Why do we read/ write historical fiction?

What does it matter? What can we learn from the past.

For me, the true stories I read in memoirs and history books about courageous people who dared to fight back against tyranny in Europe after WWI grabbed my attention, and my heart.

All too clearly, I saw patterns—authority figures who demanded complete control, racial biases, and the ability of hypnotic words to turn regular citizens into unthinking mobs. And now? We’ve all seen scenarios on TV that look similar to black and white documentaries of the thirties and forties. Is history repeating, we ask ourselves? What can we do about it?

While it’s true that many people want to read to escape current life, others enjoy reading stories where the tensions, mysteries, and angst about the human condition are resolved. With a sigh of relief, we can close the book with a sense of satisfaction that the good guys basically won—in that story at least.

I have taught and written memoirs for over thirty years, and I enjoy the challenge of writing memoirs because the stories are based on the true experiences of real people—their challenges and how they managed to resolve them or deal with them. As readers, we learn how the author coped—whether the topic was illness, the death of a loved one, a struggle with addiction, abuse, or generational family patterns. The story might have to do with sports, or travel, love, or friendship. Each specific story also has universal elements—which is why we read, isn’t it? To find ourselves in the stories.

Historical fiction has the same grounding in truth as memoirs. The core issues, timelines and aspects of the plot are grounded in history, and the author must strive to be as accurate as possible, even while creating fictional story lines and characters. What a fun challenge! As I was writing The Forger of Marseille about France in WWII, in my imagination, based on tons of research, I was escaping Paris during the exodus with thousands of other refugees fleeing the Germans. I too was coughing on the road dust, impatient with the slow progress down crowded roads, terrified of the stukas who came screaming out of the sky to machine gun all of us on the road. I could smell the sea at the Vieux Port in Marseille and feel breathless as I climbed the Pyrenees to escape the Nazis in France.

On television as I wrote my first novel, refugees were picking through bombed bridges trying to escape Russian bombs, children were lost and crying, Ukraine was being attacked. The faces of the stories happening now were the same as eighty-five years ago. It’s surreal, all this repetition.

So, back to the question—why write historical fiction? What difference does it make? I think literature helps us to cope with the realities of our lives, no matter what era we live in. A story is shaped, chosen. It’s not a random act of chaos as real life can be. The author finds characters we can cheer on, and through them we live through something and feel it deeply. We learn about how others have struggled and faced terror and love, loss and beauty. We are taken out of ourselves and invited to go in more deeply all at once.

If you’re a reader, let Amazon and Book Bub know your interests, and create your reading list. There are so many new books, it’s hard to keep up! If you are a writer, grab that idea, listen to those characters as they chat in your ear—and they will—and write your story!

To read more about France and the courageous rescues of refugees by a young Jewish woman
artist and others in the early resistance, please read The Forger of Marseille. Oh, and there’s a
love story too!

Till next time,

Linda Joy

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