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The Best Way to Learn History is to Read Fiction

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

The irony of facts becoming more real through made up stories

“There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” — Harry S. Truman

Why read historical fiction?

A former book club member HATED it when the group read historical fiction. She was adamant that reading novels about actual historical events was a waste of time. All those conversations in the book were made up because no one alive now could possibly know what had been said between characters in a previous era.

Historical fiction is just FICTION, she declared.

I adamantly disagreed.

“Writers do tons of research before crafting a historical novel, often accessing actual journals, letters, and newspaper articles of the time. They understand the prominent players of the period. They know about the dialect, the costumes, the living conditions, the political situations, and the accoutrements of life when they write their novel. Isn’t it better to get a FEEL for the era and some understanding of the issues and the peoples’ responses to them than to be put to sleep by some dry, dull, boring nonfiction text or flat-voiced biography?”

(My apologies to biographers and nonfiction writers everywhere. This was a statement I made before I began reading a lot of nonfiction and realizing that not all biographies were dull. Not all history texts were boring.)

My friend turned her head away and lifted her nose slightly as if the smell of what I had said was offensive.

We never came to any kind of agreement about the value of historical fiction. For her, it was nonsense — a waste of intellectual energy. For me, historical fiction is a joy, the best way to learn history.

Ironic, don’t you think?

I learned more about history from made-up stories than I did from a presentation of the facts.

What’s the best part of historical fiction?


Of course, the story is important. It has to have a compelling plot, interesting, three-dimensional characters, realistic dialog, and keep-it-moving pacing. The writing is important. The cover design, book blurb, advance reviews, and publicity are tantamount to a book’s success, but it’s the history of a historical novel that entices me.

I am not alone in enjoying historical fiction. It’s a popular genre with the lines between literary fiction, women’s fiction, historical fiction, and even mystery and suspense blurring.

I learned far more about history from reading novels than I ever did from reading a textbook

I was a good student in high school. I sat in the front row, took notes, and paid attention to whatever the teacher said. (No note-passing, spitballs, or daydreaming for me!) But as attentive as I was, I didn’t get much idea of history outside of a few basic concepts. I learned the Civil War happened from 1861–1865 and that the major issue was slavery. I knew that World War II began for America with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and that millions of Jews had been gassed in chambers by Adolph Hitler. America won her independence in 1776; there was a “Cold War” with Russia, and we landed a man on the moon in 1969.

My knowledge of history existed of basic dates and generic terms.

But as an avid reader, I have learned far more history from novels than I ever did from textbooks. Not only have I learned about historical movements, but I’ve internalized them. History is part of my waking consciousness because of the stories I’ve read. I understand how different events impacted the people of the time. I get how the various viewpoints of a legal decision stirred controversy and how wars affected families on a personal level. What I’ve learned about history from reading fiction constitutes a massive catalog. If you think about it, you’ll probably come up with a long list of historical events you wouldn’t have understood without reading, too.

Here are just a few of mine off the top of my head.

  • America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie taught me about Thomas Jefferson’s slave-holding past, his relationship with Sally Hemmings and her offspring, and the life of his remarkable daughter, Patsy Randolph.

  • Julie Orringer’s The Flight Portfolio taught me about Varian Fry and his Emergency Rescue Committee who smuggled artists, writers, and philosophers out of German-occupied France at the onset of World War II.

  • The role of Guernsey Island in World War II — and the spirit of the Resistance Movement, as well the transportation of children to keep them safe — became clear to me from reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

  • The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons brought to life the brutal conditions of life in Russia during Hitler’s march to Leningrad. (I didn’t know that people were starving and died in the streets!)

  • I would not even have a hint of an idea about the American whaling industry of the 1850s without reading Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

  • Did you know about the child-abduction-trafficking operation run by Georgia Tann in the early 1940s? Me neither. I learned about it from reading Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours.

  • While I’m on Lisa Wingate’s work…I dabble in Civil War history, but I had never heard of the Lost Friends pages of the Southwestern Christian Advocate, a way for more than 3.5 million freed slaves to locate lost friends and relatives. Check out The Book of Lost Friends.

  • I’ll probably never get to the bullfights in Spain. And I dislike Ernest Hemingway’s writing, but I felt the color, the manic energy, the violence of bullfighting in Spain by reading The Sun Also Rises.

  • How did they build those massive cathedrals 800 years ago without high-powered equipment or computer-aided design? I found out. Read Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.

  • Did you know that one of the most beautiful, glamorous women of all time was also the wife of Hitler’s arms dealer and one of the great scientific minds of the time? Read how Hedy Lamarr helped create the modern cell phone in Heather Terrill’s The Only Woman in the Room.

I could go on and on and on. You get the picture.

Reading historical fiction has colored my decisions and changed my actions — I truly believe it has made me a better person. — Crystal King

Reasons to read historical fiction

Anna Diamond in The Atlantic: “Using Historical Fiction to Connect Past and Present” offers reasons to read historical fiction as adults — and as children. She comments on the power novels have in the classroom by

  • easing into difficult topics

  • offering multiple perspectives

  • creating a story — a narrative arc — that heightens excitement and the desire to know what happened

  • increasing empathy when the stories feel personal

  • “humanizing” history, and making it about real people, not dates and statistics.

  • decreasing the skepticism of minority students who may not believe that textbooks adequately represent their stories

  • improving critical thinking skills by encouraging discernment between fact and fiction, truth from falsehood.

She notes,

“Historical fiction can offer the chance, if taught conscientiously, to engage students with multiple perspectives, which are essential to understanding history; to help students comprehend historical patterns and political analogies; and to introduce students to historiography — how history is written and studied.”

No wonder I like historical fiction. Not only does it help me learn about the past, but it also helps me make decisions in the present. From reading, I’ve seen the consequences of other people’s similar actions and can weigh my decisions with theirs.

Reading historical fiction can also help me see trends for the future. If human beings repeat the same patterns over time, we know what might lie ahead. Heather Webb, the author of Rodin’s Lover, says it best:

History is also a window into our future. As creatures of habit, we live our lives in a series of patterns and movements. Studying these patterns can be useful in predicting what comes next, how we should prepare ourselves, or even what we should speak out against in a meaningful way.

What more could you want from a book? Reading historical fiction gives you understanding of the past, clarity in the present, and foreknowledge of the future. It takes you to different eras and different places. You get to know thousands of characters. It’s knowledge, but it’s also just plain FUN!

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