Learning to Love History Through Historical Fiction

HistficI think Rudyard Kipling had it right: “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” When I came across this pin on Pinterest I realized it was something I wanted to explore more in-depth, because I’ll tell you one thing, I’ve learned more from the historical fiction I’ve read than I did in all my years of studying history in school.

For those prone to argue, yes, I know historical fiction is part fiction. I’m not saying we should base all of our knowledge on it, but that it can spark interest in a certain time period or person much easier than a dry history book can. For example, I just finished Labyrinth by Kate Mosse. Its backdrop of the Cathar Inquisition in thirteenth century France made me want to learn more about this little-known sect of medieval Christianity. I can promise you that if we covered that in school, I don’t remember a word of it.

Why does historical fiction stay with us? Well, for one, stories are the way the human brain processes information. We tell each other stories every day in the form of conversation without even noticing we’re doing it. Chances are good that when you’re telling your friend about that awesome party you went to, you’re going to tell her stories about the evening, not a chronological recounting of events (unless you are Sheldon Cooper, in which case you wouldn’t have gone to a party anyway). I think this is the fundamental flaw in many history textbooks; they focus on cramming as many dates and facts in as possible, and thus, lose the true story.

As author Heather Web recently said in a recent Huffington Post article, “What’s not to love about history? I think it gets a bad rap from our grade school and high school days where many teachers force-fed us timelines and names to memorize, as opposed to teaching us to explore movements and larger concepts–never mind all of those juicy stories. This is what history, and historical fiction, really is: juicy stories.”

That brings me to my second point about historical fiction. It breathes life into history in a way traditional textbooks don’t. This happens through the story and the characters, no matter if they are fictional paupers begging at the cathedral gates or real-life kings and queens. They represent the plight (or fortune) of people in a given time period, they show us history in action through a personal lens with all of its love, triumph, grief and pain. Whether we leave a historical fiction work thinking, “Oh my God am I glad I didn’t live in that time period,” or “Dude, where’s the time machine? It would have been so cool to live in that time,” we’ve personalized the story. History now matters to us.

And matter it should. Beyond the oft-repeated proverb “if we don’t remember history, we’re bound to repeat it,” history shows us what is right and wrong with humanity, emphasizes the good that we should seek to amplify and horrors that should never be permitted again. By living these things through the fictionalized lives of real or made up people, we become more compassionate and empathetic. I just finished a book called The Hammer of Witches by Begoña Echeverria, whose graphic portrayal of the Basque witch hunts made me realize what danger we place our entire community in when we fail to see the humanity of those around us and instead choose the bandwagon of bigoted hatred and fear.

Personally, I would love if history classes in high school (or at least college) incorporated historical fiction into their curriculum, especially as way of whetting the appetite for certain time periods or topics. (Come to think of it, that’s kind of what my high school Western Civ teacher did when she had us read 1984 before studying totalitarian societies. I’ve been hooked on dystopia ever since.) For example, I personally think Susanna Kearsely’s forthcoming A Desperate Fortune has the clearest explanation of the reason for the Jacobite rebellion/exile I’ve ever read. Historical fiction can even take you places the history books rarely do. Jo Baker’s Longbourn gives a glimpse into the lives of servants and soldiers in Regency England, while most history books stick to the sterile facts of monarchy and war.

And you wouldn’t even have to use books, or at least not books alone. There are so many period films and TV shows that they could be incorporated as well. Even if they are of questionable historical accuracy (*cough* Tudors *cough*) that can be used to spark discussion. “Spot the inaccuracy” could be part of a test. It could be employed interdepartmentally as well. The Paris Wife could be an intro to Hemingway or The Secret of All Things a prelude to biology. The possibilities are endless. (Man, now I wish I had my PhD. or even a master’s in history so I could create this class.)

I just hate the idea of history meaning less and less to future generations. But if mine is any starting place (I’m at the tail end of Gen X), things aren’t looking good. A recent report by the American Historical Association (I’m a member), showed that schools issuing history degrees are showing a downward trend, which isn’t too surprising given the recent economy. The more we can use historical fiction to spark interest, the better off we will all be. The day history becomes only dead guys and boring facts is the day we lose a valuable record of our humanity.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree? What historical fiction has made you care about history? What do you wish young people had to read in school? Do you think there is danger in mixing fiction in with our history?

