I am in love with Dead People
No. Not necrophilia. Not zombies. History.
It has been said that history is full of dead people, and this is true. History is a mausoleum of humanity. Historical fiction is a method of resurrecting the dead in a pleasant way that does not require candles, chanting and a scary-looking necromancer raising his staff over a pentagram.
People are born, they live, they die. This cycle continues through the centuries without end, yet a single human lifespan is not long enough to experience everything a person could see and hear and do. Two lifetimes are not. Three or four or five are not. Have you stood in the biography section of a large library? A thousand life spans are not enough. Through books, we living humans can peer into the lives of those who have come before us. They are strangers, but still are people who have been babies, children, lovers, parents and then old men and women who always, without exception, pass into Hamlet’s undiscovered country.
We can learn more about what it means to exist than merely what we experience personally. In fact, it is often not until someone is dead that their lives begin to blossom. A second life, so to speak, immortality only hinted at while they were alive. Samuel Pepys was not sharing his diary in the seventeenth century, but readers now can know what he had for supper, or whether his wife was moody on one day or another. We can know more about a person after their death than we did while they lived. Biographers sometimes start writing before their subject’s demise, but the juicier bits of a life do not sprout until the body is laid to rest in the ground.
Adventurer Sir Richard Burton is one of my favorite dead people. He did things in his life that I would not do in mine, but I enjoy reading of his exploits. Some of the more colorful and disreputable adventures are shocking enough even today to make for jaw-dropping reading. His real life does not need a fictional re-telling, a biography will do just fine in his case.
Other dead people need a bit of fiction to resurrect them and put some meat on the skeletal facts of their lives. The clothing of the cadavers with imaginary events and conversations does not make their stories less true. I fell in love with Kemaleddin Reis after reading his sixteenth century eulogy, lovingly composed by his nephew Piri. Research showed only the bare bones of Kemal’s life, but some tidbits nearly screamed at me to flesh out. His own sultan had imprisoned Kemal for almost a year. There was a hint that the Reis was being punished because he had acted without orders. This tells me Kemal had extreme confidence in his decisions and a certain amount of contempt for politicians. Novelists must clothe their subjects in fantasy to bring them back to life. This is the method of literary necromancers. Kemaleddin Reis is duly resurrected in my novels.
Once a dead person lives and breathes and speaks on a page, we are closer to them than even to the living persons in our lives. This intimacy comes from being inside their heads, listening to their thoughts and feeling their emotional responses to events which could not be done while they lived, even if you knew them personally.
Recently I researched T.E. Lawrence as part of a study I was doing for the next novel. The study started as a fact-finding mission, but after reading thousands of pages I found I was in love with Ned Lawrence. He has been dead for 78 years.
Even if I had met T.E. Lawrence in 1925 at a dinner party, I would not know as much about him as I do now that his letters and biographies have been published. He had to be dead and then resurrected by other besotted writers before he could truly come alive for all of us to meet him and listen to his words forever.
I am in love with dead people. I enjoy resurrecting them so others can dance with them along with me, but I prefer mine to be fully fleshed and speaking in complete sentences. Zombies are less interesting and their stilted conversations are limited to the texture and flavor of brains.
History is better.