Feature: The Great Historic Roundup.
From Number the Stars to To Kill a Mockingbird, so many authors have used historical fiction to help us gain “human self-knowledge.” So much is learned from the stories, characters, and settings authors use to help bring the past to life. Every book, no matter what level, holds an opportunity for the reader, no matter what age, to learn a piece of the past to help us navigate through the present.
We reached out to historical fiction authors to discuss the importance of historical fiction and how they utilize it in their story telling.
Eleanor Kuhns, Author of The Will Rees Series
Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel competition. She lives in New York, received her master’s in Library Science from Columbia University, and is currently the Assistant Director at the Goshen Public Library in Orange County, New York.
“I utilize the historical setting of my mysteries to describe little known pieces of American History. Instead of adopting an aristocratic detective, mine is a weaver and a farmer. The term middle class had not been adopted yet, but that is what Will Rees and his family are.
I try to use the historical setting as background and show how it affects the lives of the common man. I am particularly interested in ferreting out little known pieces of history and using them. For example, in the next book, Death in the Great Dismal, I place Rees and his wife in the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia where thousands of slaves escaped to. I also set many of my books against the Shakers. At that time, they were a fringe group with ‘radical’ ideas such as the equality of the sexes.
Until I transitioned to full time writing, I was a librarian and so was trained to value accuracy. I check all the facts. With that said, I use the newspapers from that time heavily. New York has a free database to use. The papers expressed the views of that time, so I try to have at least one character express what was a common view and another discuss what truths hindsight has given us. All the quotes are taken directly from the speaker’s writings: letters and so on. As a weaver, Rees is not in the halls of power but he is certainly affected by decisions. In the book I am writing now, the election of 1800 is a big issue and much discussed.”
Death in the Great Dismal by Eleanor Kuhns
Finding themselves in a slave community hidden within the Great Dismal Swamp, Will Rees and his wife Lydia get caught up in a dangerous murder case where no one trusts them. September 1800, Maine. Will Rees is beseeched by Tobias, an old friend abducted by slave catchers years before, to travel south to Virginia to help transport his pregnant wife, Ruth, back north. Though he’s reluctant, Will’s wife Lydia convinces him to go . . . on the condition she accompanies them. Upon arriving in a small community of absconded slaves hiding within the Great Dismal Swamp, Will and Lydia are met with distrust. Tensions are high and a fight breaks out between Tobias and Scipio, a philanderer with a bounty on his head known for conning men out of money. The following day Scipio is found dead – shot in the back. Stuck within the hostile Great Dismal and with slave catchers on the prowl, Will and Lydia find themselves caught up in their most dangerous case yet.
Lorna Cook , Author of The Forbidden Promise
Lorna Cook is the author of the Kindle Number 1 Bestseller ‘The Forgotten Village’, which was her debut novel, staying in the UK Kindle Top 100 for four months. It has sold over 150,000 copies, has eleven overseas/foreign language editions, won the Romantic Novelists’ Association Katie Fforde Debut Romantic Novel of the Year Award and the RNA Joan Hessayon Award for New Writers.
Historical fiction is an easy route into the past. It brings history alive, keeps its memory burning, and highlights events that may have been forgotten, lost to the past, but brought back to memory through the power of good fiction. Of course, you have to remember the genre is called historical fiction and not historical fact. There will invariably be a few ingredients added to the pot that weren’t there at the start: dialogue that never happened, characters created that never existed but the time and the place, the events and themes were often very much present — the starting off point to writers’ imaginations, the diving board from which a reader can leap easily into the past and learn something new. My current book is called The Forbidden Promise, which focuses on events in the depths of the Scottish Highlands during WW2 when a Spitfire crashes into a loch and the pilot begs to be hidden. It’s an escapist fiction with a real time and a place as its jumping off point. It encompasses everything I want when I read historical fiction: mystery, history and a touch of romance, but best of all, it allows the reader to escape to the past without any of us having to invent a time machine.
I do a lot of what I call ‘google’ research before I start writing. I check that what I’m about to embark on is feasible with a good search on the internet for anything readily available. The absolute last thing I want is readers to read my work and think, ‘pah – that would never happen.’ When I’ve got a fistful of facts that I know fit what I want to write about, I can either let those facts guide me in a different direction if suitable or guide me closer to where I was already heading. Then, I buy every single book I can find on the topic. My Amazon bill is out of control. I read, read, read. I watch every documentary I can find. And then, I make so many notes and let my characters and the history guide me while writing.
