History is all around us

There are so many wonderful sites around the world that serve as a constant reminder of our past. Such sites can also stimulate the imaginations of writers of historical fiction and, in many novels, form the backdrop against which the characters can play out their tales.

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Castlerigg Stone Circle, Cumbria

I’ve even visited a few such places myself. I’ve stood with the rest of a tour group and goggled at Egyptian and Greek temples, the Bronze Age ruins at Knossos, and the remains of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Carthage. The splendours of these places will stay with me forever: they are locked inside my head. The colours, sounds and smells, and the clamour of the local people at any one of these places can spring to life again in an instant if I should just close my eyes…

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Wayland’s Smithy: long barrow, Oxfordshire, UK

I suppose I’m lucky to live in a country where every city, town, or village can boast some structure or crumbling ruin that owes its origins to a bygone age. In Britain we have everything from prehistoric stone circles, tumuli and hill forts, to Roman walls, villas and bath-houses and medieval castles and cathedrals.

The remains of the Roman arch on Newport, Lincoln
The remains of the Roman arch on Newport, Lincoln
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Lincoln Cathedral. The first foundations of this magnificent structure were laid in 1088

And so it continues throughout the centuries, through Tudor and Stuart times to the period of the great Victorian architects and builders. And side by side with those great structures stand the simpler, quaint old cottages and farmhouses.

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The Ribblehead Viaduct carries the Settle to Carlisle railway, built 1870-74

Writers of historical fiction, or rather, good writers of historical fiction, have the knack of making those bygone times seem like now. They bring the action alive, so that we see, hear, smell, feel or even taste whatever the characters in the story are experiencing. And that is a commendable skill, one that I kept firmly in mind whilst I was writing my own first book, Shadow of the Raven.

I’ll finish off with these thought-provoking  quotes:

I think that all of us who write about the past feel a deep and haunting connection with it. Socrates said that all knowledge is possessed by the soul and it’s just a matter of remembering it. I believe that to be true.’

(Karen Essex)

The truth of it is that it is simply not possible to create an accurate portrait of the past. No one can faithfully reproduce the reality of the 1970’s, let alone the 1570’s.

(Tim Wilcox)

History never looks like history when you are living through it.’

(Samuel Butler)

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Bringing History to Life

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The Bayeux Tapestry – an embroidered cloth depicting events leading up to the Norman conquest of England. Some historians believe it could have been made in England – not Bayeux – in the 1070’s

Most people would probably agree that to present history as a mere list of dates, or the minutiae of births, deaths, battles, coronations and political treaties and alliances, would be the best way of putting anyone off the subject for life. Undoubtedly the information referred to has its place; the chronology of historical events is vital. We wouldn’t want people believing, for example, that the Battle of Hastings was a mere hundred years ago.

But there are ways of presenting information that overcome the mundane . . .

I believe that to appreciate the importance of history – and by that I mean the magnitude of its effect on the lives we lead today; the great advances in technology that make our lives so much easier – we must project our minds back to the time being studied, or read about.

Feel it. Live it.

For me, as for millions of others, history comes alive through fiction. Historical fiction has become almost an obsession to me. I read little else. Even my favourite detective novels have an historical setting. I read novels set in any era, any culture. I love to be transported from the here and now to a world of past times; to characters with completely different moral values and attitudes to life than our own.

It all helps to understand how life has progressed; just how far – or in some cases, how little – we’ve come.

I’ll leave with these snippets to consider (there are many more on the ‘Brainy Quotes about Historical Fiction’ webpage):

‘One thing I like about historical fiction is that I’m not constantly focusing on me, or people like me; you’re obliged to concentrate on lives that are completely other than your own.’ (Emma Donoghue)

‘The thing that most attracts me to historical fiction is taking the factual record as far as it is known, using that as a scaffold, then letting imagination build the structure that fills in those things we can never find out for sure.’ (Geraldine Brooks)