Why Write or Read Historical Fiction?

Why Write or Read Historical Fiction?

Guest Post from author Catherine Kullmann

What do we write and read historical fiction? First, I suppose, it takes us out of ourselves—transports us to an unfamiliar society recreated partly from familiar facts and partly from a myriad of tiny, new details so that it seems as real to us as our world of today. The setting rings true and the characters’ actions are determined by the laws, morals and customs of their time, not ours.  Sometimes this horrifies us; at other times we find it liberating and long for more romantic, more adventurous, perhaps simpler bygone days.

Contemporary fiction instinctively reflects/portrays the world as it is at the time of writing. Historical fiction considers the past through the prism of the present, the author drawing on research rather than personal experience to create an authentic setting and story. But, while we cannot forget what we already know—that Germany lost both world wars, that the Allies under Wellington won the Battle of Waterloo or that Anne Boleyn was beheaded, for example, reading the right author we are willing to suspend our belief, to become so caught up in the story, that we experience those events as if they were happening today. And within these grand story arcs there are so many smaller arcs concerning fictional characters with uncertain outcomes or gaps in the known narrative that informed imagination can fill so that no matter how well we think we know a period or an episode, there is always something new to discover.


Good historical fiction informs us about the past. It provides insights into yesterday and helps us understand today. It encourages us to persevere or warns us to change direction. It can reveal past, hidden wrongs, teach us to value the struggles of those who went before us and inspire us to preserve and build upon their achievements.

With history becoming more and more a niche subject at schools and universities, it is historical fiction that offers millions of readers a connection to the past, a past which casts long shadows. We need only look back two hundred years to the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland of 1800, the Anglo-American war of 1812 and the final defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 are all events that still shape today’s world. At the same time, the ruling aristocracies were being challenged by those who saw the need for social and political reform, while the industrial revolution which led to the transfer of wealth to the manufacturing and merchant classes was underway. Women, who had few or no rights in a patriarchal society had begun to raise their voices, demanding equality and emancipation. It is the beginning of our modern society.

Following the collapse of the Treaty of Amiens in 1803, the United Kingdom was at war with Napoleonic France until 1815. Unlike other combatants in this long war, Britain was spared the havoc wrought by an invading army and did not suffer under an army of occupation. War was something that happened elsewhere, far away. For twelve long years, ships carrying fathers, husbands, sons and brothers sailed over the horizon and disappeared. Over three hundred thousand men did not return, dying of wounds, accidents and illness. What did this mean for those left behind without any news apart from that provided in the official dispatches published in the Gazette and what little was contained in intermittent private letters? The question would not leave me and it is against this background of an off-stage war that I have set my novels. How long did it take, I wondered, for word of those three hundred thousand deaths to reach the bereaved families? How did the widows and orphans survive? What might happen to a girl whose father and brother were ‘somewhere at sea’ if her mother died suddenly and she was left homeless?

It is against this backdrop of an off-stage war in a patriarchal world where women are both second-class citizens and held to impossibly high standards that I have set my novels. My characters and their stories are fictional but the world in which they live is very real and there are no twenty-first century solutions to their dilemmas. The main story arc is romantic; I am particularly interested in what happens after the first happy end—how life goes on around the protagonists and sometimes catches up with them. In The Murmur of Masks, Olivia agrees to a marriage of convenience, unaware that her husband’s secrets will prevent love ever growing between them. How can she build a satisfying life for herself? Perception & Illusion charts the voyage of newly-wed Lallie and Hugo through a sea of confusion and misunderstanding. Will they come to a safe harbour or continue to drift apart? And, in A Suggestion of Scandal, simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time puts Rosa’s whole future at risk.

I look forward to hearing what you thought of it.

Best wishes,


You can find out more about me on my website: www.catherinekullmann.com/ or on my Facebook page. fb.me/catherinekullmannauthor

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2 Replies to “Why Write or Read Historical Fiction?”

  1. 300,000 men lost in 12 years … boggles the mind. I don’t know if you are Pepys’ Diary fans, but he has descriptions of pressing men into service, and the heartbreaking goodbyes that that entailed in July of 1666. (Pepys seemed to have been more concerned about the men not being given “the King’s shilling” which represented their agreement to fight. Unfortunately Charles Ii had run out of shillings — but the Dutch were coming any way.)

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