Historical Fiction Bored Me to Death. Now It’s My Passion.
When I tell people that I used to despise history, they can’t understand why I write what I do. To me, it makes perfect sense.
Growing up, I fell asleep quite frequently during history class. In my mind it was nothing more than names, dates, and places I needed to memorize for exams. Only once was I fully intrigued by history during school. That was in grade ten, and the subject was the Holocaust. My teacher was passionate about the subject – in fact, he has gone on to be a university professor specializing in the Holocaust. Even more importantly, he was passionate about engaging us, in helping us see the true experience of humanity’s past. After that class ended, I read more about the subject ... but over time my fascination faded and I forgot the relevance and importance of history in our present day.
Around fifteen years ago, I was given a copy of “Outlander”, and everything changed. Here was adventure and romance like I craved, but it was combined with incredible facts both immense and trivial. The stories were about “real” people … which is ironic, because in a lot of historical fiction (including mine), characters are often the only things that aren't real in the story. I was completely swallowed up by the genre and spent a great deal of my time thinking, “I had no idea.” After reading the series seven times (as well as books of other historical fiction authors like Wilbur Smith, Sara Donati, Penelope Williamson, Susanna Kearsley, and more) I decided to try a little writing of my own. I started with 18th century Scotland, since that was where Ms Gabaldon’s stories put me, but the more I read, the more I became intrigued by the history of other places. I now am focused entirely on the history of my own great country, Canada.
My family and I moved from Calgary to Nova Scotia in 2008, and everything about this place was new to us. We'd never lived by the ocean, never known any lobstermen, didn't understand about the tides, the red clay, the fog that came in so thick you could cut it. And the people? Well, they were friendly and welcoming, but they were different from people we'd known before, too. Many of the folks along our Eastern Shore tell stories of their grandparents fishing the Atlantic, of their great grandparents building the original homestead out here. I started to wonder who else might have lived here … in a fictional sense.
One hundred years ago last December, 1900 people were killed in a blast that levelled the city. Hundreds were blinded by flying glass, and over twenty-six thousand were left homeless. The Halifax Explosion was the largest manmade explosion before Hiroshima, and it happened right here! How is it that no one in my family had ever heard of it? Not even my kids, who were attending school right here in Nova Scotia? What stories there must be! Everyone I asked had one about a great aunt who remembered the windows shaking miles away from the blast, or a grandfather who was supposed to be in Halifax that morning for work but who had stayed home for whatever reason. The busy port had been hopping that day, crowded with sailors and soldiers headed in and out of the war … and that grabbed my interest as well. Imagine surviving that war then having your home blown out from beneath you. What physical, mental, and emotional scars took over their lives? And what of the people they loved? Without all the technology and know-how of the 21st century, how did they live? From those questions was born “Tides of Honour”. One of that book’s greatest accomplishments (in my opinion) was being included in the Halifax Regional School Board’s “Teacher Recommended Reading List” for high schools. I hope teachers will choose to pick it up and share the story with our next generation.
A few summers ago, my husband and I took a two-hour drive to Grand Pré, Nova Scotia and went to the historic site to learn about the Acadian Expulsion. Once again, I knew absolutely nothing about this incredible event in our history, and it was not being taught to our children—or if it was, the lesson made no impact on them. They were sleeping through history just as I had. I walked through the Grand Pré museum and tour in a trance then returned home to dig deeper. Who were the Acadians? Why do so many people still celebrate them up here more than two hundred years later? Who were the British soldiers who ripped over 10,000 people from their homes and families? What happened after the bewildered and terrified Acadian people were dumped in the bowels of so many rotting, rented ships and sent adrift? From this came “Promises to Keep”, which was just published this April by Simon & Schuster Canada.
Canadian history is rich with little known or untold stories. America and Europe are the most prolific storytellers, and we have all read about their past, I am sure. But what about up here, in Canada? “Come From Away” returns to the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia, to the same family from “Tides of Honour” but twenty-five years later, during WWII. Our little corner of the earth was teeming with German U-Boats, spies, and secrets. As the busiest Canadian port, the Halifax harbour bustled with thousands of sailors, soldiers, the Merchant Navy, the WRENs (Womens Royal Navy Service), and more. So many stories! After that I will get back to work on three more books which are already partially written – the first features the beginnings of the Mounties and includes the Klondike Gold Rush. The next revolves around more than 100,000 children who were scooped off the streets of London and sent to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa and given the promise of a better life—but most ended up living difficult, sometimes horrible lives as indentured servants. Do we know a lot about them? Unless you’re a historian, I imagine not. I promise that if you read my books, that will change.
My agent once told me the secret to successful publishing is to “write a really great book.” Well, I want more than that. I want to write a good book and I want to bring history back to life … so no one sleeps through class anymore.