine myself there through the writing or reading of historical fiction is a form of wondrous time travel that is, literally, timeless.
Returning to men and women – we can remake history in our own likeness when we are the authors. The heroine can pick up her skirts, trim them short with her dagger, and then take up saber to fight for her cause. We can make sure that the good guys really are good and that the cause was just. Or we can be gritty and endure the past and all its injustice and social inequality knowing that once we close the book we have returned to our own time, our own culture. How many women with two jobs, two kids, and a mortgage enjoy the adventures of a Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth, or an Ancient Egyptian Queen? How many men with a cubicle existence embrace the single-minded duty of Richard Sharpe as he leads his small doughty band of men in the war against Napoleon?
Life might be rough, or dirty, but it’s clear and uncomplicated compared to our daily lives – and we get to play with swords.