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The Power of Words (and History)


I’ve just returned from the Historical Novel Society conference, a place where nerds unite! And I am one. A big giant nerd. I get to hang out with people who know minutiae about which poisons were used in Renaissance Italy to off the powerful, or info about the first steam-powered car. An don’t even get me started on ancient burial rites.

My writing partner, Hazel Gaynor, flew over from Dublin and we laughed enough to make our sides hurt, plotted our next book, and double-fisted pints of coffee and glasses of wine. (Jet lag is confusing.) I joined my fellow authors of the French Revolution collaboration (we’re calling ourselves the Scarlet Sisters) in a champagne toast to celebrate our book out this fall. It was wonderful catching up with so many friends, listening to panels about heroines of WWII, how to write dual timelines, crafting sword-fighting scenes, and discussing the way movements from the parallel and intersect with those of today. I had a blast participating on a panel discussing how to write the historical female during the #Metoo movement, the topics I consider off-limits, and what it’s like to survive backlash when a controversial subject arises in our manuscripts. And of course, I couldn’t be happier than to meet eager readers at the reader’s festival and book signing. The very thing for which every writer yearns.

I headed home, exhausted and happy with many books in tow. I was home only twenty-four hours before packing up the car and heading south for family vacation at the lake and a little R&R. As I ruminated on the events of the last few days, I blasted the soundtrack of Hamilton, the musical. The lyrics have become very familiar to me and my daughter, and we sang along, but I couldn’t help but be struck by one line in particular that day, especially fresh from the conference. The character of Aaron Burr sings:

“History obliterates every picture it paints.”

A brilliant line to be sure. In fact, it sent me down a tunnel of deep thinking. As time passes in this life and the life after and the life after that, one layer paints over another, changing and ultimately enriching the portrait of today. Today, though a fleeting moment, matters. In time, it will be our gift to our ancestors—or their burden.

As a historical writer, I aim to battle this slow but inevitable obliteration. To preserve details of yore in order to create a world that’s as alive and vibrant today as it was then; to illustrate the way our choices and mistakes of the past dictate our present and forge our future. To illuminate the way human nature doesn’t change, but how our world can change, with only a few courageous acts.

That one brilliant line from Hamilton sparked my imagination for an hour of rabbit holes and tangents. But ultimately, I came back to this: it’s important to honor the power of words. Whether it be to paint a picture of the past for our own understanding, or to entertain. This is why we’re here at Writer Unboxed; to honor this power and to galvanize each other to rising to the challenge of creation. Wouldn’t you agree?

Is there a play, film, book, song—or moment—that made you realize the power of words? I’d love to hear your stories!

About Heather Webb [1]

Heather Webb is the international bestselling and award-winning author of 6 historical novels set in France, including her latest Meet Me in Monaco and Ribbons of Scarlet. In 2015, Rodin’s Lover was a Goodread’s Top Pick, and in 2018, Last Christmas in Paris won the Women's Fiction STAR Award. To date, Heather’s books have sold in over a dozen countries worldwide and received national starred reviews. As a freelance editor, Heather has helped over two dozen writers sign with agents, and go on to sell at market. When not writing, Heather feeds her cookbook addiction, geeks out on history and pop culture, and looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world.