A Good Approach to writing about the past

This post from Rosanne E Lortz site tackles the issue of writing about the religion of past people in historical fiction rather succinctly. I think the author's approach to the subject matter is very good.....

Why do I so enthusiastically endorse Mrs Lortz approach here, especially since I have not actually yet read any of her books (I will get round to reading the one I have, sometime, honest)?
I would say it is mainly because I believe an appreciation and understanding of the differences between the values, beliefs, attitudes and opinions of people in past ages, and of out own is arguably essential to understanding them. Their actions, motivations, thoughts, and behaviour as well as the wider environment in which they lived, and the world around them.
It is all too easy for us 'enlightened' modern people with our advanced medical knowledge and appreciation of human rights to look down disparagingly upon the Medical practices of the medieval physician and scorn his supposed ignorance, or laugh at his outmoded and ineffective remedies, or to harp on about the evils of arranged marriage, or the 'barbarism' of capital punishment.
With all our aversion to imperialistic expansionism we may think it only right to judge the conquerors of bygone ages as avaricious, power hungry, greedy, self-seeking, monsters and tyrannical oppressors but does such thinking really enable us to approach a period vastly different from our own on its own terms and with as much objectivity as possible?
Does it enhance our ability to come to terms with a period in which people's circumstances may have been far removed from our own?
Of course, to identify with past people, to appreciate  their values and the basis of their sensibilities does not require us to agree with, share or endorse them, and of course there are absolute standards of morality, belief and behaviour we recognize as Christians and which transcend culture and history.
 However, should we always seek to replace, ignore, or arrogantly dismiss that in the past which we consider controversial, unpalatable or unpopular, or condemn and vilify that which does not line up with the expectations of the 21st century liberal worldview?
Or is it better instead to 'get into the heads of' those who have gone before' and 'try think like them,' in a better attempt to get to grips with the alien past, even if that involves coming up against  difficult subjects or unfamiliar ideologies along the way?

Rant over.


  1. Oh the line between giving modern readers what they want and being true to history! I currently am writing a book that deals with the way people in the church dealt with prostitution in the Old West. I had one reader very miffed that I was "vilifying" the churchm and taht if I was writing a Christin novel I shouldn't make the church look so bad; they should all be like the one character who was going against the flow and trying to empathize.

    Not only would everyone having sympathy and a desire to help prostitutes and not look down upon them not true for the time period, but what present day church does this reader go to? Everyone in her church must be perfect, no racists, no holier-than-thous, no people that are only there to get what they can and never offer to help, etc.?

    I also had a racist Christian hero in another novel that I had readers say was "dangerous" though he was true to the time. I was going to lead him through the story to learn that he shouldn't be racist and yet end where he only knew it and would work on it for his heart wasn't there yet, but can I get the modern reader to stick with me through the whole book? That's the big If.

    The skeptics or the "ahead of their time" characters after awhile, after reading a lot of them, makes me want to roll my eyes. Sure, some of them may existed, but not a large percentage, and I know it is no fault of any one particular author that I read so many books, but when 90% of the historical novels I read have an "ahead of their time" protagonist it starts to feel false because it would have been the exception, not the norm.

    I think I made sense in that comment, let's hope so. :)

    1. First of all Hi Melissa- you have the honour of being the first to comment on the new site. That deserves a fanfare or a sticker at least!

      I am not a novelist, but I think you are onto something with the expectations of readers in some way conflicting with historical accuracy (and yes your comment does make sense). One thing I have seen a few times is people complaining about 'racism' 'sexism' or 'homophobia' in Medieval Literature.

      It could almost be rather amusing to think that such people seem to expect at text written 600 or 700 years ago to line up with 21st century politically correct ideals.
      Do they just not realise that people in the past may have had a different belief system to them, or could it be that they view such texts only through the prism of their preconceived worldview?

      Perhaps this is the problem (and I think we all do the above to some extent) and maybe one of the reasons why so many characters in historical fiction seem to be modern in their thinking is that people do not like some aspect of the values or attitudes of past people and wish to change it, or to insert modern ideas as a sort of ‘remedy’?