For example, my next book is The Girl From the Island, set in Guernsey during WW2. Guernsey and The Channel Islands were the only British piece of soil occupied by the Nazis. It’s an incredibly evocative piece of history and it’s also incredibly important to be factually correct (in my opinion) to do service to the history, to do service to those that lived through it. WW2 is still within living memory so who am I to mess around with the truth of it?
The Forbidden Promise
War rages across Europe, but Invermoray House is at peace. Until the night of Constance’s twenty-first birthday, when she’s the only person to see a Spitfire crash into the loch. Constance has been longing for adventure – but when she promises to keep the pilot hidden, what will it cost her?
Kate arrives in the Highlands to turn Invermoray into a luxury bed-and-breakfast, only to find that the estate is more troubled than she’d imagined. But when Kate discovers the house has a murky history, with Constance McLay’s name struck from its records, she knows she can’t leave until the mystery is solved…
How will one promise change the fate of two women, decades apart?
Mariah Fredericks, Author of The Jane Prescott Series
Mariah Fredericks is the author of the critically acclaimed Jane Prescott mystery series. She graduated from Vassar College with a degree in history. She enjoys reading and writing about dead people and how they got that way.
Historical fiction has been my favorite genre ever since I realized that murder and adultery could be politically significant acts and therefore reading about them was educational. You could immerse yourself in a tale of well-dressed people behaving badly and still feel like the smartest person in the room, something that was very important to me as a teenager.
Everyone should study history, especially if they tend to vote. But not everyone is going to start with The Power Broker by Rober Caro. You have to get acclimated, find your footing in the vast stream of “what’s happened since the dawn of time.” That’s where historical storytelling comes in. It’s a great first step. Start with The Alienist by Caleb Carr, then move on to Mike Wallace’s Gotham and Greater Gotham. You’ll very quickly realize that history has all the best stories. What novelist could invent Henry VIII? Or Rasputin. You wouldn’t dare make up the story of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson dying on the same day, and that day was July 4th.
I write a mystery series set in late Gilded Age New York. I wanted to write about murder and class in America. The Gilded Age happens to be a time when Americans were killing one another for all kinds of reasons: political assassination, sexual exploitation, abuse of labor, rage against the obscenely wealthy, native hostility to newcomers. Not only does the period give me many resonant motives for murder, it lets me think about a central question in our history: which lives are seen as valuable and worth protecting? Which lives are seen as expendable, or even dangerous? Which deaths make us weep? Which deaths do we celebrate? Or shrug at?
For that reason, I try to be as accurate as possible, both in physical and mental details. The way people viewed one another—through the lens of fear and prejudice—is a strong part of my books. It can be tricky presenting those attitudes in a way that feels authentic without either appearing to excuse them—“Oh, it’s just how people thought in those days!”—or exploiting people’s pain for commercial use. But I feel if you’re not real about the ugliness, you’re not showing the country as it was and often still is.
Death of an American Beauty
The third in the compelling series, set in Gilded Age New York, featuring Jane Prescott. Jane Prescott is taking a break from her duties as lady’s maid for a week, and plans to begin it with attending the hottest and most scandalous show in town: the opening of an art exhibition, showcasing the cubists, that is shocking New York City. 1913 is also the fiftieth anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation speech, and the city’s great and good are determined to celebrate in style. Dolly Rutherford, heiress to the glamorous Rutherford’s department store empire, has gathered her coterie of society ladies to put on a play—with Jane’s employer Louise Tyler in the starring role as Lincoln himself. Jane is torn between helping the ladies with their costumes and enjoying her holiday. But fate decides she will do neither, when a woman is found murdered outside Jane’s childhood home—a refuge for women run by her uncle.
Rosana M.White, Author of The Codebreakers Series
Roseanna M. White is a bestselling, Christy Award nominated author who has long claimed that words are the air she breathes. When not writing fiction, she’s homeschooling her two kids, editing, designing book covers, and pretending her house will clean itself. Roseanna is the author of a slew of historical novels that span several continents and thousands of years. Spies and war and mayhem always seem to find their way into her books…to offset her real life, which is blessedly ordinary.
Historical Fiction plays such a key and fascinating role in society today! There are the obvious reasons–it teaches about and brings to life eras of history that could otherwise be overlooked and forgotten, and it reminds us that our ancestors were people like us. But there are so many subtler ways it speaks to us too.
For starters, humanity is very cyclical–our generations and their ways of viewing the world tend to be on a four-generation revolution, so we see “echoes,” so to speak, of ourselves in those who lived in eras past. Though technology may change and some ideas have evolved, the human heart is what the human has always been, and when we take that view of how people a hundred or two hundred or two thousand years ago reacted to situations, we can then evaluate how WE would react in that situation.
