Why the Past is Never Past
One fun thing about being an author is that you can live in any time you want—then, now, or the future. As for me, I like to wander around in years gone by because I can dress up the present in period costume, say whatever I want, and pretend it’s all for show.
Want to give it a try? And who wouldn’t? Read on.
First thing, you probably have a favorite historical period or two. Maybe you like those old Western movies. Or Civil War dramas. How about the French Revolution with all tall hairdos and guillotines? Pick one and pretend you’re going to set your story there. Now the part that scares many people. You need to start your research, correct? Nein. Non. Nyet.
You start where every story starts. With your characters. I know many authors like to dive into plot and outlines and genealogy and whatnot. Fine, but you have to get to your people before long, they matter most of all. It’s they who will guide you through the story, and the research you need will follow naturally.
Take this example: Suppose you know all there is to know about Gettysburg. How many days and dates. How many assaults. How many deaths. How much rain. Good for you, but who gives a grain on the beach? You’re writing a novel, not a textbook. No one will care a drop about any of your facts without your people.
What is General Lee feeling, thinking? Or maybe you think, as I do, that there’s already been such an avalanche of military history and biography around that clash, that there’s nothing much left to say. So you begin to wonder about the soldiers’ folks back home.
George Pickett’s charge was a big deal in that battle. Reams have been written, miles of film shot. But what about his family back in Virginia? It doesn’t take much Googling to connect with George Pickett’s third wife, LaSalle Corbell Pickett, who refurbished his disgraced reputation after his death. Whoa, now! Maybe Pickett’s Wife would make a hell of a book, and she’s your protagonist.
So you start with her, dive in. Let her lead you wherever she chooses. I’ll wager there’s little enough known, so that you have plenty of creative room, which means more fun. And as for modern relevance? I can think of a tarnished warrior or two. Does the name Petraeus ring a bell? How about McChrystal? Not that I’m writing about either of them. Am I? Wink wink.
See what I mean about dressing up the present in historical costume?
In my own case, my late co-author of The Yellow Rose, Bob Stewart, invited me to join him in composing a tale of the Texas Revolution of 1836. All I knew of that event was the Mitch Miller song, “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” from the mid-fifties and that Sam Houston was somehow involved. Bob, a native of San Antonio, introduced me to a couple of key facts: 1) There was a real historical Yellow Rose—a mulatto (high yellow) woman named Emily—who was by legend a key factor in the revolution; and, 2) The Texans, led by Houston, defeated Santa Anna to establish the Republic of Texas well before Texas joined the union. So, now we had two key characters, a legendary romance (Probably mythical, but who cares? This is, again, a novel, not a textbook.), and a battle that founded a country. Enough material for ten novels, though Bob and I planned only five.
As to the modern connection? What does 1836 have to say about today? Illegal immigrants (Anglo-Mexico this time). Racial conflict. Illicit romance by the brass. What more do you need to get your creative juices flowing and to connect the 19th Century with the 21st?
Of course there was research to do. From what kind of skirts to put on Emily to what kinds of rifles to put in the hands of the revolutionaries and their enemies. But it was fun because it all started with a love story, the core of which is in the hearts of Sam and Emily and the love they shared amid the cannon fire.
So, in the life of the historical novelist, the past is never past. It’s not even prologue. It’s always the present and the past and the future. Only the costumes change to protect. . . well, nobody’s really safe. You could be next.