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Why I Love Historical Fiction by Sarah Naughton

I’ve never had the travel bug. Escapism for me has always happened in a book, not on a plane. As a bored child living in the middle of Dorset I read constantly, and now I find I can perfectly imagine the sights, tastes and smells of just about any country you could name, from desert islands (‘Lord of the Flies’), to Alpine passes (‘Heidi’), to Persian bazaars (‘Ali Baba’) and equatorial Africa (‘She’). I’ve never felt the desire to trek up Everest, being more than equal to imagining ice needles squalling in your face as your fingers go numb and blacken with frostbite.


Call me a philistine, but there is just one place I really want to go. The past.


I’d like to watch London burn and Boudicca sweep through with her barbarian hoardes. I’d like to go back to 1533 and tell Anne Boleyn to scarper back to France. I’d like to meet Shakespeare and Byron and Nelson.


There is something comfortingly reliable about the past. It will only ever be as it was, unchanging. Victorians were prudish, the Tudors were monstrous, the Georgians decadent. There are sets of rules you must abide by when writing in each period and sometimes these constraints can be incredibly liberating.


Just in terms of romance, things can keep your hero and heroine apart in past ages that never would now: social standing, race, money. This is what makes the tortuous love affairs of Jane Austen so addictive.

By contrast, modern western European existence is boringly easy and liberal. I wonder if that’s why we have started seeing more literature about bereavement and disability. We want our protagonists to have obstacles, and the past provides so many. Wars and executions and diseases and famines. Even everyday twenty-first century experiences like a chest infection or childbirth had the potential for tragedy. Pick any of the above as your subject matter and the possibilities for a gripping story are endless.


Personally, I love writing about grim stuff: squalor and disease, extreme poverty. Titus, hero of my Victorian thriller ‘The Hanged Man Rises’, must survive in the slums of London, with a killer on the loose and both parents dead. I like characters that have to overcome huge obstacles to become the people they deserve to be. This is so much simpler when the obstacles are real, physical dangers.


Historical fiction also appeals to my Walter Mitty nature. The thing about the present is I know I’m never going to be a spy or a princess, but in the past all bets are off. I can be Mary Queen of Scots or a Roman slave or a Neolithic warrior.


My body hasn’t been very far: a couple of package tours to Italy and some wet weekends in Rye, but my mind has ranged through thousands of miles and tens of centuries. To me I’ve lived the wildest, most exciting, most decadent and dangerous life possible.


Although anyone who’s seen me slumped on a Starbucks sofa, in front of my computer, with a lap full of cookie crumbs, may disagree.



Sarah Naughton
Sarah Naughton is the author of two books for young adults: Costa shortlisted The Hanged Man Rises, about possession and child murder in Victorian London: and The Blood List, featuring witches and changelings and a very nasty little brother. She lives in London with her husband and two sons. You can find out what she’s up to on her blog, or follow her on Twitter and Goodreads.


This entry was posted on February 10, 2016 by and tagged , , , .

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