Seeking Truths through Fiction
Historians on Writing Historical Genre Fiction
Historians jumping genres need not confine themselves to writing traditional historical fiction. Their training and diverse interests lead them to working in all genres, from fantasy to mystery, and to categories such as young adult. Perspectives invited three historians who have published novels to explain how they found their way to genre fiction.
Telling the Truth, Slantwise
I grew up on stories, especially ones with magic. Before I could reliably point to Kentucky on a map, my mother’s bookshelves had given me a geography of make-believe: Narnia and Neverland, Middle-earth and Earthsea. I went to more than one midnight book release and played The Legend of Zelda on at least three consoles. In second grade, I carried around Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, and in middle school, I wrote an aggressively awful fantasy novel full of prophecies and unpronounceable names.
But by the time I left for college, I’d decided, with the crippling self-seriousness of adolescence, that I’d grown out of magic. I was always more of a Wendy than a Peter (“one of the kind who likes to grow up”), and the entire fantasy genre suddenly struck me as childish, an extended game of pretend for people who couldn’t face the real world. My mom gave me a brand-new set of my favorite space opera paperbacks as a going-away present. I hid them in the back of my dorm closet.
I majored in history. It was the anti-fantasy, I thought, a serious project of examining the world as it really was. Also, there were no math prerequisites, and a senior in my dorm told me it was “more reading than I could possibly imagine” in a badly misjudged effort to scare me off.
I turned out to be a somewhat erratic historian but a good enough writer to cover the gaps. I tended to skate over the actual labor of historical study: names and dates, material facts, the granular minutiae of the past. But I liked what historians did with those details. I liked the process by which disparate threads became a vast tapestry, a depiction of a time and place none of us had ever seen, and I very much liked arguing about the accuracy of that depiction. My professors called it the historical narrative; now I think of it as a story.
I hadn’t tried to make up stories of my own since middle school—very few people are as brave at 20 as they were at 12—but in graduate school, I did the next best thing: I studied them. I built an MA thesis around late 19th- and early 20th-century British children’s literature. It felt like pulling off a low-stakes heist. I could indulge in pure fantasy but still have all those serious, important conversations I wanted to have (or at least be seen to have) about power and gender and environment. I could talk about the truth using nothing but lies. I could grow up but still go back to Neverland—at least for a visit.
I should have known I’d never be content with just a visit. One night in January—there is no month longer than a January in Vermont during your second year of grad school—I brought home an extra book from the library. It had nothing to do with my research—it was just a silly paperback fantasy I’d read as a kid. I didn’t remember much of the plot (wizard school? dragons?), but I remembered the soaring, lifting feeling it had left in my chest, and I missed it badly.
I could grow up but still go back to Neverland—at least for a visit.
So I reread A Wizard of Earthsea. And then The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore. They were, in fact, about wizards and dragons, and they did give me that familiar, nostalgic, almost melancholic ache in my chest. But they weren’t silly at all.
Ursula K. Le Guin was an academic before she was an author. Her Wikipedia page has all the most coveted keywords, the ones synonymous with sober, successful scholarship—Harvard, Phi Beta Kappa, Fulbright. But when she published Earthsea in 1968, it was largely ignored by sober scholars of the world, dismissed as children’s fantasy.
Which, of course, it is. But it’s also smart as hell. It’s about power and gender, environment and empathy. It’s a story about a world that never was, and it’s a reflection on the world as it actually is. It’s the truth but told slant. Reading Earthsea that January was the first time I understood fantasy and history not as opposites but as different approaches to the same frustrating, humbling, infinite work: making sense of the world, explaining it to ourselves. Telling stories.
I didn’t do anything dramatic, like quit school or write an instant New York Times best seller. But I felt a subtle shift in my trajectory, like a compass needle sliding away from true north. I started reading fantasy again, not for comfort or escapism but to learn.
Since then, I’ve written a dozen short stories, a couple of novellas, and two novels. They’re shelved differently in every bookstore I’ve seen so far: historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy, young adult, sometimes simply “fiction.” They range from fairy-tale retellings to epistolary adventure novels. But all of them are basically just lies assembled into stories. All of them are trying to tell the truth slantwise. And all of them, of course, have magic.
Alix E. Harrow is the Hugo Award–winning author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January, The Once and Future Witches, and A Spindle Splintered. She tweets @AlixEHarrow.
Time-Traveling Tales for Teens
As a teen, I disliked history. A lot. At my international school in São Paulo, Brazil, our World Civilizations teacher read to us from a textbook on European history. That made no sense. Neither did the fact that we copied prewritten notes from the blackboard and couldn’t ask questions. History was for bores, I decided then—those who memorized information about the dead and cared little for the living. I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to study, teach, or write about the past.