      Also though, what you say about the pressure of having to in some way meet the expectations of modern readers may be another determining factor. What you say of prostitution is an interesting example. From what I know in the medieval period it was not uncommon for some brothels to be owned or managed by members of the clergy. Yet this could very easily offend modern sensibilities.

      It must indeed be hard to strike a balance, but as a Historian in training I think I would have a problem with ignoring or disregarding some more controversial aspects of history so as not to offend people. Perhaps Historians in some ways have it easier because they tend to write non-fiction?

      On a personal note, I think I share your aversion to overly modern characters in historical fiction to some degree. I read one series of 'Christian' historical fantasy novels set in the Medieval period in which the secondary female protagonist seemed to be not so much a character as an embodiment of militant feminist ideals.

      Thanks for your input, very interesting and informative.

    2. BTW do you write under your own name or another one, as I may have to look up your books now!

  2. Oh my goodness! I'm surprised you even want to read anything by me after that comment, such glaring typos. Sheesh.

    And definitely fanfare. Much more in keeping with your theme than a sticker! :)

    My agent right now is trying to sell some novels of mine, but as of yet, I'm not published. Fingers crossed that will change soon. :) And as far as I know, it'll be under my name unless they decide my last name is too confusing to spell, which it's always misspelled....

    Though I'm not sure I'll be able to look at any reviews you do of my books, you're one tough cookie to please. :) But don't change that, I think Christian reviewers are in general too easy on people with the idea that if they can't saying anything but edifying things even when criticism is needed to grow, they should just heap on praise.... and I can't be as critical as I'd sometimes like to be because being critical of other authors tends to look like sour grapes or arrogance, so I choose to say very little negative anymore.

    And with trying to sell my books, it's a big toss up to what I can write and what will sell....it looks like I'm going to be asked to be more light-hearted and take out a lot of the grittiness to break in. So it's a matter of whether I want to fight for artistic integrity or make some money and have a career. I'll have to decide which is more important to me and what fits me better and all that.

    So yeah, putting in real history that goes against preconceived notions, annoys reader's sensitivities, or goes against what the majority of people believe to be true is difficult to sell. There's a saying in the Western writers subculture of "If history goes against Louis L'Amour, go with L'Amour." If not, you better ready yourself for a lot of attack and defending yourself.

  3. Hi Again Melissa

    I dont think I noticed any typos, and I should say that the main reason my comment did not have them was because I seem to recally I copied and pasted it into Word, or from Word, so had the benefit of a spellchecker. Without that, my comments usually have at least one typo in them, so I am no better.

    I think I am hard to please and so sometimes wonder if I am a little too pedantic and have too high standards, especially when it comes to historical content.
    When it comes to other content I try to 'say what I see' and be honest in writing what I think about it. I dont know if I am always right, and I have had feedback from at least one author who put me right on some things. Such is likely quite good for me.

    There are some things that bother me though, like in a review of one novel I read a few months ago it seemed I was the only one who commented on the fact that one of the characters exhibited something akin to psychic powers. I felt this was cause for concern in a Christian novel but nobody else seems to have mentioned it.

    As to the last point, I am not a writer but I do harbour ambitions of being one. So I suppose I ought to at least start taking an interest in what people say about about what will sell and wont (is sellibility a word?), and readers' expectations.

    Thanks again for your input

  4. 'There's a saying in the Western writers subculture of "If history goes against Louis L'Amour, go with L'Amour."'

    That's funny and kind of sad... but then I do the same with Regency fiction only with Georgette Heyer. But I'm pretty sure her books were well-researched, unlike some more modern Regencies I could name.

    And I'm totally in agreement over your comment about reviewers.

    1. Never read anything my Georgette Heyer, so I can't really judge, but that may be a little sad, though perhaps not very surprising.

      Were those my comments on Heather Day Gilbert's page? I think I was rather in agreement with your comments on there too.
      There aren't a lot of books in this genre I give 5 stars too frankly, that may seem stingy...

      Thanks for visiting and commenting.


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