I am pleased to share this blog post from writer Joan Fernandez. You can learn more about her and follow her blog here.
I write historical fiction because I am deeply passionate about the present.
I am scared, hopeful, heartbroken and grateful—usually about fourteen zillion times a day—living this grand life. This chaotic, overwhelming, heart-on-my-sleeve precious life.
Do you ever feel like some days it’s an enormous accomplishment to simply get out of bed?
It can be a challenge to show up. To moment by moment by moment hold space for hope. For me, true stories about real events and real people act as lifebuoys.
It’s as though historical accounts assure us: Humanity has been here before. People got through it.
You can too.
Trains Freaked People Out
Let me give you an example with a story about opposition in the 1800’s to train travel. This may sound a little quaint but hear me out.
Prior to steam locomotives, the fastest speed an individual could go when traveling long distance was 4–6 mph by horse or canal boat (the automobile didn’t appear until the end of the century). Compared to 6 mph, a 30-mph speeding train was mind-blowing. Shocking even.
Doctors warned that high speeds would cause suffocation or bodily organs to shift. Newspapers reported on “railway madness,” in which high speeds caused men to attack passengers, act erratic and tear off their clothes (!). Farmers protested that charging steam locomotives terrified cows, stopping their milk production. Religious leaders thundered that any invention made by man that moved faster than God’s creatures was the work of the devil.
Confusion, fear, misinformation ruled. Never mind that train travel broke through geographic restrictions on time and space, opening new markets and enabling new connections.
In the confusing face of change, only a few saw the opportunities. Anxiety overshadowed the technological advancement. The new paradigm tore away at how people thought the world worked, and where they fit in. Unmoored, people succumbed to fear and the future looked dire.
Fast forward a few centuries to today’s vantage point and we know what happened: Railway expansion had good and bad consequences. Greater connection across the country = good. Exploitation of immigrants to build the railroads = bad. Looking back through history’s rearview mirror, the fuss over railways feels a little naive. But to those in the middle of it, the uncertainty was unnerving.
Considering the uncertainties we grapple with today—the consequences of the internet, social media, AI, climate, wars in the Ukraine and now Israel and Gaza—it gives me breathing room to know we’ve been through existential crises before.
Knowing this doesn’t point to answers necessarily, but it can lift my head above the fray. Give me perspective and reason to hope. It spurs me to ask: What am I resisting and what is the resistance telling me? When was the last time I changed my mind? What am I holding onto that I’ve outgrown?
For as Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” There are lessons from the past—from our own lives and in the world—ripe for the picking.
I want to pay those historical lessons forward in my own writing.
But that’s not all…
The Bonus of Biographical Historical Fiction Genre
Among all the fiction genre categories out there— romance, suspense, fantasy, thriller, science fiction, and more—I chose biographical historical fiction to write.
Biographical histfic is a historical story about a real person brought to life through imagined dialogue and other story components. Like, in my book, I fictionalize a bad guy to personify the male-dominated art elite who oppose my main character, Jo van Gogh. Her goal is to prove that the hundreds of worthless paintings she inherited are world-class in order to ensure her young son will have an inheritance. A lotta guys don’t want to listen to her.
Learn about the past.
When I chose that story to write, first of all, I had no idea of the amount of research involved. Writing about a real person carries the expectation and accountability to do your best at getting the facts straight. Because if you’re like me, you read historical fiction to learn something. Lots of people Google as they read to learn a little more.
Be inspired by real people.
Secondly, biographical histfic can carry a double impact because the stories are about a real person—oftentimes heroic and courageous, acting against all odds and as an underdog—persisting. My problems tend to pale when I know the obstacles she faced.
Acknowledge women’s untold stories.
And last, I write in the biographical histfic genre because I believe it’s important to acknowledge untold stories, especially about women and marginalized people who have been overlooked in history.
There is so much more beyond the official historical record. So often, it simply regurgitates the status quo for that time, leaving out and even erasing voices outside those in power. Among these are stories of brave women’s actions.
In the words of historian Pamela Toler: “Here’s the deal: if you leave women warriors—or scientists, or mathematicians, or linguists, or authors—out of the historical records, it is easy to say that, with a few exceptions, women never fought, or made discoveries, or made a difference. If we don’t show up in the history books, it’s easy to forget that women calculated rocket trajectories for NASA. Or were instrumental in discovering DNA. Or trained to be astronauts alongside the men of Mercury 7. Or painted in the Renaissance. Looking at historical women warriors is important not just because we are involved in continuing debates about the role of women in the modern military, but because they are part of what journalist Rachel Swaby describes as ‘a hidden history of the world.’”
I want to take a turn at bringing these courageous women’s deeds to light. That’s why I write biographical historical fiction.
So, it’s not so much that I’m a history buff for the sake of learning alone, but to gather hope for the present. See that we’ve been here before and listen for the ideas to help move forward as a society. The past is in the present. The past can inspire the present. And the past needs healing to free us of its chains in the present.
Does the past impact your present? I’m interested in what you think.
P.S. For more on the reactions to railway expansion:
Photo by Dudlajzov—Kate Sheppard Memorial in Christchurch, New Zealand.