I couldn’t count the times I’ve been asked why I write historical fiction.
From the time I learned to read, I chose two kinds of books over all others: stories and biographies. I loved reading stories, listening to stories, and making up my own stories. In fact, I began writing stories not long after I learned to string words together. Then I progressed to books, complete with construction paper bindings. Soon I was searching the library for books about real people: biographies and autobiographies, not yet realizing that there was a wonderful genre called historical fiction that actually included stories about real people and “make-believe” people set in the past, and I was hooked for life!
Even in Sunday School, it was always the story that held my attention (and I confess that I still perk up a little during worship service when the pastor says, Let me tell you a story) Looking back, I can now recognize that many of the seeds that were planted in those early years eventually took root and formed my adult reading habits. Long before I ever became a writer, my reading preferences ran heavily to novels with historical settings, in which some of the primary characters struggled to live out lives of Christian faith. My hunger for books in which faith and hope dominated the “pages of the past” seemed impossible to satisfy.
During all those years of reading and my first awkward attempts to craft my own stories, I discovered that I was deeply moved by fiction. When a novel’s people suffered, I suffered. When they grieved, I grieved. And when they overcame their struggles and triumphed over the obstacles that challenged their faith–I shared their victories and rejoiced with them. In other words, I learned what a powerful instrument the novel could be to show God at work in the world and among His people.
I need to mention here that I am deeply indebted to two special people who influenced me in ways I couldn’t have understood at the time, but who I now realize played a significant role in guiding me toward a love of literature and writing.
I went through a period of illness as a child, during which I was shut indoors for almost two years. During that time, I was blessed with a school librarian (who was also an elementary teacher) who took me on as her own personal “mission”. This wonderful lady provided me with books from the library each week–but not just any books. She made it a point to bring to my home the best books available for children, including some meant for older readers.
Because of her, I grew to be a hungry reader, cutting my teeth on really good books. It’s not likely she ever considered that she might be planting seeds or bestowing a lifelong gift. But she did exactly that.
I met the other “book lady” in my life during my early teens. A stern, elderly spinster lady crippled by arthritis, she needed help on a weekly basis getting her groceries in and doing other light tasks. She had a fabulous library, from which I was eventually invited to choose one book at a time. The only conditions were that I had to promise to handle each book with great care, and to read it from beginning to end, then give her my opinion of the story and its “literary value”–in other words, the quality of the writing. The majority of these books were historical fiction or biographies, my favorite genres.
Later, she gave me my first typewriter, which, because of her arthritis, she was no longer able to use. After that came a small desk–my first very own desk. She’s long gone, of course, but I tried to capture her spirit in one of my books. For those who have read my novel, Cloth of Heaven, she was very much like Jane, Terese’s employer in the Claddagh.
These two women taught me to approach books as a caretaker of something precious, and to approach them with high expectations. They also helped me to see that reading is in its own way a creative experience, an experience that involves the reader’s participation, rather than a sideline observance. As much as anything else, I believe they taught me that books never really belong to one person but were meant to be shared.
Do I believe that historical fiction is relevant to today’s readers? Of course, I do! My characters have dealt with many of the same problems and struggles that exist in the lives of today’s readers. Marital struggles, Abortion. Infidelity. Spousal and child abuse. Rejection. Abandonment. Homelessness. Exile and immigration. Through every story, I’ve attempted to show God’s power to change and save and renew.
So when some would question the relevance of historical fiction for contemporary readers, I point to only a few of the issues that I and other historical fiction writers are incorporating into our novels as examples of how we’re endeavoring to tell His story about His people on the stage of His universe: a story that’s timeless and always relevant.
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