Before I started writing my first novel, if you'd asked me whether I had any interest in writing historical fiction, I'd most likely have shrugged. I might, at various times, have laughed.
This is a recurring motif in my life. I once loudly mocked the idea of running for exercise and for pleasure. I couldn't imagine doing something so painful with no destination in mind for its own sake. Now I run at least 10 miles a week. I am very careful about which suggestions I laugh at these days.
Regarding historical fiction, I used to associate it with historical re-enactors and a certain sentimentality about the past. I imagined the sort of person who wished she was born in Jane Austen's era, for the manners and the romance, never minding that Austen herself was engaged in a lifelong project of subtle, insightful and often scathing social critique. Or I imagined a collector of military uniforms from past wars. That was my mistake--when imagining a person, one is well advised to be sure they exist.
No doubt my time spent in academia is partially to blame for my snobbery. I remember an afternoon in a professor's living room (the kind that definitely did not have a TV), gathered with other graduate students, reading the opening lines of a journal article on the history of, well, I don't remember the topic anymore--it might have been Christ's penis or perhaps it was his wound (both highly contested in the world of medieval art historians). The author took a detour to imagine himself in the shoes of a fourteenth century artist, painstakingly sourcing the ingredients for his inks. "Reads a bit too much like historical fiction," the professor said. We all laughed, but for the wrong reasons.
Bad writing is bad writing, whether it appears in a novel or a journal article. A list of ingredients, shorn of context, not supported by either narrative momentum, historical argument, or the storyteller's craft for transforming detail into character and story, is bound to bore the reader, regardless of where it appears.
I can understand the defensiveness of historians toward historical fiction writers, however. Historical work is slow. My graduate work was in the medieval period. Medievalists are fighting a losing battle, dealing with diminishing sources and a widening gap of time between the moment they study and the now. In the popular mind, the medieval world is already associated with the stuff of fantasy. Each generation interposes its own attitudes toward the past, creating yet more noise to signal for the historian whose work is to try to access the medieval mind through the traces medieval people left behind. Art historians debate whether Christ's penis in late medieval art is a sign of an ideological shift toward an emphasis on his humanity, including as a sexual being, or a continuation of mystical trends to see Christ as a nurturing mother providing mystical nourishment. They take pot shots at each other in their articles. They will never know the answer, not definitively.
Meanwhile, most people, given the choice between a novel and a journal article, will choose the novel. More people, given the choice between a novel and a Twitter thread, will chooose the Twitter thread. The past is summoned up and mangled in everyday discourse at a pace the historian can't possibly keep up with. People like a good story, and a story that confirms existing ideas the reader has about the past and about themselves is an easier sell than one that asks them to imagine the past as another place and past people as having different categories for viewing the world.
Take the debate over critical race theory. Why has this particular academic theory become such a hotly contested subject in the U.S.? Because it contradicts deeply held ideas about history in which a sizeable minority have invested their identity. The obvious belief being challenged here is that of white enlightenment. Critical race theory shifts who the protagonist of U.S. history is, which naturally upsets those who are used to seeing themselves in that role. The less obvious belief, but just as pernicious, is that our understanding of history must remain static; that older interpretations of events are necessarily truer and not themselves burdened by the degraded impulses of our present age to view the past through the lens of our own cultural conflicts and struggles.
The student of history knows that for as long as there has been history, there has been propaganda. There have always been stories about history, which play fast and loose with the facts. Even historians are not immune to them. William of Malmesbury says that tenth century scholar John Scotus Eriugena was murdered by his own students, stabbed to death with their styli. This is a common cause of death for teachers and philosophers in the Middle Ages, and one that has not a little ring of the metaphorical to it. But you won't find an Eriugena scholar who doesn't love telling the story, perhaps with a little nervous laugh, as they sense their own students sharpening their metaphorical styli.
Stories are powerful, and they are ubiquitous. The stories we tell about history are often stories we tell about ourselves. Bad actors use stories to convince us that something has been lost between the past and now, something has been taken from us that we need to get back. They use stories to convince us of the march of progress, or of the need to reverse civilization's decline. They use to stories invent pretexts for war, for persecution, and for the consilidation of power.
This, I think, is why historians take issue with writers of historical fiction. It's not that historical fiction is particularly badly written (many journal articles are worse); rather, historical fiction tells stories about the past, but without the same obligations to truth-seeking that the historian has. While the debate about Christ's penis rages in journals without ever being able to reach a satisfactory conclusion, the historical novelist just goes right on writing. They invent a person, who may or may not exist; they give them thoughts and feelings, which may or may not be grounded in the time; then they go on and invent another. The historical novelist's first obligation is to entertain; historical truth is less important than historical believability.
Unlike the historain, the historical novelist is free to step beyond the limits of the historical record. If they're conscientious, they start from a similar place to the historian--from what is solid, supportable, sourceable. But once they step off that ledge, they are free to do whatever they want. They can create counter-factuals; they can dabble in the fantastical; they can create characters that are a composite of historical figures; or they can infuse them with modern values. They are limited only by their empathy and imagination.
Empathy and imagination both have an important role to play in the study of history, but there's also good reason to be wary of them. One history professor of mine was so seduced by the voices of the past that she became convinced that the only way to truly understand Christian medieval thinkers was to be a Christian yourself. I'm generally skeptical of the idea of history as a march of endless progress (I think there are countless counter-examples to disprove this notion), but at what point does the historian lose the faculty of being a critical analyst of the past and become a puppet of past people's own self-interested narratives? The historical novelist has no such worry.
Still, I think there is common ground to be found between historians and historical novelists. When you get to the foundation of both types of work, you find a common belief: that the past is exciting, and it matters.
Though I didn't remain in academia, I remain committed to the idea that it's a worthwhile pursuit to try to understand past people, past events, past culture as a means of seeing a more complete picture of humanity. History does not repeat itself--each moment is too individual and too overdetermined to be a perfect recreation of another, earlier moment--but our understanding of the past can shape our actions on the individual and collective scale. The kinds of stories we tell about the past are therefore important.
I haven't entirely abandoned my historian's training. I rely on their work and their arguments when shaping my stories. It's precisely because stories about the past have so much power, that I think historical novel-writing is vital work. At its best, the relationship between historian and historical novelist is one of co-conspirators, ensuring that the questions of how past people thought and acted and felt remain compelling, relevant, and always open to fresh understanding and insight, while standing firm against the kind of cynical fabulists who manufacture a version of the past that suits their needs and their needs only.
Yes, my first hope when people read my books is that they're entertained. But my second is that they feel transported, if only briefly, out of themselves and into the place and perspective of another. I hope that they see the past as its own place, and past people as having a richness and complexity to their thoughts and behaviors that matches their own. And then I hope that, when they return, they see their own world with fresh eyes and fresh curiosity.
I think that's a goal not even the past, more snobbish version of myself would have laughed at.