The Edutainment Value of Writing Historical Fiction
By Rebekah L. Pierce, Author
On August 1, 2013, I re-released my historical fiction novel, Murder on Second Street: The Jackson Ward Murders, to a great amount of fanfare. It was the second edition of the novel having first published it in 2010 after writing it for the National Novel Writing Month contest in November 2009. Readers of the first edition had been waiting nearly 3 years for this moment. You see, this edition was quite different than the
first in that it had: 1) a new cover, 2) a few new character additions, and 3) but most importantly, at the advice of an agent, more focus on the setting of the novel – historic Jackson Ward in Richmond, VA. Below is the synopsis of the work:
“It's 1929 and a local Negro neighborhood called Jackson Ward in Richmond, Virginia is booming. In fact, it's called "The Black Wall Street of America" by economists of the day. Things are booming financially and socially for the Negro community, but then a series of what appears to be random murders of poor working class Negro women begins to happen and everyone is on edge, especially the Negro business owners. The Ward is a very tight community – strangers cannot move freely about in this segregated town. They hire haunted World War I veteran and alcoholic Sy Sanford to catch the cold-blooded murderer, but murder is not the only thing threatening to destroy "The Black Wall Street of America." The real Wall Street is about to come tumbling down and plunge Jackson Ward and its infamous 2nd Street into a debilitative financial and social state from which it may never recover.”
So what is historical fiction? It is a literary genre where the setting of the novel is “drawn from history” and can feature actual persons from history, but more generally the characters are fictional. Historical fiction is probably one of the most difficult genres to write for two particular reasons: 1) there is much research involved and 2) the author has to create fictional characters or plot using historical context. In other words, the author has to study the historical period and then find a place in that time in which to create/place a fictional character(s).
And therein lays the entertainment value of historical fiction. I have always loved History, even though I teach English Literature. But what I have learned over the past 14 years of teaching is that students gravitate more to reading literature when it is taught in conjunction with learning the historical context behind the text. For example, I especially love African American history because it is filled with the trials and tribulations of a people who have fought to not only be free physically and mentally from the chains of slavery, but to live the “American Dream.” When I teach a slave narrative, I not only demonstrate the physical, social, economic and political effects of the people impacted the most by the “peculiar institution,” but I put it in a context students can understand: these were human beings fighting for the right to have what every human being wants and that is the right to “be.” And then we look at groups that are presently marginalized or ostracized by society and why. Then I ask, “What is the commonality between these groups?” The answer students arrive at is: human dignity – the right to “be.”
Murder on Second Street is, therefore, a unique work of historical fiction; it is a blend of history, mystery/suspense, romance as well as racial and economic politics. The 5 star reviews are demonstrating that this novel is not only entertaining readers, but educating them. I am receiving calls and emails from readers all over America, and internationally, thanking me for “teaching” them about the role Negro men played in “The Great War,” and the racism and hate they suffered against (ex. several Negro soldiers in the south were lynched in their uniforms as noted in the work) once they returned home heroes – in the eyes of Europe only, it seems. Or how they didn’t know that “The Black Wall Street of America,” The Harlem of the South,” Jackson Ward, a small Negro neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia, was filled with wealthy and educated people of color who were proud of what they had achieved in owning their own homes and businesses only 64 years after slavery ended. In short, “The Roaring Twenties” was a remarkable time in American history, and not just for white America.
This March 2014, I am releasing my second historical fiction novel, The Secret Life of Lucy Bosman. This novel is set in 1860 in antebellum Richmond, Virginia. Former slave and mulatto Lucy Bosman poses as a white woman to claim property left to her by her deceased husband, also a former slave. But the impending Civil War threatens to “out” Lucy and cost her not only what is rightfully hers, but her life as well. Beta readers are already calling this novel a “compelling read” and “a powerful story of race and gender inequality” in 19th Century America.
This is the genius of historical fiction when not only written well, but when presented in a genre with a huge breadth of space and time. It can serve as a reminder that we all want the same thing – black, white, yellow or brown: to be treated with dignity and respect. To live out our dreams – the American Dream. And it is gently wrapped in the loving arms of fiction.
Murder on Second Street: The Jackson Ward Murders is available for Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00E3XWN82 as well as in paperback. Check it out on Goodreads where an excerpt is now available: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18275244-murder-on-second-street. Join the fan page on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Murder-on-Second-Street/124154814274796) to get the latest updates and news on book signings, etc. Join the fan page for The Secret Life of Lucy Bosman at https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Secret-Life-of-Lucy-Bosman/771762916174206.
**Portions of this article can be found in my blog article, “Why Write Historical Fiction,” dated August 9, 2013 available at www.rebekahpierce.wordpress.com.