On a Mission from…the Muse

Source: Wikimedia Commons: "Uffizi Gallery - Daughter of Niobe bent by terror" by Petar Milošević - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Uffizi_Gallery_-_Daughter_of_Niobe_bent_by_terror.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Uffizi_Gallery_-_Daughter_of_Niobe_bent_by_terror.jpg

Source: Wikimedia Commons: “Uffizi Gallery – Daughter of Niobe bent by terror” by Petar Milošević – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

While that headline doesn’t have the same ring as a certain Blues Brothers quote, it does get the idea across that I feel like my writing comes from a higher source – and for a purpose.

Lately, I’ve realized that while I started writing books just to tell the stories that were in my head, it’s come to mean more than that. While I don’t intend to start a Hemingway- or Pound-esque writing revolution, there is a deeper reason behind my writing, one I want to make sure everyone knows.

I’ve distilled this into two mission statements, one for each genre I currently write:

Historical fiction: To rescue little-known women from being lost in the pages of history. While other writers may choose to write about the famous, I tell the stories of those who are in danger of being forgotten so that their memories may live on for at least another generation. I also tell the female point of view when it is the male who has gotten more attention in history (i.e. Guinevere to King Arthur).

Women’s fiction: To create strong female characters who are role models for women of all ages in stories that are fun and romantic. These women represent the modern independent female spirit and are meant to appeal to women who feel they are outside of the norm of society whether by age (my heroines are almost always over 30), race, sexuality, or natural inclinations (we all have things that make us feel like freaks, right?). I hope my readers can find something in my books that makes them think, “Oh, thank goodness, I’m not alone.”

If nothing else, I figure this gives people (readers, potential publishers, etc.) an idea of what to expect from my writing. It also helps keep me focused and reminds me on the bad days exactly why I thought it was a good idea to become a writer in the first place. And yes, it doesn’t hurt as part of my “brand” to know what sets me apart from other writers. (If you want a good resource on author branding, I recommend this post by author Jami Gold.) But did you notice that I listed that last? It’s because it’s not nearly as important to me as making things clear for myself and my readers.

I all of you feel like you know me just a bit better now.

What’s your personal mission statement? No matter what you do for a living, it doesn’t hurt to know why you feel like you’re here, on this planet, in this life. Give it some thought and share with me in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.

 

Guest Post: HF Author Sarah Kennedy Talks City of Ladies and Christine de Pizan

I am so excited to have as my guest today historical fiction author Sarah Kennedy, whose recent book, City of Ladies (second in the Cross and Crown series), was one of my favorites of 2014. (Here’s my review; still waiting for Historical Honey to post it. And here’s the related article I wrote for the Historical Novel Society.)

Today Sarah talks about her book, as well as the real-life inspiration for its title and main themes. Thank you for being here, Sarah!

Cities of Ladies by Sarah Kennedy

Sarah Kennedy

Sarah Kennedy

When I began my second novel, City of Ladies, I didn’t have a title in mind.  I wanted to move my main character, Catherine Havens, forward in time:  get her married, put her in charge of a large household.  Catherine, however, is not the sort of person who would simply forget the convent that she grew up in, which was a community of women (despite the presence of a priest and the male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church).  She would, of course, keep women around her.  She is comfortable with women.  She respects their ability to reason and work.

As the novel evolved, Catherine’s newly-formed household seemed to draw to it former nuns, and Catherine wanted to protect them.  The women have nowhere else to go—and yet they still have skills and knowledge that can help the girls and village women nearby.  What else would Catherine do besides take them in and shelter them?  This is part of her calling, as she sees it, even in a secular world, and it also becomes part of the problem of the plot, as the women begin to turn up dead.

At some point in the drafting, the original City of Ladies began to tug at my mind, both as a book that Catherine would have owned and as a metaphor for the world Catherine is trying to build under Henry VIII.  The Book of the City of Ladies (1405) was written about a hundred and fifty years before my book’s time period, by a woman named Christine de Pizan.  Christine was Italian by birth but spent much of her life in Paris.  She was unusually well-educated for her time (like my Catherine), primarily because her father (like Catherine’s father) insisted upon it.

City of LadiesChristine was happily—and conventionally—married in her teens and bore three children.  Her husband, however, died, leaving Christine to raise her family alone.  This she did by writing, becoming the first woman in European history to earn her living as an author.  Other women did write—and some of them were widely known—but they were nuns, who had the leisure and the status to circulate their work.  Nuns didn’t have to make money, but Christine did.  And she succeeded.

