Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Why I Live in the Past

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.


Annette said...

Interesting question, Kathy. And interesting response to the guy in the audience (there's one of those in every crowd).

I know I like seeing how people survived the war during the 40s when I read your book. I catch myself thinking, "things haven't gotten THAT bad yet." But you're right...it's gratifying to see how strong we can be in the face of adversity and still survive and go on to prosper. In a sense, we already know how it ends. Not the mystery, but life overall.

Have fun in Texas!

Anonymous said...

I think there's something in there about "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Somehow, finding out how people did something in a different time or do something in a different country helps me understand how they solved the same problems that I'm/ we're having now, and the pluses and minuses of those solutions.

Not sure that makes much sense, but it's the best I can explain it, at least this early in the morning. :-)

Joyce Tremel said...

I love anything historical, especially the Civil War or WWII.

Did anyone watch The War when it was on PBS? I was amazed at how much the public didn't know about the war, especially about the extent of casualties. And people at home made such huge sacrifices. Sadly, I don't think people today would be willing to do the same.

Jenna said...

What everyone else said.

I don't write historicals, although there's a historical mystery in each of my books; I just don't go back in time to it. The contemporary heroine figures it out. If I were to write something actually historical, it'd be WWII. I've always been fascinated by it. My parents were children in occupied Europe, and where I come from, 'The' War was alive and well thirty years later, when I was a kid. We tend to think of wartime as... well, wartime, with everything relating in some way to the war, but it's interesting to me that people still lived normal lives, for the most part. They graduated school, went to work, met and fell in love, got married, had babies, cheated on their spouses, died for reasons other than fighting the enemy...

Anyway, that's what I'd write about.

And I'm not going to Bouchercon, either. If anyone's in the Nashville area, come see me at the Southern Festival of Books this weekend.

Anonymous said...

I cringed for all of you when he started his question, but I love your description of his wind-up!

I'm toying with a historical fiction idea because I'm fascinated with the time period (Chicago in the late 19th century) and want an excuse to explore it more.

I read historical fiction for two reasons:

1) As you said, it's true that people are people and haven't changed all that much over time. It is fun to see historical people (even fictional ones) buck the Pleasantville stereotypes and be "real".

2) I can't ever experience those worlds in person, but having a writer take me back in time is a great alternative.

Anonymous said...

Great responses, guys! Keep 'em going.

It's great to hear that so many people are drawn to World War II (and to know that I'm not alone in my obsession).