Desolate, dank, gloomy, sinister mansions and castles with twisting corridors. Sounds you aren’t sure if you heard; strong, brooding men who may or may not be villains; ghosts that may or may not be real. Forlorn voices crying across the moors. Atmosphere of mystery and horror.
The first Goths were none of the above, but Germanic tribes that conquered ancient Rome. Fast-forward to the Renaissance, with its admiration for ancient Greece and Rome and its disdain for later fashions; that’s when medieval cathedrals came to be called “Gothic,” or barbarian. The earliest use of “gothic” for fiction was in the subtitle of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1764). Presenting his supernatural tale as medieval and barbaric, Walpole started a fashion and gave gothic literature its name.
Why the enduring appeal? From Walpole’s day to the present, ghostly tales offer a hyper-emotional counterweight to reason and science. The mystery of the gothic is not a puzzle to be solved but a terror to be survived. It may be paranormal or psychological, or it may leave the reader guessing (think Jane Eyre or The Turn of the Screw). Gothic authors play with the reader’s mind. Even when everything is explained in the end (think du Maurier’s Rebecca), the horror has sunk in deep enough to haunt readers long after they finish the book.
I've added a short essay on hope to my writing page. Interested to hear if it fits with your experience.
My students used to joke that I was happiest in times of plague, heresy, rebellion, fire, flood, and famine. It’s true, at least in the context of Tudor-Stuart England (the subject of that seminar). I love narrative history; without struggle there’s no narrative. The drama delights me—if it took place four hundred years ago.
What I want to read or write about isn’t what I want to live. Give me a quiet day where excitement is the throaty call of a sandhill crane. Give me adventures where the stakes are low. Give me fiction where I can identify with the protagonist in danger, then close the book and go safely to bed.
Writing recent history put these impulses on a collision course. Dozens of polio vaccination workers in Pakistan were killed in targeted attacks since July 2012. This was dramatic to write about, but too horrific to bring delight. Recent events haven’t yet lost their reality and faded into a story. And unlike most novels, there is no assurance of a satisfying ending.
I've added a new page with samples of my writing. I hope you enjoy them. Feedback welcome.
Baking, child-rearing, woodworking, writing: creativity takes countless forms, with infinite variations. There are also similarities that cross the gamut of forms. Process and product are extremely personal. Don’t insult a child without expecting the parent to feel wounded. If your hosts decorated their home with love, don’t disparage it and expect to be invited back.
Creation can be intensely frustrating and a source of intense joy. Almost every form of creativity is both craft and art. You have to know the mechanics of what you’re doing. You also have to know when to get out of the way and let the muse take over.
And when you are done, your child will walk out into the world alone. You can only watch and hope for the best. You’ve done what you could, and none of it guarantees what will happen next. Surprises and disappointments are out of your hands.
Some years ago I Googled my name to see what popped up. Alongside the more predictable sites was one by two gay guys in Amsterdam, Jean and Marc. They posted an elaborate array of racy photographs and tourist tips. Huh? Examining the site in detail, I finally found a link to an article on Amsterdam that I’d written years earlier for Compton’s Encyclopedia, with my name in the citation. Don’t bother looking; the Compton’s article no longer gives my name and so far as I can tell, Jean’s and Marc’s site no longer exists. But I think of them often when I reflect how little you can foresee what will happen after your baby goes out into the world.
My favorite author as a child was Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her fictionalized accounts of her childhood on the American frontier intrigued me. Her life was so different from mine, but the feelings and relationships she described were so utterly familiar. After turning out the light at night, I lay awake in bed making up conversations with Laura. I would show her my record player, which (in my imagination) amazed her because record players didn’t exist yet in her day. And she would amaze me as she showed me how to tap maple trees for sugar or make sourdough bread from scratch. Each of our worlds was magic to the other.
Why the fascination with stories from another time? They transport us as tourists to another century. It’s tempting to speak of the appeal of a simpler time, but I’m not sure earlier times were simpler to the people living in them. I suspect we make them simpler in retrospect by selective memory. Just as an American tourist to a developing country gets only a hint of what it might be to live there, my friendship with Laura – while improving my knowledge of pioneer life and fostering my interest in history – gave only the occasional hint of the complexities her parents must have faced every day.
Most stories worth reading take us into an unfamiliar world in one way or another. Historical fiction takes us into worlds that are real but we can no longer visit, except in imagination.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.