Stuck in the Past: why I like historical fiction by Cathy Dunnell

We’re always told to live in the moment or focus on the future. But for me, being stuck in the past is the best place to be.

I absolutely love historical fiction. As a child, my favourite stories were those set in the past. I had a particular fondness for the tales of Robin Hood and Richmal Crompton’s ‘Just William’ stories that depicted the kind of free-roaming childhood I desperately envied from my safe but dull suburban home.

To quote L.P. Hartley “the past is a foreign country,” and the best historical fiction immerses you in what is essentially an alien world. I could write endlessly about my favourite historical novels but they all have something in common: although the setting may be completely different, the struggles and preoccupations of the characters are timeless. To give one example: although Jean M Auel’s ‘Clan of the Cave Bear’ is set in prehistoric times, the desires of its Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens characters are completely relatable. They wish to belong, to endure and to see their children flourish.

When I first approached writing historical fiction of my own, I was daunted. Would the setting prove too restricting? Would I have to become an expert on the minutiae of everyday life in the period? Paradoxically, I’ve found a historical setting to be liberating. Rather than being a constraint, I find it provides a useful framework where my imagination is set free to create stories and characters.

And as for becoming an expert in minutiae? Well, I have found myself googling Victorian underwear in the interests of historical accuracy! But I have tried to strike a balance between avoiding both clanging anachronisms and detailed descriptions of stays and bustles as either one of these could jar the reader out of the story.

I will leave it to my readers to judge how successfully I’ve managed this but ultimately, I hope I can provide that immersion in another world that is the particular joy of historical fiction.

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