Almost everything I know about History I learnt from fiction.

showing the cover of Phillipa Gregory's The White Queen

I am sad to say that I was too intimidated to take history at school; all the cool girls took history. No, that’s not right…the preppy girls took Modern and Ancient History, the ‘cool’ girls, the ones who smoked behind the sports shed and went out with older boys, had left in year 10 to become hairdressers and receptionists.

That was a bit bitchy. Sorry.

In my teens I read alternate histories like Fatherland by Robert Harris. I went through phases of reading about the Mafia or doing a deep dive into fiction set in various countries. World War Two and Holocaust-based historical fiction has always fascinated me. I think I am trying to understand how such awful things can happen. I read non-fiction too, but it’s historical fiction that has somehow cemented the dates and events of history in my psyche.

I found out a few years ago, that my year 12 English teacher Marilyn (MK) Hume has written two trilogies based on Arthurian ‘legends’ among other things. I’m sure there are critics who say that doesn’t count as history but she wrote the stories without magical elements, portraying Merlin as an alchemist, herbalist, and Curia regis (adviser to the King) rather than a sorcerer. Hume’s writing is magnificent and goes into details about ancient Celtic tribes, and among other things, their rituals for burial that will come in handy for my work-in-progress The Circle. The ancient Celts believed that you had to sever the head to release the spirit of the deceased. While the Romans left all sorts of stuff behind, the Celts are still being ‘discovered’. I think the Romans did a good job of wiping them out of history. I am reminded of the African proverb, ‘Until the lion learns to write, every story will glorify the hunter.’

History books are always written by the ‘winners’; we only hear half the story. Historical fiction is a great way to hear the voice of the other half.

A word of warning: these are dark stories, with nary a happy ending in sight.

After devouring Hume’s books, I moved on to Phillipa Gregory’s White Queen and fell into a Tudor-frenzy for months. I’d seen the movie ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ and the series ‘The Tudors’ but the book is always better…isn’t it?

I’ve always loved this painting…in the Queensland Art Gallery – Philip H. Calderon, 1833-98
Elizabeth Woodville, widow of Edward IV, parting with her younger son, the Duke of York, at the moment when Elizabeth learned that the Prince of Wales had fallen into the power of his uncle, etc., 1893. Oil on canvas. 173 x 260.2cm Collection: Queensland Art Gallery. Purchased 1900.

The young Duke of York joined his brother in the Tower of London, never to be seen again, a story that gripped Victorian England and remains a mystery today. I might be a history nerd, but seriously, history is fascinating. The whole saga of the War of the Roses (Plantagenet vs Tudor and let’s face it, Plantagenet vs Plantagenet!) inspired George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones. Reading the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, A Game of Thrones, is even more interesting when you know the story of the three brothers who were Edward IV, Richard III and George, Duke of Clarence. Just me, maybe?

After the medieval Tudors, I went through an obsessed Outlander phase. The saga spans 18th century Scotland and North America, the War of Independence, touches on the French Revolution and takes in post WW2 right through to the 70s, including the Scottish Nationalist movement. Of course, Claire’s method of time-travelling is from a time far more ancient: a circle of standing stones, about which we know very little.

After reading the series, I read about the history of the British occupation of Scotland, the battles, the Highland Clearances, and the ‘sale’ of political prisoners as indentured servants in North America. Irish and Scottish freedom fighters sent over as servants, once they had completed their sentence, became free citizens, often taking the opportunity to move into frontier areas, displacing the First Nations people which the story touches on, as their new-found freedoms were limited especially the Catholics amongst them. Many of these freed Scots and Irish Nationalists were instrumental in the War of Independence taking up arms against the British. A decent bit of shortsightedness by the Brits!

ach aye!

Gabaldon’s Claire is a nurse with a keen interest in herbalism, another interest of mine. Through the 8 books (Come on Diana, where’s Number 9??) Claire goes on to study medicine in the 60s at a time when it was very difficult for anyone other than white men to do so.

Poetic and artistic licence aside, I am sure more people would find history fascinating if it was told through stories. Edward Rutherfurd’s Paris, a telling of the history of my favourite city through fictional characters has spurred all kinds of research for my own writing and some just for the fun of it!

See, I told you I am a history nerd! And yes, I am still complaining about the error in a certain Australian author’s best-selling book. I mean, seriously, a quick google search would have answered the question ‘When was the Grand Arch built in Paris?’ sigh… I’ll let it go one day. I guess.

I use Pinterest boards when researching. My Paris board is here. You can see the board for my current work in progress, Thalia Henry and the Ghost Writer here. The board for The Circle is here. And my most popular board Write for your Life is here.