By Kathryn Miller Haines
Last month I was on a panel for female historical fiction writers at the fabulous Kerrytown book festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan. During the Q&A a gentleman in the audience, festooned with buttons for the upcoming election, rose with clipboard in hand and began the longest preamble since the U.S. Constitution. As we stared at him glassy eyed, a little worried that he was going to ask us if we were registered to vote, he finally came to his point: why, he wanted to know, did we write about historical crime when one of the worst crimes in history was currently being perpetuated on us by the U.S. Government?
We blinked in response, uncertain if we’d heard him correctly.
Gradually, though, we came back to ourselves and one by one we sidestepped a debate about U.S. policies and began a lively discussion about why we set our fiction in bygone times.
While it might seem on the surface that we’re trying to avoid confronting contemporary problems, oftentimes those of us who write historical fiction do so as a way of working out present events. It’s impossible to write about a past war without thinking about the one we’re currently going through, just like it’s hard to separate the discussion of one political administration without – often subconsciously -- comparing it with one we’ve experienced first hand. The same goes for crime. By exploring historical crime, we’re trying to work out why people kill, regardless of the era. Perhaps if we can identify what makes them tick ten, twenty, two-hundred years ago, we can figure out the reasons behind similar behaviors today.
There’s also something very reassuring about venturing into history. By looking at past events we can see that we have, as a people, survived countless similar struggles and that means the odds are good that we’ll make it through whatever it is we’re going through now.
For me there’s another reason I’m fascinated by the past. We tend to mythologize history and those who participated in it. We convince ourselves that the lives they lived were more interesting and important than ours. We believe that they were morally superior and that we were born into an era that doesn’t value life in quite the same way. I’m interested in stripping away that notion by showing people as they really were and demonstrating that crime, cowardice, corruption and all the other things we think of as modern ailments have been around as long as man (and woman) kind have.
So what about you -- why do you write or read historical fiction?
While everyone else is at Bouchercon, I'm off to Texas this weekend for a mini-book tour. If you're in Houston, San Antonio, or Austin, please stop by:
- Friday, October 10th at 6:00 I'll be signing and discussing The Winter of Her Discontent at Murder by the Book in Houston, TX.
- Saturday, October 11th, at 11:00 am at the Ruth Taylor Fine Arts Bldg, I'll be signing books as part of the Trinity University Alumni booksigning in San Antonio, TX.
- Saturday, October 11th, at 6:00PM I'll be at Remember the Alibi in San Antonio, Texas, reading, talking, and signing.
- Sunday, October 12th, at 4:30PM I'll be at BookWoman in Austin, Texas, reading, talking, and signing.