27 July 2013

There is Nothing New Under the Sun: How Historical Fiction Illuminates the Present by J.L. Spohr

I'm proud to introduce a guest post today from writer J.L. Spohr, author of Heirs & Spares.  Today she'll be sharing her thoughts on How Historical Fiction Illuminates the Present; I hope you enjoy her insights!

I’d always thought historical fiction would be boring – like someone took the literary version of a bedazzler to history textbooks. And who cares about the past anyway? A bunch of crusty white men in various forms of tights. Yawn. But then I read Gore Vidal’s Lincoln.  All of a sudden I started to consume anything to do with the Civil War (thank you Ken Burns!) and minored in history in college. To this day, my favorite reads are historicals (and yes, I’m unabashedly lumping classics like Dickens, Austen, and Tolstoy in here too).  So it’s no surprise that when I started to write my own novel, Heirs & Spares, it was set in 1569. 

But loving historical fiction’s not just an escapist longing to the days where men were gallant, women wore fabulous clothes, and everyone had a horse. Digging deep into the past shines a light on our present. The old adage “history repeats itself” is an old adage because it happens. Sometimes we see this in families when the toddler has the same wonky grin as grandpa, and less pleasantly when cruelty is passed through generations. We see it globally, not only in repetitive wars (let’s not be a downer), but also in the sad fashion mistakes of the 80’s rearing their very ugly heads. Debbie Gibson hat anyone?  People, acid washed denim was horrid then. It is still horrid now. Please…just, please. But I digress. 

Even if history doesn’t repeat precisely as the past, we can still use it as a lens to better understand current events. Take for example, the new royal baby Prince George of Cambridge. Some may mock all the fervor swirling about, but many a woman used to lose her standing — if not her head — without the requisite boy and heir. When it boils down to brass tacks, Anne Boleyn was killed because she couldn’t give Henry a son. Now, nobody would’ve lopped off Kate Middleton’s head if the prince was a princess (since they passed the new royal succession law – phew!), but part of why we are glued to our televisions is because today’s royals carry the mantel of the past. A past that teams with scandal and sex and betrayal and violence and world-shaking events. And who wouldn’t want to read about that? 

People ask me if I do a ton of research. Actually, probably three tons, but I have a dirty little secret: the one constant that never changes, no matter what period one writes about, is human nature. While the context and content may, the motivations of love, greed, envy, hope, lust, power, safety, and wanting a really tricked-out ride (be it horse or car) that drive my characters in fictional Troixden—these motivations have carried forth the human race for as long as we’ve been stumbling around. And it is those motivations, in the hands of the powerful, that change the course of our present and our future. 

So will this Prince George, like monarchs of England before him, change the face of history? Odds are probably not, but one never knows. Even one hundred years ago, people didn’t think America would be the super power that it is. Fifty years ago, a person of color would never have been allowed to run for, let alone win, the White House. Ten years ago, who would’ve thought we’d all be cramming ourselves like sausages into Spanx? And who would have thought we’d see chartreuse in the Gap again, oh, excuse me “neon kiwi?” I’m still waiting for Esprit to make tote bags again, but while I wait, I’ll be plunging back a few hundred years to help me enjoy the next 100.  

Author J.L. Spohr
J. L. Spohr is the author of Heirs & Spares and several short stories. 

An incurable Anglophile, she turned her attention to historical fiction and fictional monarchies after studying the Reformation in graduate school. 

She is an ordained minister and lives with her brood in Seattle. 

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