Sunday, October 6, 2013

T.E. MacArthur: What about History?

A little late this week? No, way late. Between trying to finish a submittable fdraft for Mermaid Stair, preparing for a trip to England, and trying to find a job, the week kind of got away from me. But he's the fabulous Thena MacArthur with a few strong opinions

When I first wrote this blog entry for Maggie, it was a 1,000 word rant about crappy historical fiction, namely the script of a TV series that butchered the character of a 19th Century woman I so greatly admire. I got on my high horse about accuracy with facts, not realizing that I was tilting windmills. The truth is, bodice ripper altered histories sell and sell big right now. And I blame Mr. Smith back at every high school in America for that.

Bear with me here, there’s some madness in my logic.

The ubiquitous Mr. Smith is your average public school history teacher who is fighting alarming trends in education, crappy pay, long hours, and a cultural malaise that can only deaden the heart of curiosity. Basically, across this country, we are taught that history is boring. Rare is the teacher who provides a look at the past that recognizes its complexity and human drama. And in fairness, we can’t hold Mr. Smith 100% culpable: we demand that our public school students be prepared to pass a test and move along to their careers. World History (99% Western, by the way) and U.S. History. Test. Move along, don’t recall anything once you’ve passed, don’t look back. And don’t forget to add in the Anti-intellectual trend that labels smart folks as snobs and elites, to be feared and/or ignored.

It should come as no surprise that we view history as a series of barely
related milestone dates. And equally, we should not be surprised that our media reflects this by presenting books, TV shows, and movies that squander the opportunities offered by real history, all because some producer or publisher thinks “history is boring.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for historical fantasy, I write the stuff. But I like to think that I’m honest about it. I feel a responsibility to use a foundation of accuracy before altering it, just as an artist learns the methods of the masters before creating their own style. I write fantasy; I do not promise my books can replace your history texts. But that seems like a brick wall when in reality it is a very thin line.

Deep down inside, I have to wonder if we know anymore what is fact and what isn’t? Is it possible that we have fantasized our history so much that we cannot quite tell the difference? I know there are political groups trying to have history texts re-written to suit their needs, ironically because they claim all history books have been re-written to suit someone else’s needs and that’s wrong in their book. Do they have a book? Are they right?

I know that we have whitewashed history for years, especially since “history is boring” and we want to give only the basics to students before they fall asleep. Or, because they are too young, innocent, undereducated, unable to critically analyze … whatever the excuse. Talk about a Catch 22.

As much as it sounds disheartening that history is really becoming more fantasy than reality, I think there is room for hope. These days, if a reader can use Wikipedia, they expect their authors can too. And if authors don’t, readership fades. Despite years of being taught about the dullness of historical development, there seems to be a rise in interest. Granted, it’s via
the fantasy route with paranormal histories, dramatized biographies, Steampunk and higher-end romances. We can thank the internet for it. The
base of knowledge we have today is tremendous, and getting larger. Competition for viewer time, ticket sales, and book purchases means that the audience can be picky. Sure, we’re back to the fantasy vs fact which challenges the internet as much as history texts, yet I view the plethora of information as promising. It also creates a demand that we know our histories better than before, when writing a historical novel. We can’t short cut: we can’t fail to know that Augustus Caesar never checked a pocket watch for the time and Annie Oakley was a married, tea-totaling lady. Our readers can double check us, and they can punish us for failing them by not buying our work. Yes, I know, some folks simply don’t care, but I think their numbers are diminishing. Smart phones make it cool to look things up on the spot. “Geeks” are beginning to be in vogue.

I don’t have an easy answer for this – sorry, I’m going to fail you here. But I do have plenty of questions, and I hope you can see that the 600 pound gorilla needs to be recognized. Can we draw a line between fantasy and fact with honest presentation? I hope so. I plan to write historical fantasy for quite some time, but I will promise you here and now that I’ll speak up about what I’m making up and what I’m not.

Oh, and please give history a chance. Really, the silly, brilliant, annoying, frustrating, disappointing and hopeful things humans have done before are likely to be repeated – it’s best to be fully prepared and armed to discern the difference between fact and fiction. History is not boring, certainly not if we keep doing things from the past, sometimes expecting another outcome despite what we know. Or … is that the definition of insanity?

More about T.E. MacArthur

T. E. MacArthur is an author, artist, and historian living in the San Francisco Bay Area with her constant companion, Mac the cat. She received her Bachelor’s degree in history from Cal State University and spent many an evening in subsequent Anthropology, Geology, Criminal Investigation and Art classes. Writing remains, however, her passion. She has written for several local and specialized publications and was even an accidental sports reporter for Reuters.

The Volcano Lady: Volumes I & II follow the adventures of Victorian lady scientist Lettie Gantry, and are T.E.'s first novels in publication.

The Yankee Must Die novellas continue the thrilling adventures of Tom Turner following the time honored cliffhangers of dime novels, penny dreadfuls, and weekly serials. 

To put it mildly, T.E. has a love for all things Victorian (history and clothing from 1870 – 1890 in particular) and is having a lifelong affair with the writings of Jules Verne. For fun, facts and giveaways visit

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