History nerds, raise your hands! Mine is firmly up in the air and flailing around because yes, I’m kind of obsessed with history, as are many of the writers here in the Tearoom. We write historical fiction in various times and genres, but we all share a love of research. Check any of our Twitter feeds or “recently read” on Goodreads and chances are you will find some obscure books or facts about whatever time period we’re writing about at the moment. And you’ll also find enthusiastic tweets declaring, “OH MY GOD, can you believe this awesome fact I just discovered?” HISTORY. NERDS.
I’m currently doing too much research, as the number of books I’ve checked out of the library will attest. But this is mainly because I’ve been watching so many shows set in historical times and these shows have spurred my own creative drive.
Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up:
I’ve always been obsessed with books and movies and shows set in times past. Obsessed probably to an unhealthy degree, I’ll admit. But that is for a few simple reasons:
- I love history. I minored in it in college, but only because I couldn’t afford another semester to get the major! Since I was a little girl, I have loved historical fiction, particularly the novels of Ann Rinaldi (who I would recommend even for adults!) My family used to take summer trips to historical places in the United States, so I really got to touch history. Those experiences of reading and seeing have stayed with me.
- These books, movies, and shows spark my imagination, not only about the time period in which they are set, but about whatever time I’m writing about at the moment (lately, it’s been the Naopoleonic Wars).
- Many of these shows feature some damn fine storytelling for ANY era.
Some of my recent favorites include: Spartacus, DaVinci’s Demons, The Borgias, Deadwood, The Tudors, Copper, Ripper Street, Call the Midwife, Bomb Girls, Downton Abbey (well, earlier seasons, but we can discuss this), and a hundred others that don’t occur to me right now.
But as I search the fan message boards and watch the show creators (who I will admit to Twitter and Facebook stalking) respond to fan messages, I see them responding to the same complaint over and over:
“That’s not how it really was!”
Now, after rolling my eyes a little bit at this, I have to respond in defense of the writers and creators of these shows. As a writer of historical fiction myself, I have to explain some things to those people asking this question…
How can we know how it “really” was? History comes down to us through stories. History IS stories. So to revise history is simply to tell a different story. And much of the time, these shows are using evidence that is in the historical record, but using it in ways that are not “canon.” (And don’t get me started on the power dynamics of what becomes canon and what doesn’t. I have pages and pages of grad school papers about this! And I think it’s pretty clear from this post how I feel about sticking to “what we know”.)
I think these types of tv shows and novels help us see how malleable stories (and, therefore, history) can really be. They show the gaps in what we know and how much of “history” is really us interpreting through our own particular lenses. Re-interpreting is what allows us to be endlessly fascinated by speculation on historical figures. Are we going to put a ban on people writing books about Abraham Lincoln or Napoleon because we already know how it “really” was? I think re-telling these stories sparks the imagination and allows people to seek out versions of history for themselves, to use history as a muse for thinking.
Especially as a writer, I struggle sometimes with fitting my narrative into what “really” happened, instead of thinking about what could have happened in those gaps in the historical record.
For me, shows that use history as a springboard for telling stories of people – both real and invented – inspire my own imagination. (And make me sometimes jealous of the writers who get to tell those stories!)
So what do you think? Are you a stickler for historical stories as they are in the canon? Or are you willing to let history bend a little and be a muse for a good story? And what are your favorite books, movies, or tv shows that incorporate historical events?