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History Wasn’t White. Why Should Historical Fiction Be?

Painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle (l) and her cousin Elizabeth Murray (r), circa 1778

I start this call to action with a confession. I began writing my first historical novel, The Magician’s Lie, around 2009. After multiple rewrites, working with my agent and an outside editor, we finally sold the novel to Sourcebooks in 2013. After more work and more rewriting, the book was published in January 2015. I estimate I must have done no fewer than 10 complete revisions, in which I overhauled nearly every aspect of the story: plot, character, timeline, scene breaks, chapter breaks, language, perspective, and countless other elements of the novel.

And at no point during that process do I ever remember thinking, You know, maybe there should be a character in this book who isn’t white.

Now, this seems vaguely ridiculous. White privilege is a reason, not an excuse, and as an American-born white writer I have benefited from that privilege. I’ve had the luxury of not thinking about things like, oh, whether this aspect of my writing reflected either today’s world or the world in which my story was set. I haven’t had to consider whether agents or editors will be interested in stories about people who look like me: overwhelmingly, they look like me [1].

If you’ve been following publishing at all, you probably know there’s an active, powerful #ownvoices [2]movement advocating for stories in which the protagonist and the author share a marginalized identity. And that’s awesome.

What I want to advocate for here is something different. Not every writer is equipped to take on a book with a marginalized protagonist; not everyone has that kind of story to tell. As allies, white writers can support, promote, purchase and read stories that bring racial and ethnic diversity to the fore. Same goes for stories from other marginalized communities and identities. Find them [3], love them, talk about them. It’s all the same stuff we ask our readers to do for our stories; it’s the least we can do to encourage stories we want to see in the world.

So if I’m not advocating writing stories from communities outside the mainstream, what do I want historical fiction writers who look like me to do?

More work. More research. Look, I know there’s already a lot. We’re spending hours looking up the menu at Delmonico’s [4] in 1905 and finding exactly the right smart cloche for our fashion-forward 1923 flapper to slap onto her head. We’re digging up slang, addresses, music, architecture and more. The best historical fiction pulls the reader into a world so well-drawn it feels like we’re there with the characters, seeing and tasting and touching that world.

And if you haven’t considered that not every face in that world you’re writing about is white, it’s time to consider it.

I use “white” as shorthand in that sentence but it’s about far more than race, obviously. Neurodiversity. Disability. Gender expression. So much more. People with marginalized identities have always existed; history books and Hollywood have created the illusion that they didn’t. Especially in the past few years, historical fiction has become a key tool to make the untold stories of women of the past more visible. In that same vein, we have a responsibility to help counteract the misconception of “how things used to be” when things were really never that way at all.

Again, I’m not saying you have to write a book with a marginalized main character or put a certain number of characters of color, LGBTQ+ characters, etc. in your book. No one’s awarding medals in the category Most Diverse Supporting Characters, especially not if they would just be exactly like the white character you would have otherwise written.

But when you’re researching your era, dig deeper. Are you writing Western romance with all-white cowboys [5]? Are all the soldiers in your ancient Greek epic missing their wives and complaining about celibacy [6]? Are all the characters in your book about a British household in late 18th-century India only either a) Indian or b) British [7]?

I don’t have all the answers; I mostly have more questions. But asking questions is part of how we move forward. As writers and readers, and especially for those of you who write historical fiction, I hope you’re asking yourself these questions too.

What historical novels have you read lately that did a great job incorporating well-drawn, compelling characters from outside the mainstream?

About Greer Macallister [8]

Greer Macallister's debut novel THE MAGICIAN'S LIE was an Indie Next pick, Target Book Club selection, and a USA Today bestseller, and has been optioned for film by Jessica Chastain's Freckle Films. Her novel GIRL IN DISGUISE, about pioneering private investigator Kate Warne, received a starred review from PW, which called it "a well-told, superb story." Her next novel WOMAN 99 is forthcoming from Sourcebooks in March 2019.