Saturday, January 6, 2018

Hate History? Have I Got A Surprise for You: Guest Post by Priscilla Royal

Priscilla Royal is the author of the critically acclaimed Prioress Eleanor/Brother Thomas medieval mystery series set in thirteenth century England. A passionate reader and theater fan, she enjoys taut, visual storytelling and loves history for its unexpected revelations. 

PRISCILLA ROYAL:
Hate History? Have I Got a Surprise for You...

It’s no secret that I love history. Were I the US Grand Poobah of Educational Curricula, I’d insist it share primacy with math, science, and the requirement that all American children be functionally bilingual.

I am not talking about the war-treaty-dates-principle names-more war kind of history most of us endured. I mean three-dimensional, flesh and blood, in-the-moment kind of history. Adults aren’t the only ones who like good stories. Children unabashedly adore them.

Family tales were how I learned to love history. Not talking about famous people here. I’m talking about the tale of a family traveling from Maine to Illinois in the 19th century in a cart pulled by two horses named Bouncing Betsey and Queen Victoria. Or the story behind why a young doctor, dying of TB in pre-Civil War Pittsburgh PA, added a codicil to his will, in a barely legible hand a week before he died, that no child of his could be “raised south of the Mason-Dixon Line where they would be contaminated by the evil of slavery”. All families have similar stories. They teach us that history really is, as Thomas Carlyle said, “the essence of innumerable biographies”.

Carlyle’s statement was the principle I applied when I switched from being a faceless bureaucrat to committing murder medieval style in the 13th century. It also explains why I chose a cast of characters from various backgrounds. I wanted to show how the culture of the time and historical events impacted people like us or others we know. Although we are told that the failure to know history dooms us to repeat it, our inability to recognize current danger from past lessons is not just due to ignorance of the historical facts. We are also blinded by our erroneous assumption that we are superior to our benighted ancestors.

Although we may know how disease is spread, human psychology hasn’t changed, and, once again, history surprises by demonstrating that our ancestors weren’t all that benighted. They may have phrased their views differently, but many of their ideas sound contemporary. This is another principle I applied to the characters in my books. For those who think I’m being too modern, I point to Ecclesiastes who said that there is nothing new under the sun.

Attempting to gain clarity in a modern dilemma by applying the facts of a past era is like looking in a pond and not seeing a perfect image of ourselves. That is why I chose the period 1280-1300 (+) for my mysteries to demonstrate the problem. There are similarities between then and now, yet the match is not perfect. History is not an exact science, but its study generates questions and provides the tools for thoughtful analysis.

In the end, the value of history may be my passion, but the chief purpose of storytelling is to entertain, and I adhere to that in my mysteries. That said, as Homer, Shakespeare, and Ellis Peters might agree, it doesn’t hurt if you pick up something a little extra from the tale as well…

For any so inclined, there are fourteen books in my Prioress Eleanor/Brother Thomas medieval series, beginning with Wine of Violence and ending (at the moment) with Wild Justice. My website is www.priscillaroyal.com.

8 comments:

Camille Minichino said...

Where was Priscilla when I needed her -- in high school! She gives history a personal, expansive touch that is educational, entertaining, enlightening. I've been forced to abandon my disdain of history and for that I say, Thanks, Priscilla!

Priscilla said...

Thanks, Camille!

Diane Hendricksen said...

I love history. My mother was in Pearl Harbor staying at a hotel until her father got housing when the Japanese attacked. She was 16, and wrote her impressions down at the time. I had a history teacher, returning (a bit drunk) from shore leave when the bombing started; he had many more stories of the war to tell. History has always been people to me leading me to read historical mysteries as well as history books and biographies. As long as writers keep writing wonderful History stories, I will keep reading them. Thank you for a wonderful post.

Triss said...

Extremely well said and I agree completely.

Donis Casey said...

This is exactly why I wanted to write historicals, too, Priscilla, because people are the same always and the past is never even past! And you do such a wonderful job of making your 13th century characters flesh and blood.

Priscilla said...

Thank you all for your posts! Honestly, I can listen to everyone’s family stories forever. Thank you too, Donis, for your comment. You are another treasure of historical writing!

Anne Louise Bannon said...

What's frustrating is that so many history teachers forget the story part of it. I love history, too, but it took a teacher who was actually interested in the storytelling to bring it alive for me. And who got all excited about a history-making event when it was announced over the loudspeaker at school. BTW, also love this particular series and am glad there's a new one.

Priscilla said...

Thank you, Anne!