H is for Historical Fiction

I teach history. I get paid to talk about history. At the same time, it’s a wonder how little I get paid to do it. But anyway…

I tell my students who think history is boring that all it is, all it should be, is glorified people-watching. People are definitely not boring. Studying names and dates and skeletons may get old after a while, I can see that. But people are always fabulous.

The job of the historical novelist is to put flesh and blood and souls onto those skeletons.



Lavinia Fontana, Self-Portrait at the Clavichord with a Servant (1577). Fontana will help my character Emilia Canigiani paint her own self-portrait for the same purpose: to show to a prospective husband.

Shadow of the Portico is, among other things, a work of historical fiction. It is set in a very specific place and time — see my B is for Bologna blog for more about that. I’ve also included two characters from the period who have woven their way into the story.


First is an up-and-coming young artist named Lavinia Fontana. Talented, bright, beautiful (but, as contemporary sources attest, not too beautiful), and perennially pregnant, she makes a wonderful mentor for my naive heroine, Emilia.

There’s also Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti, Bishop of Bologna. An important participant in the Council of Trent, Paleotti tries to show the rest of Christendom what a bishopric is supposed to look like by using Bologna as a positive example. Too bad Bologna isn’t terribly interested. But his struggles make for a fun backstory.

You wouldn’t think so from my descriptions, but these two characters run in many of the same circles. Paleotti was friendly with Prospero Fontana, Lavinia’s father, also a well-regarded Bolognese artist. It turns out, Paleotti himself wrote an important treatise on the appropriate use of art by Catholics. Sometime in 1578, a Spanish art collector asks Lavinia to do a portrait of Paleotti. The painting, if it was ever finished, is lost to us, but I have used it as a way of bringing together some of my fictional characters with only a minimal amount of fudging.

103_R Paleotti Gabriele

Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti, from the University of Bologna historical archives.

Bologna was very cooperative about bringing characters and circumstances together for me. Thanks for that, Bologna.

Even though we have extensive records from the sixteenth century, one thing we lack about both of these people is an assessment of their personalities. Trying to ascertain who these people really were is kind of like trying to understand a person from their business correspondence. Or knowing how a person looked or acted by seeing their skeleton.

Like every good historian, I have continued performing scrupulous research and ensuring that every detail is right. That, it turns out, is much more difficult than it sounds. At some point, the man and the woman in the paintings need to become part of a story. I wish I was perfectly sure it was a work that historians could cite in their research. It’s not, but perhaps soon I’ll write those articles.

Not only do I teach history for a living, I reenact history for fun, and I read history for pleasure. Historical fiction introduced me to this world, caused me to be fascinated by the past. I feel a great responsibility as I write to weave a story in the facts that will have that same effect on others. One that will place us there, accurately, thoughtfully, and at the same time allow us to escape this place and enjoy someplace entirely new, entirely old.

And I hope Lavinia and Gabriele don’t mind if I add some flesh to their skeletons. They were both too interesting to keep their bones dry and dusty.



Filed under Chatting with the Readers

3 responses to “H is for Historical Fiction

  1. I never was a big history fan but I do love historical fiction and biographies/stories of people from past centuries.
    Evalina, This and that…


  2. My favorite college course was Art History. Not only for the waifishly adorable instructor, but the endless possibilities. You learn about the history that’s known, speculate on those things undiscovered, and, as a happy circumstance from that, can’t help but create your own history in the gaps.

    Glad to have found you through the A to Z Challegen. Keep on keeping on!

    ~Eli@CoachDaddy (#1091)


  3. If only all historical writers understood that it’s all about the people! It’s a tough genre due to the amount of research needed to ensure the historical detail is as accurate as is possible, but all the historical detail in the world won’t save it without real flesh & blood characters.

    Debs Carey


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