Friday, 31 January 2014

The Imagination of History by Anne Stormont

My stories, your stories, our stories – history’s got them all covered.

History is an irresistible source of inspiration for fiction writers and a compelling theme for readers.

The root of the word ‘history’ is Greek, and it means ‘knowledge obtained by inquiry’. The knowledge gained by inquiry is essential when seeking to establish what happened in the past.  Archaeologists and historians look for evidence and attempt to make best guesses as to what that evidence might mean about life in the past.

But the study of history is, like many areas of human activity, open to interpretation.  History is always going to be filtered through human intellect, emotion and bias.  While it’s scientifically possible to ascertain dates, locations and even an order of events, it’s open to conjecture as to the motivation, intention and effects of those events.

But however unreliable, and however skewed it may be, most of us are interested in history. We want to know where and who we come from. We want to know our local and national lore. We want to hear about the positive deeds done by our ancestors, and of injustices committed against them. Having done so, we draw our own conclusions.

In the December 2013 issue of Words with Jam, the theme was memory. And I wrote there about the unreliability of memory, but what was also clear was that this unreliability doesn’t affect the popularity of memoirs, diaries and journals, both amongst writers and readers. Subjectivity seems to be forgivable, even desirable.

And it’s this subjective side of history that makes it an ideal aspect of human life for writers to draw on. History’s got it all covered, the best and worst of human nature, the best and worst of times. All storytelling is historical in nature. It’s unavoidable. History fires the imagination. It opens the door to reflection, to re-imagination  and to speculation.

History’s stories began to be told in the ancient myths and legends and in the oral-storytelling tradition. They’d tell about ancestors, cultures and beliefs long gone. They’d tell of wars and sieges. They’d embroider and re-interpret.  They contained big themes and mostly there’d be grains of truth contained in them in what they said about human nature.

History’s themes are humanity’s themes. There’s war and conquest, persecution, upheaval, power and powerlessness, forced migration, romance, crime and adventure. Some of the themes also lend themselves to children’s fiction and, of course, to science fiction and fantasy. The themes are eternal. Fiction rooted in history can be a way for both writers and readers to make sense of the human condition.

I’m reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (Sceptre 2012) at the moment. Now there’s a historical novel that really plays with the genre. Paradoxically, if anything, it secures its place as a historical novel  while also showing the possibility of  genre-plus and genre-busting.

Its originality, playfulness, intrigue and depth are wonderful. The story-telling is marvellous.  It’s entertaining and it’s profound. There’s a ‘meaning of life’ feel to it. The author sets some of the story in the future, but that in no way disqualifies the book as historical in the widest sense.  It does this by taking the reader out of their own place in time and lets them view more of the big, timeline picture. Mitchell gives us a glimpse of a possible future history, as well as telling of a past. As a child I adored books that were set in the past. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott), What Katy Did (Susan Coolidge) and Heidi (Johanna Spyri) all presented fascinating lives and sound role models to this little girl of the 1960s. Later I was captivated by Treasure Island and Kidnapped (Robert Louis Stevenson). Then, as a young woman I was into the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer and the historical adventures contained in books such as The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart.

Nowadays I enjoy the romantic, historical fiction of our dear editor, Jane, and the historical crime fiction of Sara Sheridan (1950s Brighton Belle series) and Shirley Mackay (medieval tales set in and around the University of St Andrews).

We are all part of history – all part of a continuous and continuing timeline. There are my-stories, his-stories, her-stories, your-stories, our-stories and their stories to be told and read. There are stories of the past, of now and of the future.

For writers, history is a mine, a well and an eternal source.

Anne Stormont is a writer and teacher. She can be a subversive old bat but maintains a kind heart. As well as writing for this fine organ, she writes fiction for adults – mainly of the female-of-a-certain-age persuasion – and for children. She blogs at  – where you can find out lots more about her.  

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