Understanding the Past



I was thinking long and hard about this Advent Calendar post. Mostly I’m known as a writer of mysteries and crime novels, but history was my first love. I was a history major for most of my college career. And, of course, the two are not mutually exclusive. As a matter of fact, the early career plan was to teach history and to write mystery novels on the side.

That didn’t pan out for a number of reasons, not least of which, teaching is not something you go into with an eye to moving on to bigger and better things. Teaching is, in my opinion, the most important job performed in our society — it is an enormous responsibility — and, for a variety of reasons, I wasn’t cut out for it.

But that didn’t mean that I did not still possess that burning desire to share and teach and proselytize. Oh, I most definitely did. But it occurred to me that I could accomplish much of that (while bringing down a healthy corporate salary) by writing those mystery and crime novels. Because, oddly enough, nothing teaches us about real life like good fiction.

And it is very difficult to comprehend the present without understanding the past.

I inherited my love of history, of exploring the past from my dad. I don’t talk about my dad much, but he was the single most influential person in my life. He was — and is…a tough guy. A very tough guy. But he’s a complex man. He’s a Korean War vet — best shot in his outfit, and naturally they wanted him to be a sniper. He declined. He thought shooting men from a distance was…evil. I’ve never seen him cry — I have seen him fight. I’ve seen him get into bar room brawls and I’ve seen him stand up at our little community civic association and speak long and articulately about why we needed to protect our community from moneyed corporate interests. He writes Haiku. He’s a bigot. He was a womanizer. He helps the grandkids with their homework. I believe it was through a childhood spent observing the contradiction that was my dad that taught me people are not good or bad, black and white, friend or foe…people are human and flawed and fascinating. You need to be patient and tolerant with them. It’s an early planet.

When we took trips as kids — and we took many trips — my dad spent most of the time talking about the history of the places and people we visited. We never went anywhere that my dad hadn’t researched everything about it, from the geography to the architecture. So the study of history was such a part of my life, such a natural thing, that I don’t think it occurred to me for years that it might be regarded as a separate field of study — or that this obsession with the past might be a trifle unusual.

Given my love of the past — and, frankly, research — I’m surprised that I haven’t written more historical fiction. I’ve done three historical romance novels now: Snowball in Hell, a noirish 1940s mystery; Out of the Blue, a WWI adventure and crime novel; and The Dark Farewell, 1920s paranormal and crime novel (due out from MLR Press and Samhain in the near future). The Dark Farewell is special to me as my dad was a primary source of the historical background. He wasn’t there, of course, but he listened to the stories and anecdotes of his relatives just as I grew up listening to him, and it was fascinating hearing him speak about these long ago tragedies — it brought them to life. I hope I’ve done them justice.

Frankly, there’s nothing more difficult to write than historical fiction — but there’s nothing more rewarding, either.

So the point of this rambling post is…Merry Christmas, Dad. Thank you for all you taught me. It continues to serve me well.

And Happy Holidays to you readers of historical romance!

Josh Lanyon

Advent Calendar Giveaway!

Advent Calendar giveaway: name the historical figure you most admire and the person in your own life who has most influenced you in the comment section. I’ll have my legendary dad randomly pick from the responses. The winner can choose the ebook title of their choice from my backlist.

47 Responses

  1. That’s an amazing post, Josh. My parents were a lot like your dad – dragged me and my brother around endless historical sites when we were kids, and though we sometimes whinged about it (especially my brother, who grew up to be a geologist and engineer so has little time for the history of anything but rocks), we were very fortunate to have the opportunities to see such things at an impressionable age.

    The historical figure I most admire is probably T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). Such an enormously complex man with such a wide range of skills and interests, he’s endlessly fascinating.

  2. What a touching portrait & great post!

  3. Fantastic post, Josh. Your love of history and the military always shine through. (Have you visited any of the European sites, such as the D-Day beaches? Unbelievably moving.)

    My fave historical character? Thomas Cochrane, the model for Aubrey and Hornblower and others – clever, daring, brave, idiosyncratic. What’s not to like?


  4. Joshua Chamberlain, the man who held Little Round Top at Gettysburg. He was in charge during the Confederate surrender at Appottomax, became the president of Bouidon (sp?) College (where he taught rhetoric) and governor of Maine. Amazing man.

    • Hi there, Karen. I admit I’m unfamiliar with Chamberlain. Sounds fascinating.

      My dad’s quite a Civil War buff as a matter of fact — my great great great grandfather was a drummer boy for the union — but in later years my father became more and more appalled at the treatment of the south.