The authorial tradition was heavily against her, and The Book of the City of Ladies takes on the cultural and theological arguments against women in general.  Christine writes in defense of women’s moral and intellectual worth, against the backdrop of “all manner of philosophers, poets and orators too numerous to mention, who all seem to speak with one voice and are unanimous in their view that female nature is wholly given up to vice” (6).  As she becomes more and more despondent about being a member of such a flawed sex, she is visited by three ladies, who reveal themselves as Reason, Rectitude, and Justice.  These three ladies encourage and assist Christine in building her “City of Ladies.”

This city is metaphorical.  The book itself is the structure, and within it are the “lives” of many women, historical, biblical, and mythological, who have been exemplary or have done extraordinary things.  They are mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives—and they show that women are resourceful, caring, intelligent, and moral.  The entire book becomes, as Rosalind Brown-Grant notes, an example of the “biographical catalogue,” and it seems designed more for visiting than for a beginning-to-end tour.  The three-part structure and multiple sub-headings and “arguments” within the text make for fruitful lucky-dipping.  Christine’s City of Ladies may be old-fashioned in its emphasis on moral virtue in women, but her goal is not to provide a defense of what women should do but rather a defense of what women are.

My own City of Ladies is a metaphor, as well, but it’s also the physical house where Catherine Havens lives.  She dreams of a world where women can read, write, think, and work.  My Catherine does want to go out into the world and use her knowledge.  She wants to hear her calling for herself—and then act to make the most of her gifts, which she believes are given to her by God.

And so Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies became the only choice when I sought out a title.  My Catherine began life in a convent, and the historical Christine went to live in one as an older woman.  In hindsight, it seems natural that Catherine claimed that book as one of her most prized possessions.  It gave her something that Christine herself didn’t have—a foremother who showed her in writing what a woman, even under a harsh king, could accomplish.

Source:
Brown-Grant, Rosalind, editor.  The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan.  London:    Penguin, 1999.

Do you have any questions or comments for Sarah? Please leave them below. She will be popping in and answering comments/questions as she can. And again, go read her books if you haven’t already!

2015 Goals

Goal-Setting-2015-1024x1024Last year I was pretty darn ambitious with my writing goals and it nearly did me in. So this year, I’m keeping it simple:

  1. Write at least one book – I’m planning on writing another historical fiction after I get this one edited and finished. As I’ve found another woman no one has written fiction about (that I can tell), I’m not revealing who she is until the book is done. But I can tell you this: she survived the French Revolution and went on to run a business empire in an age when women did not dare set foot in the work force. Her name survives on her product today and chances are good if I said it, you’d recognize it right away. I’ve also got two contemporary stories fighting for prominence in my head, so if I get the time, I’ll write one of those.
  2. Write a short story to submit to an RWA anthology – I never thought I’d do this since I generally can’t write short, but there’s a historical romance that’s been slowly piecing itself together in my mind and I think I know the plot now. I wrote the first part a few weeks ago. It’s set in 1920s Chicago smack bad in the middle of Al Capone’s mob. The story guidelines are 5,000-7,000 words, so we’ll see if I can get it done in time for the March deadline (along with editing and going on vacation).
  3. Continue to blog once a week – That’s here, plus my monthly post over at Spellbound Scribes and posts over at Femina Aequalitas whenever I can (I have to get to doing those more regularly!) Oh, and we’ll have a special guest here at Through the Mists of Time later this month. I’m very excited because she’s a pretty well-known historical fiction writer.
  4. Attend conferences and speak as possible – I’m planning to attend the 2015 Historical Novel Society Conference in Denver in June, as well as Sirens (also in Denver) in October. Right now I also have a tentative speaking engagement at Webster Groves High School in February.
  5. Continue social media – I’m on Twitter and Pinterest all the time, just found Instagram (follow me as Nicole Evelina), and I’m on Facebook about once a week. That’s about all I have time for. I may add some more, but that’s good for now.

Is there anything you’d like to see on this blog this year? Anyone want to guest post? I’m up for suggestions!

No Kiss Blogfest: Novel Excerpt

no kissToday I’m thrilled to share with you a sexy scene from my newest historical fiction book, just completed on December 30. (Obviously, it’s unedited, so please don’t judge it too harshly.) This is part of the No Kiss Blogfest (check em all out here), where we writers share scenes where our characters almost kiss…almost.

Victoria turned away, not wanting him to see her blush. Her stomach twisted, gut telling her what her mind refused to admit – there was more behind his words than professional admiration. “You regard me too highly.”