Historical fiction, on the other hand, offered an exciting escape from my tedious 10th-grade present. It also provided the unexpected bonus of exam prep. Long before my decidedly uncool teens, books had been my friends—but never more so than in World Civ. “We’ll start at the beginning, with the Greeks,” our teacher announced. I tuned out almost immediately but connected some of what he wrote to what I had read in Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy. As I took notes, I thought about Alexander’s true love, the Macedonian’s route to India, his disappointment with war-weary men, and his last laboring breaths. The story Renault wrote lent context, a place to park the facts my teacher shared. I could “remember” where I’d been with Alexander, even during exams.
Years later, I found my way to teaching 9th and 10th grade and realized that stories—real or imagined—encouraged my own students too. A few years in, I was assigned to teach AP World History. The course was known among high school teachers for its vast curriculum and subpar exam results, forcing me to retool my style. I began layering memoir and fiction into lessons to kick-start student engagement. Mindful of our 39-minute class periods, I chose pointed excerpts from memoirs and fiction that intersected with course content. These included scenes of China’s Cultural Revolution from Da Chen’s Colors of the Mountain. What emboldened a child to taunt and throw rocks at a former landlord—his own grandfather? We debated “turning points,” animated by Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. Would preventing Columbus’s return voyage hold off European conquest in the Americas and impede the transatlantic slave trade? Such discussion helped plunge my students into the past. I stocked relevant fiction in my classroom, with more available in the school library, for extra-credit “book chats.” These made for rich reflection, spurring me and my students to further investigation. They did well on their AP exams, later confirming that stories helped them get past test anxiety and right into the essays.
Jackie Tempo has steered readers to new adventures in teaching and learning far beyond the classroom.
But what, I wondered, could help future high schoolers build historical context they would need? At home, my elementary-age son was drawn to Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House books. In creating a series that led students through history, Osborne encouraged readers to connect to classroom studies. I wanted to do the same for teens, with the intention of layering in more complex themes and content for their studies. I decided to give novel writing a try.
By my second year of teaching AP World History, my son was in middle school. I wrote at a middle school level but with high school content in mind. I wanted to create an easy, quick read that would provide AP World History students content, context, or both. I began with less-familiar “tricky” topics that teachers tended to skirt but that were deeply embedded in the curriculum. Drawing from my years in Singapore, Brazil, and Taiwan, as well as my graduate work in Chinese studies, I created Jackie Tempo, a time-traveling teen who struggled in both history class and in life.
Jackie learns that books can take readers out of time and place—in her case, to Ming China, colonial Brazil, and 10th-century Dar al-Islam. She finds a magical tome that opens temporal gates and her own worldview. With it, Jackie tracks her missing parents across the centuries. She meets characters long gone and gets caught up in their hopes and fears. Hers is an improbable, dizzying journey, and for educators and historians, it’s a story of time travel perhaps not unlike our own.
Teachers and students have called me Jackie, and this isn’t far from the truth. Jackie Tempo and the Emperor’s Seal includes scenes from my postgrad backpacking trip through China; Jackie Tempo and the Ghost of Zumbi partially reflects my encounters and experiences in Brazil. After an enriching field trip to a mosque, one 9th grader reflected on his initial hesitation to visit. This prompted me to highlight Abbasid-era culture and exchange in Jackie Tempo and the House of Wisdom. Some characters developed as I was writing, but I also introduced my own friends and mentors to readers. As they did for me, librarians and teachers offer Jackie refuge among books and an appreciation of past and present.
My readers have shared that the Jackie Tempo books steered them to new adventures in teaching and learning far beyond the classroom. At one author visit, a 9th-grade student who read The Emperor’s Seal for his English and social studies classes exclaimed, “I felt like I was actually in China!” In 2019, an early modernist told me she had read The Emperor’s Seal when she was unexpectedly assigned to teach a modern world survey. She had needed a crash course on 16th-century China, and she told me that it helped. And research for the next book prompted me to stop imagining overlooked voices and listen for them myself; I returned to graduate school and earned a PhD in history.
As a disaffected teen, I wanted out of my World Civ class. Historical fiction pointed the way. For some young readers, it shades in unfamiliar landscapes, adding texture to classroom studies. The genre personalizes the past for both students and the instructors who would take them there. After all, isn’t history—time travel—more fun when we have trusty companions by our side?
Suzanne Marie Litrel is the author of the Jackie Tempo novels and an educational consultant. She tweets @slitrel.