It’s always easier to see the right path or make judgment calls when we’re a step removed though, right? So while questions of equality and justice and priorities that are set in a contemporary world may hit too close to home and make our defenses fly up, those same questions framed in a historical context can draw us in and help us to look deeper into our hearts BECAUSE it’s not so much like looking in a mirror. As Emily Dickenson points out in her poem “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” sometimes we can’t handle truth told straight-up. But historical fiction helps us “tell it slant”–from a perspective just enough different from our own to make it approachable.
One of the reasons I’ve so enjoyed writing two series set during the First World War (Shadows Over England and The Codebreakers) is that there are so many “echoes” between that era and our own, right down to the pandemic–my final Codebreakers book, A Portrait of Loyalty, takes place when the Spanish Flu first hit London. It’s modern enough to seem “like us” but also just distant enough to call to us. And hopefully compelling enough to show us new sides of age-old questions.
On the Wings of Devotion
All of England thinks Phillip Camden a monster—a man who deliberately caused the deaths of his squadron. But as nurse Arabelle Denler watches the so-dubbed “Black Heart” every day, she sees something far different: a hurting man desperate for mercy. And when their paths twist together and he declares himself her new protector, she realizes she has her own role to play in his healing.
Annette Oppenlander, Author of Where the Night Never Ends
Annette Oppenlander is an award-winning writer, literary coach and educator. As a bestselling historical novelist, Oppenlander is known for her authentic characters and stories based on true events, coming alive in well-researched settings. Having lived in Germany the first half of her life and the second half in various parts in the U.S., Oppenlander inspires readers by illuminating story questions as relevant today as they were in the past.
History provides the perfect view of hindsight that allows us to evaluate the actions of people, and to understand how certain events developed. I’d like to think that history is important because we can learn something from it. I think people either love historical fiction or ‘the old stuff’ leaves them cold. Maybe those who enjoy it, love to imagine how life was in a particular era. In most cases, life was much tougher than it is today. Looking at it safely from a distance—present day—allows us to learn and analyze without the hardship of actually enduring it.
In high school, I loathed the subject of history. The books were full of numbers, mentioning this famous person and that battle. My love for history developed much later and when I began to write. I swore to myself I would create stories that brought these eras to life. I also wanted to tell stories of regular people, not famous generals and politicians.
One of my favorite subjects is World War II, and I believe this complex era remains fascinating for many readers. Not only because it was the largest and deadliest war ever fought, but because many of us have family members who were somehow involved. My biographical novel, Surviving the Fatherland, which took 15 years to complete, tells the true stories of Lilly and Günter who were caught up in Hitler’s war as children. The story follows both kids through the teen years to adulthood—in its essence it is a complicated love story. To date, Surviving the Fatherland has received eight U.S. nominations/awards and recently a first German nomination for the German translation.
For me, historical fiction is the place I’m most happy at. I get to do two favorite things: one, bury deeply into research which appeals to my analytical side. And secondly, I get to write. Initially, it is always challenging to learn the ins and outs of a historical time. There are so many details to get right, not just how people dressed, but their worldviews, their speech, hopes and dreams. In a way, my stories allow me to travel to these former times. I’ve already ‘visited’ the Middle Ages, the Wild West, the American Civil War, the U.S. Prohibition era, and WWII. There is no telling where I’ll go next. Luckily, readers love to come along.
Where the Night Never Ends
A chance encounter between a penniless young woman in search of her missing brother and a hobo burdened with a big secret takes both on a journey to Chicago’s glamorous yet crime-ridden 1920s where prostitution, bootlegging and corruption rule. Separated by fate and brought back together by chance, WHERE THE NIGHT NEVER ENDS is an unforgettable tale of courage and perseverance, a tribute to the triumph of hope and love against all odds.
Gill Hornby, Author of Miss Austen
Gill Hornby is the author of the novels The Hive and All Together Now, as well as The Story of Jane Austen, a biography of Austen for young readers. She lives in Kintbury, England, with her husband and their four children.
My first two books were contemporary. It seemed an easier place to start: no research, after all; just write about the world around you. But for years, I had burning within me the idea – the need, almost – to write a novel about Cassandra Austen, her relationship with her sister Jane, and the story of why Cassandra chose to burn all Jane’s letters. I had done nearly all the research for a biography I had already written. All that was required was that crucial work of the imagination. The realisation of the feelings behind the bald facts of their lives. The putting myself in their shoes. The recreation of what was going on under those prim bonnets. I immersed myself, and I loved it. The nineteenth-century became my living world. I wept when I finished. The Austen ladies’ company had brought such deep pleasure. I missed spending my days with them.
