Dean Hughes: Why I Love to Write Historical Fiction

Dean Hughes has written more than 100 books and has sold more than a million copies of his books. Solstice is thrilled to have him back this year, teaching a class on Historical Fiction. Below, Dean explains why he loves the genre so much.

I’ll tell you what I love about writing historical fiction: I have to read before I can write, and I love to read.

Actually, there’s more to it than that. It’s not enough to know the broad outlines of a historical period to start my fictional version. I have to steep them in a time and place, both to know the attitudes and “the feel” of another time, but also to know the details of daily life. It’s really important, in doing research, to lift myself out of my own assumptions and learn to think like the people of another age. And it’s just as important to know the price of bread, the dress styles, the methods of farming, harvesting, cooking, etc.

In other words, to write historical novels, you have to read a whole lot. And why do people start writing? It’s usually because they love to read.

The reading also supplies the conflicts of an age, and it suggests possible stories. When I start “thinking up” a contemporary story, I have to imagine a character and place that character in some circumstance that leads to a conflict. But when I write historical fiction, I find people in my reading who, with a little adjustment, become the characters in my story. The setting suggests all sorts of challenges for that character to face. Usually, once I’ve done a fair amount of reading, I start to see my story.

Now, having said that, remember that the reading becomes a lovely excuse for putting off the writing. The old blank screen is still waiting for you, no matter what. It’s wonderful to sit in an easy chair with a good lamp and an old book and tell all who will listen: “I’m working on a book.” But that only lasts so long. It’s important to read enough to plan the plot, but then you have to face that painful process of drafting the story.

The reading is great fun, but here’s the tricky part: to some degree, you don’t know what you need to know until you start to write. Google can help at that point, but only if you’ve read enough to understand how the details fit into the larger picture. Still, over and over, you find yourself realizing, you don’t know enough—and it’s back to the reading.

So what’s better in life than reading and writing? I seem to remember a few things, from younger days, but when all those other things are gone, there’s still the joy of learning new stuff. I’ll admit, writing is hard work, and nothing can change that, but historical fiction is the ultimate escape. You not only get to time-travel to learn what you need to know; you are also forced to look deeply inside to imagine yourself living at another time.

I’ve sold myself. I’m going to write another historical novel. Oh, wait. I am writing another historical novel.

I better get to work.

If you would like to sign up for the Historical Fiction Class with Dean Hughes this summer, go to http://www.highvalleyarts.org/solstice.