Suddenly her hand was in his and he was kneeling before her. “No,” he said firmly. “It is others who do not regard you highly enough. My dear Victoria, you are queen of my heart.”

She inhaled sharply as his lips brushed the top of her hand. She knew she should pull away, to discourage him, but his touch was so gentle, she found so could not. What was worse, she realized the reason she had been so aloof – from their very first meeting until now – was that she was attracted to him. Try as she might to deny it, it was true.

Theodore raised his head, the slight upturn of his lips telling her he read the emotion in her eyes. His thumb caressed her palm in lazy circles, asking questions his lips dared not form. She didn’t move, but gave herself over to the sensation of his touch, eyes riveted on his as though by some preternatural force. His hand slipped from hers and gently traced the veins up her arm, over the soft curve of her shoulder. She shivered as he ran the flat of his fingernails along her collarbone and up her neck. With an artist’s grace, he slipped a finger under her chin, tilting it up toward him.

Looking deep into his eyes, Victoria felt a connection unlike any other she’d ever experienced, even with James. If she didn’t know better, she’d swear an oath Theodore was a mesmerist who now held her under his spell. Anticipating his kiss, she felt like a maid again, pure in the innocence she never really had the chance to experience due to her foolish youthful betrothal. Slowly, he leaned in toward her and she did the same, closing her eyes only when she trusted he would not pull away.

That’s all you get for now. And trust me, this is no romance novel, but it does have three major love scenes it in. This is the beginning of the third one. I had to pick this one because the others all had spoilers for major plot points in them. Hope you liked it and it piqued your interest (at least a little) to read the rest of the novel.

2015 Word of the Year: Valiant

valiantI started the tradition of picking a word for the year last January and I really like it. It was also one of the exercises in the 2015 guide by Dianne Sylvan, which I used to help me plan this upcoming year. (It’s not too late if you want to plan your year.) It gives me focus, something to repeat to myself on the tough days.

I knew this year is going to be one of major change in almost every aspect of my life (I can’t talk about the details yet for various reasons, but they aren’t contract-related, so don’t get your hopes up there quite yet), so I was originally going to choose “change” or “transform.” But then I got to thinking that once the change occurs, I would need a word to guide the rest of the year. That was when I hit upon the idea or being brave or courageous. Out of that came the 2015 word of the year: valiant.

Dictionary.com defines it as “boldly courageous; brave; stout-hearted.” These are all things I aim to be during my time of change this year and also on the ordinary days. The etymology of the word is also interesting:

1275-1325; Middle English valia (u) nt < Anglo-French; Middle French vaillant, present participle of valoir to be of worth < Latin valēre; see -ant

“To be of worth.” That’s a phrase we all need to keep in mind – the idea that no matter what happens in life, we are of worth. I also like “valiant” because it satisfies the medievalist in me with it’s evocation of knights in shining armor, but it goes beyond that – it somehow stokes in my inner warrior woman and brings my own personal inner Excalibur to life. I’m ready for an adventure and this word arms me for whatever may come.

Along the same lines, I’ve also picked a motto for 2015: “mission is glory or death.” These are lyrics in my favorite Wrongchilde song, Call Me Crash. I obviously don’t mean this motto literally, as I hope to live for a very long time, but somehow it has always resonated with me. I think it’s because of my all or nothing attitude. If I’m going to do something, I’m in it all the way. And I am certainly in this writing thing with my whole being, body, mind and soul, and I have no intention of ever quitting. I’m the girl who got the words “I am the dragon’s daughter” tattooed on her arm last year as a reminder of inner strength, so I think this is a fitting follow-up motto. (I’ve even thought about getting this one tattooed on me, but then I thought “nah, better not.” What’s the New Year without a Pitch Perfect reference, amiright?)

In case you’re interested, I’ve made a playlist of songs to go along with the word of the year. I’ll update it as I think of songs that fit into it.

Now I’m off to plan a trip that I hope will cross of few things off my bucket list. Happy 2015, all!

What’s your word for 2105?

PS – Be sure to come back here tomorrow for an excerpt from my new book as part of the No Kiss Blogfest.

2014: Year in Review

happy-new-year-2014-colorful-fire-wallpapersHi everyone! I emerged from the writing cave yesterday with a first draft of my next book weighing in at 107,000 words. It’ll get smaller as I edit it, but that’s two weeks away.

For now, I thought it would be a good time to look back on 2014.

