Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Historical Fiction


One of the greatest joys in writing fiction is creating new worlds, new characters, and new conflicts.  I can construct my own hinterland and populate it with heroes, villains, and sidekicks of my own composition.

But as a student of history and prehistory, I am fascinated by the past, so much so that I frequently wish I could live in another time and place.  The following would be among my favorites:

1014 - Dublin – so I could stand with High King Brian Boru as he unified Ireland and drove out the Vikings;

1521 - Mexico City – so I could warn the Aztecs not to trust the guy coming on the horse;

1936 - Lakehurst, New Jersey – so I could ride on the Hindenburg before it got into trouble;

535 BC - Bodh Gaya, India – so I could sit with Buddha under the Bodhi Tree and ask, “Hey, Buddha, what’s it all about?”

1575 - Algiers – so I could ransom Miguel de Cervantes from slavery in North Africa, in exchange for making me the author of Don Quixote;

410 - Rome – so I could march with my fellow Visigoths into the Eternal City for a comprehensive day of pillage;

1959 - Mason City, Iowa – so I could warn the Big Bopper not to get on the plane;

1628 - Stockholm – so I could watch the maiden voyage of the Vasa, the massive Swedish warship that sunk after sailing half a mile;

1986 - Redmond, Washington – so I could invest every damn dollar I could get my hands on in Microsoft;

1542 - Seville –so I could eat tapas and watch the comings and goings at the Council of the Indies.  This was the most important hub of transit, trade, and communication between Europe and the New World.  Decisions made here would impact the lives of millions on three continents.  A fly on the wall might catch of glimpse of Inca gold on its way to Spanish treasuries, conquistadors on their way home to the countryside, and the first potatoes to reach Europe.

The world was changing in 1542.  And nowhere was it changing faster than in Spain, where world views were expanding at an uncomfortable pace.  The world was evidently round, as the scholars had been schooling for over a millennium, but it was also a bigger world than anybody expected.  Empires in Mexico and Peru were lost as Spanish knights brought Toledo steel swords and typhus in exchange for mountains of gold, all of which passed through Seville.

Religions were changing too.  Now, being a good Spaniard meant being a good Christian.  And in a country with a substantial Muslim population, that proved a challenge.  It was illegal for Muslims to sail to the Americas, but it was also illegal to be a Muslim in Spain.  So who’s to say how many wealthy Muslim families decided to try their luck in the New World?  My guess is quite a few.

This was the time and place I wanted to explore, and I used it to anchor my archaeological mystery American Caliphate.  Tomas Ibanez, the patriarch of a powerful family of Spanish Moors, is growing weary of hiding his faith, and just as weary of paying bribes to corrupt officials.
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Seven months ago, Ibanez had politely declined the Trade Minister’s request for an increase in his already-steep weekly remittance.  Authorities were notified and a charge made that Tomas Ibanez was a practicing Muslim, still making the prayers five times a day.  Heresy is punishable by death.

Ibanez held out his hands and looked down at the fingernails, now almost grown back.  He remembered the look on the Inquisitor’s face as he held up the forceps.  That hurt like nothing he had ever known and Ibanez swore his allegiance to the Crown, to the Lord Jesus, when he should have screamed that there is no God but Allah.  But naked, whipped, exposed, he could not.  “It is my nature to be skeptical,” the Inquisitor said, teasing a poker in the coals. 

Ibanez’s business acumen stronger than his faith, his Christian piety was demonstrated by the transfer of a small property in Marbella, and a brace of German carriage horses, assuring his eyes and genitals would not be harmed.
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Wouldn’t you sail to Cuba or Mexico if you had money and ships and got pissed off enough?  I would, and I’m pretty certain hundreds of Moors felt the same way.  Colonial Peru is filled with hints and whispers of its colonial past, and half of those whispers could be heard back in Seville in 1542.

If you could travel anywhere in time, where and when would you go?  And what would you write about it?

15 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

I wrote part of a time travel story recently and had my character visit Hemingway at the floridita bar in Cuba. Was almost like being there.

William Doonan said...

That sounds like fun - deep sea fishing with Papa!

William Doonan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
john M. Daniel said...

