08 March 2023

#WritersLife: My Musings on Writing Historical Fiction


When I began to write, I focused on non-fiction, military lifestyle, and canine health to be more precise. Four years into my writing journey, I added my debut novel IN THE SHADOW OF HER MAJESTY,  a Tudor whodunit, to my expanding collection of scribbles. Set in 16th century England, it seeks to solve the circumstances of Lady Amy Dudley's untimely death. But what is it about historical fiction that makes it so charming? And what ensures its continuing popularity? I had, after all, up until just recently, written nothing but non-fiction.  I will gladly admit that I’ve always been a bit of a history buff and enjoy researching different eras and cultures. But my love of this genre goes well beyond that.

These days I write primarily biographical historical women’s fiction, with my current focus on 19th century Austria. I know, it's quite a time shift, but, so far, it's been an enjoyable one. When I first started on the path of writing historical fiction, I wanted to explore history, religion, people, and combine it with a touch of mystery. But these days, I am much more focused. And yes, I was partly influenced by market trends, but ultimately it was the subject matter I found most intriguing. It’s one thing to write historical fiction and speculate about the suspicious circumstances of Lady Amy Dudley's sudden demise within the confines of one book. However, it’s quite another to write about one of the most beautiful and fascinating women of her time, and turn it into a series that can hold readers' attention.

My debut novel is set in Tudor England. I was quite enamored with the drama and formality of it, and intrigued by this historic "unsolved murder case". I also liked the fact that although the political situation seemed so far removed from our own, it was still relevant. Some things just haven't changed all that much. One of my most recent works, The Country Girl Empress series, is set in 19th century Vienna, spanning the years 1837 to 1898. Yes, the series will come to an end just before World War I. Did I just give away the ending? Not really, since the destiny of such a prominent historical figure, such as Empress Elisabeth of Austria (affectionately referred to as "Sisi"), can be easily researched.

You may wonder how I went from writing about events during the reign of the last Tudor monarch to focusing on one of the most powerful empires on the European continent. Well, in my mind, it made perfect sense, since one is a stand-alone novel, the other a series of books about a woman whose life I've always found intriguing. And while Empress Elisabeth was, for the most part, not politically involved, she was one of the best equestriennes of her time, quite an athlete, and an active philanthropist. Her political ambitions were discouraged by her mother-in-law, Archduchess Sophie, early on in Sisi's marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph I. I suppose I've always been a bit of royalist. After all, royals are the original superstars whose lives have fascinated people from all walks of life for centuries. Needless to say, researching Sisi's life has been and still is exciting.

People often ask me the value and purpose of historical fiction, and if I've changed my mind about it over time. To me, historical fiction is not only entertainment but also an art form. Does it really need to have another purpose or value beyond that!? Why does anyone even bother reading books? What pleasure do people derive from a well-spun tale? I think most would argue that a good story takes us away from our daily hum-drum. We trust the author to provide us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a completely different world as soon as we turn the pages of a book to the first chapter.

Historical fiction can also educate readers. As writers of this genre, we can, if we’re fortunate enough, even make contributions to the historical record because novelists often ask different questions than historians tend to do. We are not bound by the limits of pure historical facts. We can even go so far as to ask: What if...? Historical fiction affords a writer the rare opportunity to right wrongs. We can create a story starring historical figures in a new light. We can restore them to life, although theirs was stolen or exact justice on their behalf, although they received tragic condemnation. We can even award posthumous accolades to the heroes who left us all too soon.

Why am I so passionate about historical fiction!? I feel strongly about preserving the biographical portion of historical novels as an art form. It makes me unhappy every time a historical fiction writer has to justify him/herself. Like so many of us, I’ve often been asked with all this research, why wouldn't I just write a history book or biography instead of a piece of fiction? Because I believe that some tales can only be told in a responsible fashion in the form of a novel. Not to mention that history books are typically dry reading material, which just isn't my style.

For a storyteller, this genre requires more research than most other forms of writing. This is my favourite stage of the writing process! I get to transport myself to that time and place in history and "experience" (albeit second-hand) the same things as the people of that time. Using modern-day phrases, or mentioning inventions that have not yet been discovered, could negate all of my efforts. However, despite the extra challenges, or possibly because of them, I feel it is also the most rewarding type of writing. It allows me to introduce the relatively unknown people and periods in history while indulging my inner history buff and writer in the process.

Piper is the award-winning author of The Country Girl Empress series. When she isn't busy typing on her computer, she can be found chasing after her furry children or holding on tightly to a good cup of coffee. Follow her on LinkedInFacebookMedium, and Goodreads.
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