Put several historical fiction writers together in the same room and ask them the question: “Does history matter?” The answers, in story form of course, touched on politics and humanity, and spanned the centuries. And as it turns out, many writers would say that the past is a glimpse into the future.
That discussion took place in July as part of Thrillerfest, a gathering of authors and fans of the thriller genre in New York. Hosted by best-selling author Steve Berry, the roundtable included David Morrell, Ann Parker, Terrence McCauley, Francine Mathews, Kay Kendall, Anne Cleeland, and Jerry Amernic. Though diverse, the answers to the questions that Berry asked us had a similar theme that history matters more than ever.
Fiction writers do their share of research to get the details just right. For my Civil War novel Sharpshooter, I donned a heavy wool Confederate uniform and participated in several re-enactments. The largest battle re-enactment was at Gettysburg, where in the sweltering heat we “fought” against blue-coated Yankees. Sweat stung my eyes as I ripped open black powder cartridges with my teeth and poured the gunpowder down the barrel of my reproduction Enfield musket, then took aim again and again. It was about as close to time travel as you can get, and frankly, a little too realistic. Staring into a row of cannons pointed at our lines evoked some visceral emotions along the lines of oh crap. Caught up in firing at the Yankees, and watching them fire back, with the salty taste of black powder in my mouth, I had to remind myself that the battle wasn’t real. The experience definitely added a whole new dimension to my writing.
Morrell, the creator of the iconic character Rambo, discussed how he immersed himself in the Victorian era for years as he researched a new series set in 1850s London. The first book, Murder as a Fine Art, is both thrilling and fascinating as Morrell describes everything from the opium habits of everyday Londoners to the sooty fog that descended upon the city due to the smoke from thousands of coal fires.
Amernic’s novel, The Last Witness, focuses on the Holocaust and how in the not-so-distant future the history of this event is all but forgotten. Another writer, Mathews, imagined the young JFK as a spy on the eve of World War II in her novel, Jack 1939.
For most writers, research has so much appeal because we are natural scholars who love studying historical events and learning about the people who witnessed them. The trick is to use that research to add realism to the story but not overwhelm it—we’ll leave the more esoteric details to the nonfiction writers. For historical fiction writers, it’s all about character and plot—what did the events of the past mean for the people of that time on an emotive level? What inspired them to hate, love, and fear? Again, it’s about using fiction as a time machine to get into the heads and hearts of characters from fifty years ago, or a thousand.
Beyond the craft aspects of writing historical fiction, there was a unanimous concern among authors that history isn’t being taught in school and is no longer part of the public discourse necessary to inform decisions about current events. All the writers seemed to have some anecdotal evidence of that.
For me, that evidence came while teaching a composition class at a community college. I picked out what I thought was a good “compare and contrast” essay to use as a model for student work. “Grant and Lee: A Study in Contrasts” by Bruce Catton was one of the essays in our textbook, and I thought it was a topic and an example that many students could easily grasp.
Sigh. Teaching that essay was my Pickett’s Charge because it was a dismal failure. Instead of the finer points of “compare and contrast” I found myself explaining that there was this thing called the Civil War, when the South fought the North, and the two key generals were Grant and Lee, and … oh, never mind.
So what can a fiction author do about that? As writers of historical thrillers, some on the roundtable mentioned our role as entertainers who were slyly mixing in some history lessons, like a mom who sneaks spinach into the brownies. Those vitamins (and that knowledge) might just be useful later, to be called upon at just the moment that our bodies (or or minds) need them.
I was reminded of this later at Thrillerfest, when Morrell interviewed Nelson DeMille about his new book, Radiant Angel … a novel about the new Cold War. The two veteran “thrillermasters” were of an age to remember air raid drills and shared darkly humorous childhood memories that involved crawling under their desks at school to prepare for nuclear war. Of course, thrillers writers everywhere watched their reliable plot lines evaporate along with the Soviet Union, but as DeMille pointed out, the neo Cold War thriller is alive and well again.
For thriller writers, history is a rich vein to be mined for characters and stories, but those frightening plots are not necessarily safely in the past. If you want to imagine what the future will bring, just ask a writer of historical thrillers.