Projecting yourself into minds from a different era isn’t easy. It takes a willing suspension of beliefs and assumptions to understand why people did what they did. This ability to detach from your own mindset is called historical imagination.
In historical fiction, anachronism is almost inevitable. The author confronts not only personal perspective but also the need to connect with modern readers. Diana Gabaldon does this brilliantly in Outlander by approaching 18th-century Scotland through the eyes of an Englishwoman from the 1940s, not exactly today but near enough for readers to relate. Barring time travel, in any novel set long ago it’s a sure bet that the good guys will be those whose values are most like ours.
Contrary to what the word “imagination” might suggest, historical imagination is most important in nonfiction history. It helps reveal misleading sources, forgeries, and faulty interpretation. Consider the modern “rehabilitation” of King Richard III of England, the final loser of the Wars of the Roses. Was he the vicious tyrant of Shakespeare’s historical drama, who murdered his young nephews to secure the throne? Or the innocent paragon of recent popular culture, unjustly maligned by the true villains? It takes a feat of imagination to step back from the saint-or-monster debate into the mindset of that violent age, when probable death awaited any unsuccessful contender for the throne, including Richard.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.