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Friday, September 19, 2014

History Comes Alive

I recently finished writing the final (and sixth) book in my Mindhunters series (hallelujah!). As I developed the backstory for my hero, Andrew “Einstein” MacKenzie, an ex-SEAL who works for my fictional serial-killer-hunting agency SSAM, I worked backward from the few facts I’d already revealed in the previous books. I realized he would have been in college at the time of the 9-11 attacks, and being the genius that he is, it didn’t take long for me to figure out he could easily have attended MIT and was in his senior year there when 9-11 happened. I added a personal stake in the horrible events of that day and decided he'd signed up for military service the moment he graduated, wanting to prevent terrorists from claiming more innocent lives. (Eventually, he was injured, left the SEALs and wound up in my book, of course.)

While my book doesn't take place during 9-11, I bring this up today because thinking about Einstein—my character’s nickname, not the scientific icon—had me thinking about fictional stories in which actual historical events either impacted the characters directly or came alive for me because I was seeing history through his or her eyes.

One example that came to mind was a historical romance trilogy I read many years ago. I still recall the vivid use of the real event in the three stories, probably because that particular event was one I knew little about. Susan Wiggs’ Chicago Fire Trilogy is set during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which killed hundreds of people and left about a hundred thousand people homeless. Though I’d briefly heard about the fire in history class, it really came alive when experienced through Wiggs' characters.
Artist's rendering of the fire, by John R. Chapin, originally printed in Harper's Weekly; the view faces northeast across the Randolph Street Bridge. Image as shown on

Another book that stuck with me was Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The love story (or love triangle) unfolded against the backdrop of the French Revolution. 

Which brings to mind Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. Part of what makes this such a great story are the endearing and powerful characters who are challenged by the lives they led in French society in the early nineteenth century, from the Battle of Waterloo to the July Revolution of 1830.

Is there a period of history you enjoy reading about or experienced more vividly after reading a fictional account? Any memorable books that used history as a backdrop in a way that challenged the characters (I know there have to be thousands of examples!)? What era or event would you like to see more fiction set in?


J Wachowski said...

Oolong. Leon Uris. I read all his books in high school/college and fell in love with them. Mila 18 is still a favorite....

Toni Anderson said...

Wow--my current hero is an ex-SEAL now hunting serial killers. We have the same brain! (but yours is taller :))
One period that came alive for me was the Napoleonic Wars through the Bernard Cornwall books. Also transportation to the penal colonies through SARA DANE, and Diana Gabaldon's OUTLANDER books, made a very staid and sad history blaze to life for me :)

Rita said...

I love history settings. I did not enjoy Les Miserables. Shrug. I would love to see more stories about the settling of North America with strong female protagonists .

Anne Marie Becker said...

J - I haven't heard of those books - will have to check them out!

Anne Marie Becker said...

LOL, Toni. Great minds do think alike, I guess. ;) I've got Diana Gabaldon's OUTLANDER on my TBR pile - just haven't found the time!

Anne Marie Becker said...

Rita, I've read some westerns - by Louis Lamour and also romances - that really brought the challenges and hardships of Western settlement to life. Can you imagine living in that time? You'd have to be a strong woman to make it (and I know we both would!). ;)

Ana Barrons said...

I love Tale of Two Cities and any books set during or around the French revolution. That's the era in which Joanna Bourne's books take place, and I love them all. And Toni, watch the new Outlander series on STARZ -- it's amazing!

Toni Anderson said...

Ana--i want to see it, I've been following the whole event avidly, but I don't get that channel and I'm reluctant to get yet another channel for the sake of it. I will buy the DVD as soon as it comes out!!!! Jealous.

Elise Warner said...

Can't remember the name of the book but it took place in London's Convent Garden. Woke my husband at 6:00 in the morning to see the flowers on our first trip. All we saw were brussel sprouts. Love reading about London. Read Show Boat
in the school library and my first career--naturally--was show business. Romantic period.

Anne Marie Becker said...

Ana, I will have to check out Joanna Bourne's books! I love that time period.

Anne Marie Becker said...

Elise, what a bummer that you didn't see flowers! But yes, one of the reasons I enjoy regency romances is to "explore" London. And Highlander romances of course are for the (ahem) Scottish settings. Okay, okay. I may read those for the Highlanders. ;)

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