How Historical Stories Reveal Our Past

The opening line of The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley is the famous quote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." This is quintessentially what draws us to stories of the past.

In some ways we are in familiar territory. The setting might be our own country, or the era could be something we learnt about in school, but there is enough of the exotic to engage us as readers. It’s an anchor from which we can start a journey and be drawn into evermore absorbing situations.

We enjoy these stories because we know the events happened, and often we can are right there in the story with the historical characters.

Most historians write to inform rather than to create a satisfying narrative. For many casual readers, non-fiction just isn’t compelling enough and can result in readers giving up on factual history.

However, historical fiction provides the narrative hook to hang the facts on, so that the reader is entertained and educated at the same time.

By definition historical stories are all set in the past, but they come in many different forms. Shakespeare’s histories, to a large extent, play fast and loose with the truth, but there are other more factual historical narratives, where no deviation is made from real history … except where words are put into the mouths of those long dead.

Thanks to the breadth and richness of history itself, historical fiction is the largest playground of dramatic storytelling.

People who find history boring have probably had boring history teachers. The subject is so much more than long lists of battles and kings. Mention World War II or the Court of Queen Elizabeth I, and there will be readers clamouring for more.

Equally, there are many books on other subjects that cover everything from the life of a small mining town during the Industrial Revolution, to a family struggling through the Great Depression, right up to young black men creating hip-hop in 1980s Los Angeles.

So, just like a foreign country, it is possible to journey to somewhere comfortable and familiar or to somewhere exotic and possibly even hostile. The area of historical fiction is, arguably, the most varied genre in literature.  

Jem Duducu has been in love with history for as long as he can remember. He went to UWCC to read Archaeology and Medieval History. He has since had six history books published, with another on its way. Silent Crossroads marks his first historical novel.

 

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