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Why should we read Historical Fiction?

I’m going to let you into a little secret: I never intended to write Historical Fiction. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy reading it from time to time, but in my pre-novel days when I focused on the short story form, they were almost always set in the present day. When I started putting my energies into longer fiction, I wanted to write sassy, contemporary women’s fiction with a bite, delving primarily into the nuances of human relationships and interaction. But that didn’t quite happen.

As I describe in this blog, I spent eighteen months living in the Andalucian city of Granada, finding myself spellbound by this city. I wanted to set my first novel there, but  every time I started to write, the clock re-wound. My novel wanted to be set in the past. It wanted to tell a story of what happened in Granada many years ago. Perhaps this was because secrets from the past are etched into each cobble and shady courtyard and whispers echo from the surrounding mountains that overlook its inhabitants.

As  soon as I started to hear murmurs of the Spanish Civil War that has remained a taboo for over 70 years, that was it. It may not have been what I’d envisaged myself writing, but it became clear that this was my responsibility as a writer; to tell the story of what normal people experienced during this brutal period.

But back to the question I posed in the title of this blog: Why should we, as lovers of the written word, read historical fiction? I read something not long ago that addresses this beautifully:

‘ You row forward looking back, and telling this history is part of helping people navigate toward the future. We need a litany, a rosary, a sutra, a mantra, a war chant for our victories. The past is set in daylight, and it can become a torch we can carry into the night that is the future.’

Rebecca Solnit

In other words, in our world that is fraught with dangers, with war, with the devastating effects of climate change and so much more, we must look to the past in order to relate to our present; to pave our futures. I once had an interesting conversation with a taxi driver here in Nairobi – he couldn’t understand why I wanted to write about the Mau Mau (a guerrilla group in 1950’s Kenya that aimed to re-claim land from British settlers, terrorising their colonisers as well as their own people and that feature in my second novel) , to drag all that up again when it was done and buried. But I believe that if a historical fiction writer has done their job properly, we as readers can glean something of what does and does not work on a global and political scale as well as on a more personal and intimate level.

From The Well of Being by Jean-Pierre Weill

I’m not suggesting for a moment you only read historical fiction. I am a firm believer in reading widely and now and again out of your comfort zone. But compelling historical fiction holds the power to become this war chant for our victories as Solnit describes it. It can evolve into a moral compass which, in that subtle way that only books can do, can leave us more tolerant, more empathetic, more forgiving. For history is full of examples of hope and compassion amidst the most dire and depressing situations, and these examples can only engender further understanding of our fellow humans and this planet we call home.

Just as fiction has the power to change lives – history, arguably, can be one of our most captivating teachers if we allow it to be. In the words of author, educator and activist Parker Palmer, ‘To grow in love and service, you must value ignorance as much as knowledge and failure as much as success…clinging to what you already know and do well is the path to an unlived life.’

From The Well of Being by Jean-Pierre Weill

I’d love to know, what are your favourite historical fiction reads?

2 replies
  1. Renita D'Silva
    Renita D'Silva says:

    LOVE this! So beautiful and thought-provoking. I especially loved ‘For history is full of examples of hope and compassion amidst the most dire and depressing situations, and these examples can only engender further understanding of our fellow humans and this planet we call home.’ One of the historical novels I read recently that highlights this is ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Antony Doerr. It was spellbinding and is one of my favorite books of all time. I also read The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah recently and loved it. And one of my enduring favourites is The Poet’s Wife, Rebecca 🙂 I can’t wait to read The Girl and the Sunbird.

    • Rebecca Stonehill
      Rebecca Stonehill says:

      Hi Renita, that’s interesting you should mention the Anthony Doerr novel as that has been recommended to me before, I really must try and get hold of it. Thanks for The Nightingale recommendation too X


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