The literary world has much to offer the study of history. While I do not mean to suggest that novels should replace academic history texts in higher education (though I’d be less concerned if they replaced many of the textbooks I’ve seen), good historical fiction, or fiction written historically, can augment our developing understanding of historical eras. Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” or Charles Dickens’s “Oliver Twist” are stories that inform us about our eras of study.
The reverse is also true. The effort of research and study of primary documents provides a bounty of fruitful forays into one’s imagination. Without imagination, being a historian is almost impossible since one is compiling a reconstruction of a past era with bits and pieces of information that have been handed down–much has been lost, naturally. Historians with an inclination towards writing do the world a service; whether they choose to write fiction or not, others will still recreate the past at will but not necessarily with any accuracy; I submit Dan Brown as Exhibit A.
In other words, historians have the done the research and have the imagination to produce fiction that enlightens the world on multiple levels. They also have a number of other responsibilities that make writing full length novels a challenge given the time available to them. Many may also doubt their abilities, having a healthy respect for the demands of writing. Still, where time can be found, the effort would be rewarding for both other educators and readers in the general populace.
By the same token, however, the assignment of fiction writing as part of a larger research project is also a fruitful exercise for the inexperienced history students. As a multi-disciplinary project, it is incredibly valuable: not only do English teachers have the opportunity to teach them about literature and creative writing, but the History teacher has the opportunity to teach both historical research and test cultural assumptions that they might make. A character has to behave as she might in the studied era, not in the 21st century; he has to communicate as he would in his era, not in this post-modern information age; she has to exhibit an education commiserate with what her era would teach her, not what she would learn in today’s democracies.
This is such a valuable mental exercise not only for budding historians, or at least young history students, but also for young people who are learning how to find their way in a world that supports many different cultures and mores. It is an exercise in understanding and in imaginative reconstruction based on available evidence.