You can read the official rules page, for those of you still trying to figure out this bloghop contest, here.
I’m the author of The Dogtrot Christmas, based on events in my family history. In addition to being a novelist, I’m also a well-known genealogist in some of the more obscure corners of the Internet. I self-published my massive family history, Pioneer Stock, in 2000. You can find copies in genealogical libraries around the country and in the big mama of them all, The Library of Congress. If you’re related to me, you ought to take a peek, otherwise, I wouldn’t bother.
But what is the draw of historical fiction, whether you’re related to me or not?
“They” say that if you want to know facts, you should read history books. But if you want to know social history as well as sensory reactions to events, you should read historical fiction. I’ve thought long and hard about that statement and when I came to finally putting all my genealogy down into one fat book, I determined to write a narrative history of my family, not just charts and diagrams.
A lover of history, I wanted to understand my family’s life within the context of their times. I gained no insight when I wrote the dates 1770-1815 for someone’s life until I realized that native of Maryland lived through both the Revolutionary War AND the War of 1812. Surely those events affected her in some way or another?
And, worse, did she own slaves?
That detailed look at what happened during my ancestor’s lifetime came to fruition when I wrote The Dogtrot Christmas. While I was delighted to learn the Rev. Thomas Hanks was a circuit riding preacher into Texas (who suspected such a thing in the family I grew up in?), the reality of his life didn’t make a lot of sense until I learned he was riding into Mexico long before the Republic of Texas, much less Texas as a part of the United States. His forays into the wilderness out of Tennessee, meant that when he baptized people, married them or preached over their funerals, he was breaking the law.
Rev. Thomas Hanks was a Primitive Baptist preacher, not a Catholic priest. In the 1820s, the only religion recognized in Texas was Roman Catholicism.
But he was a good man, so 10 years later, once the Republic of Texas established itself, he rode around to all the farms where he had presided over illegal nuptials, and remarried everyone. This provided a humorous story in one setting.
After Rev. Thomas Hanks explained his visit to the tired, harried, worn-out housewife, she looked at him with sunken eyes while the children screamed and whooped about her.
She sighed. “Well, I’ll do it, but only because it’s you that’s doing the asking, Pappy Hanks. If I had known then what I know now, I never would have married him.”
People come alive with stories like that one, and it gives us insight into their personalities–plus enables us to connect with them as people just like us.
Sure, the bustle may have come and gone and hoop skirts never sounded like a good idea to me, but if I can relate to a shared emotion or reaction, I see historical characters in their humanity. Whether they’re my ancestors or the heroine of my story, I can relate to hunger, fear, the excitement of a new surrounding, a handsome man to love me, a dog to protect me, a fire to warm me. It’s the human elements that resonate within that make historical fiction approachable and enjoyable–whether you know the people or not.
Of course the best moments as an historical novelist and a genealogist is when you find an authentic photo of your character. Try as I might, none of the Hanks genealogists had a photo of Rev. Thomas Hanks. But I have got a picture of his odd brother Elijah Hanks, as well as his son, my great-great-grandfather, James Steele Hanks. You also can compare them to a modern day Tom Hanks (an extremely distant cousin, he and my brother compared notes). See if you can imagine what the real Rev. Hanks looked like.
What do you like best about historical fiction? Can you name some of your favorite titles?
The bloghop will rest this weekend, and return on Monday with Margaret Brownley’s comments at Words of Encouragement.