Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Total Immersion Research

Why write historical fiction? This is a question that, for me, goes back a way. The 1980’s, when I first started writing, was a low point for the genre. I remember querying ever so many agents and getting replies which said “only a small market for historical fiction.” That was discouraging enough, but not so much that I stopped working on those novels, driven by the writing demons as I was.   

Like everyone else who will reply to this question, I started young reading historical fiction, following the books my mother took out of the library. She was a voracious reader of both history and science fiction, and I became one as well. I began early, and remember writing a short story about the Princes in the Tower back in 8th grade that got an “A.” (My story successfully creeped-out  the class, too, which was even better.)

I could say that my love of history happened because I’ve often lived in old houses—several with disturbances of the kind that are often labelled “ghost.” I could talk about the love of my important elders for history, their familiarity with the past, and the way the past was always present in discussions about politics, or about how trips were taken to view gravestones, battlefields, Indian mounds, and museums. 

I could dwell on the lit professor grandpa that I adored. His study fairly breathed old books, tweed, leather, pipe smoke and things past. A large oil painting of the Canterbury Pilgrims overlooked his desk, a beautiful obsidian spear point that had emerged during the spring plowing at the family farm in upstate NY sat beside his typewriter. All of these objects had stories, and he shared them with his children and grandchildren. At home, that wonderful quote of William Faulkner’s “The Past is never gone. It’s not even past,” was a reality. 

The truth is that I’ve never felt truly comfortable with the noisy, gasoline era into which I was born. Cars were something to get around in, but not by me, as a class of objects, beloved. Every time a tree falls in the creation of a road or a new development, I feel a terrible sense of loss.

I’ve often spoken of what I write as a kind of time travel, because for me that’s what it is—a way to be present in another place and time, to smell and taste that world, to deal with the hardships and the inevitable dirt and sweat, the blood and the loss, that is the genuine past.  The “romance” died quite early for me because I read and read and read, ever deeper into my chosen subjects. 

Living inside another time and place, and/or inside another culture, is truly an immersive experience; I love the scuba sense of diving in and swimming around inside the deep waters of history. Originally, I wrote from my own European-American perspective, and my books were set in 18th Century Europe or England or the colonial US.  The time shift alone caused me to change my perspective. I sometimes get nasty reviews because the 18th Century characters about whom I write do not behave up to the highest standards of the 21st Century. I always want to reply to these folks that I don't write these stories to make them comfortable. I write to show them as much as I can of what I've learned about what was--the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth--to the best of my ability.

Maybe I'd be richer if I sugar-coated, but taking the trip into the past and taking my readers along with me is always far more important than whatever is currently P.C. If you want to read about the 18th Century people, expect to meet  men who have "patriarchy" firmly entrenched in their heads and women who have no other recourse than to accept or attempt to circumvent whatever their menfolk, their churches and their society dish
out. Englishwomen, as every reader of Jane Austen ought to know, could not inherit property until quite recently.

In Genesee, and, later, to a far greater extent, in Fly Away Snow Goose, I had another experience. To write Snow Goose, I had to shed the Euro-based colonizer culture into which I was born so that I could inhabit (as far as I was able) a life-way with a totally different outlook. The Tlicho tribe in Fly Away Snow Goose were historically a nomadic, communal people, living in small groups that, for survival reasons, became even smaller in winter--who shared food with one another. They disapproved the kind of willful ignorance of their environment, the braggadocio and "me-first-ism" that is  rampant in the capital-driven European cultures which almost overwhelmed them. 

Instead of "conquerors of nature," the Tlicho strove to always to be in "right relationship" with the earth and her creatures, to eat and/or to make use of every piece of any animal they killed. They saw the spirits in the sky and in the earth and water all across the enormous terrain they traversed every year, as they followed the caribou migration. The land under their feet was holy. Everyone had to pull together, or the group would not survive the extreme winters where starvation was a very real threat. 

Telling this story, and the experience of immersion in the words and stories of my "subjects", has changed my outlook on the day-to-day world around me in a fundamental way.  This time, the research worked a sea-change. After studying the Tlicho, I've got on an entirely new pair of spectacles.

~~Juliet Waldron

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