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Why She Writes Historical Fiction Part 2
Written by
She Writes
March 2019
Written by
She Writes
March 2019

In our Why She Writes segments we take a deep dive into particular genres and the women who write in them. We recently discussed the research that goes into writing historical fiction novels as well as the how some of our favorite literary works came to be. Learn more about why talented female writers such as Kristin Hannah and Lisa See decided to write historical fiction and the inspiration behind their work. 

Kristin Hannah

If you've read The Nightingale or The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah, you know the talent she has for writing historical fiction novels. While discussing her most recent novel with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Hannah talks about her family's history and why she decided to write about Alaska.

My family has a long history in Alaska … We’ve had three generations up on this piece of land. I’ve always just been really intrigued with the idea of the people in our modern era who are essentially pioneers, who go where others don’t go and who manage to wrest a life from a landscape that is as beautiful as anything you’ve ever seen but can turn deadly in an instant. I’ve wanted to show that Alaska for a long time. I loved this idea of, you know, Large Marge [an especially resilient character in The Great Alone], who now lives in a yurt and takes her showers at the laundromat and used to be a big-city prosecutor … You’d run across people like that in Alaska all the time.

When I go up and hang out with my dad’s wife’s girlfriends and some of my friends in Alaska, they are such a remarkably different group of women than I’ve met anywhere else. And a lot of them, interestingly enough, were like Cora [Leni’s mother], and came to Alaska because it was their man’s dream. The relationships didn’t go anywhere, but the women stayed. They forged this new life, where they’re now doing stuff like driving carpool in between moose hunts. It’s just amazing to me, sitting and listening to them talk, hearing just how different their world is and how tough they are. And they still band together as women, to support and help each other.

Lisa See

Author Lisa See is known as a 'critically acclaimed writer' and to her, this title means that her book isn't the first one readers choose when looking for their next book. Knowing this, she hasn't let others' opinions change her way of writing and always prompts her fellow writers to keep writing no matter the roadblocks they encounter. During an interview with NBC News, Lisa See talked more about her life as an acclaimed author: 

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was my fifth book. At that point I was what they called a ‘critically acclaimed writer.’ You know what that means? You get lovely reviews, and nobody reads your books. When I started Snow Flower, a lot of people said, ‘Nobody’s going to read that.’ People would say, ‘Nobody wants to know about China. Couldn’t you write something, just, American?’ People would say that to me. ‘If only you could have more American characters in your books, I think it would really help!’ And so I had in my mind a number. I thought, OK, if I’m lucky, 5,000 people will read this—but they’re going to be the right 5,000 people. I just thought, I have to tell this story, and maybe if I’m lucky it will find this small audience. And of course it turned out everybody was wrong and it was the big breakout book. But you can’t predict! It could’ve just as easily gone the other way where maybe only 1,000 people read it—and it still would have been the right 1,000.”

Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn jumped onto everyone's radar–even Reese Witherspoon's–with her book The Alice Network in 2017. Having recently released a new historical fiction novel, Quinn had talked more about the inspiration behind her work during an interview with Elisabeth Storrs:

I’ve always had the urge to tell stories, who knows why. My mother has a history degree, so I grew up hearing fascinating historical tidbits as bedtime stories rather than fairy-tales; because of that, I gravitated naturally toward stories grounded in the past. My role-model authors for hist-fic have been Gwen Bristow (great story-telling, clean clear prose), Judith Merkle Riley (who showed me that historical fiction can be funny) and Bernard Cornwell (most thrilling historical action writing ever).

Yaa Gyasi

When Yaa Gyasi learned about Ghana's history in the 18th century, she was inspired to write a novel that encapsulated the lives of women during that time period. During an interview with The Guardian, she talked more about her decision to write a novel set partially in the past: 

I began Homegoing in 2009 after a trip to Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle [where slaves were incarcerated]. The tour guide told us that British soldiers who lived and worked in the castle often married local women – something I didn’t know. I wanted to juxtapose two women – a soldier’s wife with a slave. I thought the novel would be traditionally structured, set in the present, with flashbacks to the 18th century. But the longer I worked, the more interested I became in being able to watch time as it moved, watch slavery and colonialism and their effects – I wanted to see the through-line.

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