Favorites
Moment:
Meeting Deb Harkness and my WISH sisters at Hedgebrook Second place: Meeting Elizabeth Gilbert
Book:
Tie between Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell and Mortal Heart by Robin LaFevers
Blog Post
(on this blog): There were a lot but these two rise to the top: General: Hell Yes, We Need Strong Female Characters and Historical: The First Black Friday, 1869 – Stocks, Not Shopping
Memory: Getting the words “write” and “create” tattooed on my right wrist
Music:
Book writing music: The score to Belle, composed by Rachel Portman. General music: Wrongchilde’s Goldblooded.
Quote:
“Historical fiction writers are just as qualified to write about the past as historians, if not more so.” Deb Harkness
Unexpected Occurrence:
Joining the Romance Writers of America. Never thought it would happen, but I’m so glad I did it. Oh, and connecting with Sarah Kennedy, Patricia Bracewell and Nancy Bilyeau via the Historical Novel Society was pretty cool, too.

The Year of “Bloom”
On January 1 of this year, I declared it the “Year of Blooming.” While I didn’t bloom publicly like I expected to, it was still an appropriate choice for the growth and confidence I gained this year. The goals I outlined were (and progress actually made) were:

  • Delivering book 3 and another non-related book I’m working on to my agent by the end of June. I did this. Book 3 is still in a first draft that needs work stage, but at least I’ve got my ideas down on paper. The non-related book was He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, which went to her on time. I also delivered 80% of a non-fiction book and its proposal, which I haven’t talked much about because…reasons. I’m still hoping you’ll see it someday. I just have no idea when.
  • Finally being able to announce when Guinevere book 1 will be available to the world. I really shouldn’t have made this a goal because it’s out of my hands. I still don’t have any news here, but please know I haven’t given up on making it happen.
  • Researching and beginning writing another Celtic era historical fiction novel. This was put on hold in favor of the 19th century American novel I just completed.
  • Attending the Sirens Conference with several of my writer friends in October (and possibly speaking there if I can come up with a topic and get it approved). I decided not to do this because of lack of funds. But I was able to speak at the Lit in Lou festival here in town, so I consider that a win.
  • Finding balance in my life between my day job, writing and all the other demands of life. *snort* I don’t think writing three books in one year along with working a full-time job is considered balance according to any definition.
  • Getting healthier so that I can have more energy to devote to the things I love. Not so much. See above.
  • Being more active on Facebook. (I’m already on Twitter all the time.) This kind of happened. I scheduled weekly posts all year on Facebook, although with as much as they monkey with who gets to see it and who doesn’t, I really wonder about the value.
  • Traveling for research (cross your fingers that I’ll have an announcement on this soon) for book 3 and my current non-related book. Travel for Book 3 didn’t happen, but instead I got to take a week-long creative writing class from Deborah Harkness at Hedgebrook, which honestly, was way more beneficial. I did get to travel to Chicago to research He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not and I will share some of that with you as soon as the book gets a contract – whenever that may be.
  • Continuing to find new ways to use this blog to reach out to Arthurian/Celtic fans, book lovers and writers. Honestly, I’m not sure what I had in mind for this one. I didn’t do a lot of Celtic topics, but there were a few that came out of the non-fic book.

Writing
If I have learned one thing this year, it’s that trying to write three books in a year while holding down a full-time job is INSANE. That’s not a feat I aim to repeat again. At least not until I can write full-time. But it is really mind blowing to think that one year ago today, those three books didn’t exist; all I had to my name was the three Guinevere novels. Now I have:

  1. He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (romantic women’s fiction)
  2. The non-fiction book
  3. A first draft of the 19th century strong political woman book (histfic)

Reading
Goodreads told me that I read 70 books this year, but that doesn’t include the five I’ve finished since they put out their tally, nor does it include the 30 something research books I used for the non-fic and the 19th century book. So my total is more like 100. How did I do it? A lot of audiobooks (sometimes two at a time), along with reading every spare moment. That’s about it.

Blogging
I know I was a little sporadic in 2014, especially toward the end of the year, but I’m coming to realize that when I’m focused on finishing a book, blogging is just going to have to take a back seat. I love you guys, but there is only so much of me to go around. BUT, I’m hoping the quality of content I give you weekly in between will make up for it. WordPress did this silly little year in review thing for my blog, so here it is in case you want the details: http://nicoleevelina.com/2014/annual-report/.

So I think that’s about it. Is there anything else you want to know about my 2014? I’ll be back tomorrow with another blog and several more this week, so stay turned!

Happy New Year. Let’s make 2015 the best yet! I love you all!