Sex & the Medieval Muslim Woman
Umberto Eco quipped that in every instance when critics accused him of anachronism in The Name of the Rose, he was quoting 14th-century texts. I get it. As a retired scholar of early medieval mystic Islam now writing historical mysteries set in 10th-century Baghdad, I, too, face ironic claims of anachronism in my Sufi Mysteries Quartet.
Most concerns arise over the women portrayed in my novels, especially Saliha, a free-spirited, sexy woman unwilling to let men control her. In our present era in which many assume that Muslim women desperately need saving, Saliha comes as a surprise. But as a specialist on women in this period, I can assure my readers that she is not a figment of my contemporary imagination.
I turned to writing mysteries after leaving the academy. I may have been done with academia, but I was not done doing history. The murder at the heart of each book arises from a historical question, and each red herring is a point of discussion on that question. The detailed personal story arcs, the sociopolitical settings, and even lushly described walks across Baghdad are parts of a larger argument I am making about the time and place. In short, I am grinding axes all over these books. I am saying straight-out what I could only hem and haw about in scholarly papers. And much of what I wanted to say was frank talk about the lives of early Muslim women.
All my characters are constructed on figures from the past. Using research in social history, I flesh out hints of women’s lives that come to us through mediated and often meager primary sources, and I bring them to life in my novels. For instance, in Ibn al-Jawzī’s Ṣifāt al-ṣafwa, a male transmitter describes a woman who starved herself for God as having once been “a fattened camel ready for sacrifice.” A woman denying men her body to sacrifice it for God got me thinking about women with the upper hand on male desire: not just ascetics but also those women who reveled in their alluring flesh, married or unmarried, noblewomen or washerwomen.
I may have been done with academia, but I was not done doing history.
I remembered Aisha bint Talha, the niece of one of the Prophet’s wives, who became the basis for Saliha’s character. Shocking stories of her behavior and beauty were widely shared. She refused to segregate herself from men and readily took part in their conversations. Aisha was fun loving, wild tempered, and hot blooded. She refused to cover her face, declaring that the world should know her superiority. This noblewoman was nothing but trouble for her husbands, and they thought she was worth it. In those early reports, she reads like a woman out of a noir movie. I could see Robert Mitchum leaning in to light her cigarette.
And so Aisha bint Talha became Saliha, written as an impoverished woman who escaped to Baghdad from a brutal marriage. A woman done with men except in the bedroom. Men want to protect her, and her refusal to marry spurs a story arc exploring medieval Muslim masculinities spanning three books. Saliha is her own woman, a loyal friend to amateur detective Zaytuna and a lover to Tein, a detective with the Grave Crimes Squad. She works hard, has ambition, and is good in a scrap when a case demands it.
Saliha spurns Tein’s pleas to marry, instead insisting on meeting him for trysts in the hidden doorways of ruined alleys. Women who worked in markets or fields or in the homes of the wealthy had few restrictions on their movements. A widow and a washerwoman like Saliha had opportunities to meet and flirt with men and even find a spot for a clandestine meeting. Unbelievable to some of my readers, yet these meetings happened. Sources such as marketplace inspector’s manuals and the observations of poets, scholars, and intellectuals like the famed al-Jāḥiẓ confirm these brief liaisons and even longer encounters.
But how realistic is Saliha’s insistence on sexual consent? Because married and enslaved women had no social or legal expectation of consent, a few (male) historians argue they did not consider forced sex as a violation. Yet medieval male transmitters passed on reports of free mystic women refusing to marry for this very reason. One account in al-Sulami’s Dhikr an-niswa al-mutaʿabbidat al-sūfiyyāt describes a free married mystic woman speaking about forced sex in desperate terms, as a violation of her right to intimacy with God. A jurist’s account reveals that an enslaved woman brought her owner to court on charges of sexual brutality. My second novel in the series, The Jealous, addresses these very matters.
The historical axe I’m grinding with Saliha’s character is not to prove there were sexy, independent sidekicks back in the day. Maybe there were, but that is not my point. I am telling the story of a woman who refused to be controlled by men, with all the attendant risks, and, through her character, opening a door to the lives of urban medieval women of her class.
It is a maxim of historical fiction that the author must not “do history,” as it takes away from the story itself, but I have pinned my hopes on Eco’s example. It is possible to educate pleasurably through narrative. I think I succeeded. Well, at least, my novels are taught in university classrooms. Not the same as being an internationally renowned scholar and best-selling author, but it feels pretty darn good. And concerns about anachronisms? They educate too. Surprising readers with medieval Muslim women who demand a say over their bodies may open the reader up to new paths of thought about the Muslim past and the present.
Laury Silvers is a retired historian of early Islam and Sufism and the author of the Sufi Mysteries Quartet. She tweets @waraqamusa.
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