I study history. I especially like primary sources. I then use what I’ve learned to create lives for imaginary or semi-imaginary people. I read everything I can — popular literature is very important to me as I try to gain access to a world that is not my world. Context is important. I study paintings that are contemporary to the era in which I’m interested to see what surrounded people in their lives and what commanded their focus. I am as thorough as I can possibly be. I’ve been complimented by historians on the accuracy in my books, but I try very hard not to overburden my character’s lives with some scholarly rant about the world they live in.
All I can ever know about the past is that I cannot ever live there and that’s important. Where were they that I am not? What did they do to bring this world — my world — into being? That matters.
One thing I’ve learned is that we don’t know much about them. Our knowledge is a chamber of fading echoes. A few figures stand out for a generation or two (sometimes longer) as an emblem of the past — but that figure will always exist in our time and for us. For example, we relate to Anne Frank because we know about her, but every time her story is interpreted it becomes more OUR story and less her story. We know Marilyn Monroe wore a size 14, but we imagine that to be the SAME size 14 people wear today (it wasn’t. It was 34/26/34. I know. I sewed which means I studied the backs of pattern packages to find out what sewing notions I needed and the yardage for my size, back then, a size 9, 32/23/32). We talk about the fifties and the “Father Knows Best” family without thinking that their real-life counterparts had grown up during the Depression and lived through WW II. Many of them built their families in a world very different from the world their parents had known. We don’t even think that “Father Knows Best” was entertainment, not documentary.
We forget what Hitler really was; we define fascism as anything we don’t like. We don’t even remember that Hitler was not the only one, not even then. We don’t think of Stalin, Tojo or Mussolini. It’s too much for us. We want it simplified, and then we forget it was not actually simple; we made it so.
Goethe said it very well during his trip to Italy when he was in his 30s. He loved art — painting — and wondered at the time if he were an artist. He studied everything he could before his trip and when he GOT to Italy, he was stunned. He said that there were thousands of “lesser lights” whose work he’d never heard of, never seen, did not even know existed but which were lovely, necessary and important. The same is true looking at any historical moment, any historical figure.
We look at the artifacts of time and assemble them into categories WE have made up in OUR time. Example, because Giotto’s work is different from the other “medieval” painting we know of, we class him as a Renaissance painter but conveniently ignore the years in which he was painting. We extend the arbitrary classification to fit our expectations. We don’t even ask “Why did Byzantine art have such a hold on painting for so long?” (Byzantine art being an arbitrary label) It’s a good question to ask, though, and the answer is beautiful, (I’m not telling) and worthy of respect. We call the Middle Ages the dark ages, but in fact, it was a time of rapid progress in almost every area — science, art, architecture, public safety. The European city — with brightly painted buildings — was born during the “dark” ages.
For centuries people thought Greek and Roman statues were always white, that white marble had a special significance to them — it did but because it was a good surface to hold paint and keep colors true. How about that?
Often we look at the sincere people of other eras and don’t afford them the respect they deserve. We forget that their world had tensions just as ours does. That it was complex and competitive, and they were also lost and confused a lot of the time. That their aspirations and hopes might not have fit the narrow compass of their lifetimes. That their imaginations were stultified by their beliefs, the expectations of others, social norms (which we judge rather than we learn about) and they — like us — mostly did the best they could. The further back in time, the fainter the echo. We were bored learning about this stuff in school. History is too much for us. We have our own moment to contend with.
As did they.
If you study history, you can be surprised. If you study it enough you’ll be humbled. It is Samuel Beckett saying, “Try, fail. Try again. Fail better,” across millennia.