Miss Austen was published this year, and I have now been commissioned to write another historical novel, and am deep research again. But this time, no imaginative leap is required. For this year, the nineteenth-century has come to us all. The Austens, of course, lived in a socially-distanced world. They bowed, they curtsied, they kissed a gloved hand. They lived in their own neighbourhoods, among a small, trusted circle. When they gathered at the Assembly, with strangers, they danced around one another, or in lines, touching only a finger-tip. Generations lived together, as we have done during lockdown. Young adult children could not pull away constantly into their independent lives but were forced to fall back on their families – as mine have done since March. In nineteenth-century novels, they seem to talk about food all the time. And now we know why. Meals – the sourcing of them, the cooking of them, the saucing of them, the eating – have been the focus of our new home-based days. Above all, they lived with the ever-present fear of contagion. The symptoms of the common cold could be the sign for imminent death. A fever meant danger. Outbreaks of smallpox and cholera were a constant and terrible threat.
Lately, though, I have tried to read new and current fiction. I find it too remote to relate to. What is all this? Bodies crushing against themselves in cities, throbbing together in clubs. Virtual strangers going to bed together. The work of a crazy person! The first decades of the 21st century now seem like a spasm of aberration in human civilisation. And I retreat, at once, into the past, to Austen or the Brontes or the wonderful current crop of historical writings: a world we can all understand.
England, 1840. For the two decades following the death of her beloved sister, Jane, Cassandra Austen has lived alone, spending her days visiting friends and relations and quietly, purposefully working to preserve her sister’s reputation. Now in her sixties and increasingly frail, Cassandra goes to stay with the Fowles of Kintbury, family of her long-dead fiancé, in search of a trove of Jane’s letters. Dodging her hostess and a meddlesome housemaid, Cassandra eventually hunts down the letters and confronts the secrets they hold, secrets not only about Jane but about Cassandra herself. Will Cassandra bare the most private details of her life to the world, or commit her sister’s legacy to the flames?
Kathy Kacer, Author of The Heroes Quartet
Kathy Kacer’s parents were both survivors of the Holocaust. Her mother survived the war in hiding; her father was a survivor of the concentration camps. Their stories of survival were an inspiration to Kathy as she was growing up. As an adult, she was determined to write their stories and pass them on to young readers. She went on to write more than twenty books, all focused on the Holocaust.
I’ve written more than 25 books for young readers which focus on the Second World War and the Holocaust. Many of the books are creative non-fiction – telling the personal story of a Holocaust survivor. Many are historical fiction – weaving historical events around a fictional character and story.
I think there is an important role for historical fiction, even when it comes to writing about difficult topics like the Holocaust. In fact, historical fiction often makes these sensitive topics more accessible, especially for the young adult audience that I write for. However, in creating a fictional story, it is critically important that the historical context is true and accurate. Even when the story departs on fictional lines, the events of history have to be truthful. We cannot start revising or inventing history, especially for a topic as important as the Holocaust. That’s a responsibility that I take very seriously in my writing.
I have a couple of books that have just come out. Louder than Words (published by Annick Press) is the third book in a four-part series called The Heroes Quartet. Each book in the series focuses on a real person who saved Jews during the Holocaust. This book is about a woman named Nina Pukas who saved a Jewish family by protecting three children when their mother had been arrested and deported. Fictionalizing Nina’s story gave me the opportunity to enhance her life, adding details and events that only added to the drama of her heroism.
The other book coming out in the spring is The Brushmaker’s Daughter (published by Second Story Press). This is the story of Otto Weidt, a German businessman who saved dozens of blind and deaf Jews in Germany by employing them in his brush factory and saving them from deportation. For this book, I created a fictional girl – the daughter of one of the men who is employed by Otto. She becomes the eyes and ears of all the workers in the factory, and is the voice of this story. Once again, I was able to create a richer and more accessible story by inventing this young girl. Do Children find my historical fiction books intimidating? In the case of my books, I find that kids have quite the opposite reaction. Since they know that the books are about a time of war, I think they assume that the stories will be exciting and nail-biting at times. My publishers tend not to advertise that a book is historical fiction. They may put on the cover that it is based on a true story, or inspired by a true story. That too is intriguing for many kids. So much of it is in the packaging of a story – finding a way for kids to be attracted to the book and then getting them to dive in.
Louder Than Words
Life is becoming ever more terrifying for the Jewish community as the Second World War envelops their lives. For twelve-year-old Dina and her sisters, it gets even harder when their father dies. Their mother must go back to work and despite many objections, the family adjusts to the arrival of their new housekeeper, Nina, who is not Jewish. But Nina’s role changes dramatically when the Nazis invade their small Ukrainian town.
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Article originally Published in the August/September 2020 Issue The Historic Edition.