Great post, Bill, and American Caliphate is definitely on my list tbr. For my novel Geronimno's Skull, I had the pleasure of going to the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, an Apache graveyard in 1918, Paris followingi WWI, a speakeasy in Southern Florida during Prohibition, and elsewhere through time and around the globe. I loved writing my way into the past!

marja said...

Hmm. Second try, so I hope this doesn't post twice.

Anyway, this was a delightful and informative post, and unique to boot. You've made me start thinking about places and times I wish I could visit. Thanks!
Marja McGraw

William Doonan said...

Thanks, Marja. Thanks, John. The Florida speakeasy would be a blast. Prohibition is one of those liminal times that nearly belts out fiction on its own.

John Brantingham said...

I LOVED American Caliphate and I could see your love of history there. But if I could live anywhere, it would be London 1960s to live through the Swinging London era. Me and Austin Powers.

William Doonan said...

Thanks, John. That's great to hear. Wow - I didn't even think about swinging London, but that would be quite a scene. The Beatles, the Avengers (the real ones, with Emma Peel), Gerry & the Pacemakers. Yeah, baby!

cleo said...

I've always had a fascination with the California gold rush. I wouldn't be here were it not for that historical event. My family came from Chile, France, Ireland and Germany seeking Riches. I'd love to travel through the Gold country during the early 1850's to see the chaotic mix of cultures working and living side by side for the first time!

Liane Spicer said...

The world is a dangerous place for women, and every era I come up with seems more dangerous - and smelly - to me than the last. With my attitude they'd be sure to burn me at the stake or some such and besides, I'm quite attached to indoor plumbing, air conditioning, Lysol and surviving childbirth.

Maybe I'd pop in on the Hopis and check out how their matriarchy worked, then pop right back out again. I'd do Woodstock to get my groove on, and definitely get me some of that Microsoft stock.

Then I'd settle down with your historicals to read of the messiness and adventuring in a relatively safe and odourless environment!

KeVin K. said...

Building on what Liane said, there are a lot of places and times in history where/when my marriage would have resulted in death. Actually, on average, I would have been dead 15 years ago from natural causes. And nearly blind, as glasses took centuries to wend their way across the northern hemisphere - and didn't get really good until the last half century.
Having said that - and tying back to my first sentence - I've been researching the Harlem Renaissance and the lives of 'shadow families' in the first third of the 20th century.
I also love alternative history - the 'what if?' speculation. I've been building an alternate world from the early 1940s forward. Still ironing out all the ripples & rerouting decision trees.

William Doonan said...

Great comments!

Cleo - the gold rush would have been a blast, if survivable. But you're right about that cultural mix. Up there by the motherlode was one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world at that time.

Liane - I hear you. Paying a lot of attention to prehistory, as I do, it seems to me that contrary to what we might think sometimes, the world is a far safer place now than it probably was for most of the human experience. But the Hopi culture is an inspired choice. I was using them as an example yesterday in class. If a Hopi woman wants to divorce her husband, she puts his shoes outside the front door, and it is legally done. You have to be impressed.

KeVin - RIght on. We're living longer and better, even without the organic food. Cultures seem to cycle through periods of tolerance and intolerance, and right now, right here, we're not doing too shabby, though there is certainly room for improvement. Your shadow families project sounds interesting!

Ty Johnston said...

Great post!

I, too, have been drawn to particular points in history. The Roman Republic about 80 B.C. has always fascinated me, though not so much the looming era of Caesar and then the Empire. The American Old West from about 1875 to 1885. Practically all of Europe from about 1400 to 1650 or so. Plenty of other eras, as well.

My love of history is one of the big reasons I write my John Dee short stories from time to time, the tales being about the events surrounding an immortal wizard born about the time of Christ, very loosely based upon the Simon Magus character of the Bible. Each story takes place during a different year, so far the earliest being in 79 A.D., with all kinds of dates up to modern times and even into the future.

bettye griffin said...

Fun post! I enjoyed it!

William Doonan said...

Thanks, Bettye!

Ty, that sounds like a fascinating story line. 79 AD would have been an interesting year to live in, especially in Pompeii!