      What a horrible war that was.

      • The Civil War (particulary battles in the Golden Triangle near Wash DC) is a particular interest of mine. Read Gods & Generals, Killer Angels and The Last Full Measure (Killer Angels by Michael Shaara; the other 2 by his son, Jeffrey) if you get the chance…Because you have so much time, ya slacker, LMAO …Excellent historical novelization of the war, though. Killer Angels won a Pulitzer for fic. Or rent Gettysburg to watch Jeff Daniels make the bayonet charge to hold Little Round Top. Then, go to disk 2 to see Pickets Charge. It’ll blow you away.

        Chamberlain is definitely a hero of the series, but he led a genuinely awe-inspiring life.

  5. I love history’s most devious characters: Talleyrand, who to France’s benefit survived so many dangerous regimes, Ben Franklin who with a mischievious wink was our most potent founding father (and philandering uncle), and grandest of all, P. T. Barnum, who predicted our own time by seeing that man prospered best not by giving people what they need but by selling them what one can make them think they need.

    My salesman father was such a man, not in terms of his morals, but in his ability after dinner to hear me or my brothers pronounce a thought and then take the opposite view just to make us think. He made me as a teenager read Das Kapital and Mein Kampf so as to know the world’s extremes…and of course argued against both of them. He often said “I don’t care whether your teachers are anarchists, communists, fascists or mad men. I’ll out argue them after supper. That’s my job.”
    I miss that delicious deviousness. I also miss the lost institution of the dining room.

    Thanks Josh, for a delicious post.

  6. I know exactly what you mean about being a teacher, and quailing from being a teacher. Can’t help but wonder how many writers have trod that road and made the same decision at the fork.

    Conflicted feelings about one’s father . . . ah, so familiar. Fashioning them into a tribute was loving and brave.

    I’m always stymied by “greatest influence” and “most admired” questions. Invariably, my mind turns up a patchwork — this person at this stage, that person for that aspect.

    Maybe it was all the customers at my parents’ tavern, the one where I spent my formative years. Maybe it was Eddie Bychinski in particular, for too many reasons to list. Hell, maybe it was the Wurlitzer jukebox, a dispenser of joy and wisdom.

    Historical figure? Impossible to say, unless I could see into each one’s soul.

    Lovely, thoughtful post, Josh.

    • Thanks, KZ.

      That’s very true about different influences at different points of one’s life. But then given the vastness of history…I guess it would be pretty weird to be influenced by one person and one alone.

      And then there are the fictional characters that influence us. The stories that stay with us and make us think.

  7. What a fascinating post 🙂 Between historical and futuristic, I am definitely more interested in the past.

    I think while one doesn’t need to be 100% accurate, writing historical stories is extra difficult because you have to make sense what happened in the past that got us here now, not much room for margin of error. *g*

    “Snowball in Hell” breaks me heart, I am still waiting for the more Matt and Nathan 🙂

    And very cool that you dad writes haiku, I remember reading Jack Kerouac’s when I was younger and really loved them.

    • Hi Eve,

      I was on a panel for historical mystery writers recently, and many of them were discussing the challenge of making historical fiction relevant to the modern reader. Which, if you love history, seems a no brainer. How could it NOT be relevant? But in some ways, historical fiction can be the hardest sell.

      I plan to write more Matt and Nathan — absolutely. I love the characters and the time period.

  8. I too majored in history in college with a plan to teach and do writting on the side. Needless to say, doing neither now. My personal interests have always been in European history but that didn’t stop my parents from dragging me to every historical site in the US that they could afford to. I’ve visited every state East of Missouri but nothing West.
    Historical figure would have to be Queen Elizabeth 1, because she was such a pioneer for her day and today is an early example for women’s rights.
    Personal figure would have to be my grandma on my mom’s side because she managed to raise 10 children and also be a stepmom to 8.

    • E-e-eighteen children. Yes, that’s the stuff.

      Queen Elizabeth really is fascinating to read about. When you consider the flesh and blood behind the pages fo the history books…it’s just amazing that anyone could do a fraction of the things she accomplished. In fact, just surviving was quite a feat considering the obstacles.

  9. Interesting portrait. My own dad had some similar contradictions–rock-solid in honoring commitments, totally incapable of showing approval to his own kids, afflicted with the verbal bigotry of his small-town southern upbringing but working with black men in apparent harmony and mutual respect. He could’ve taught me a lot about WWII, but he seldom talked about his experiences as a POW in Germany, and I can’t blame him. The only things he taught me on purpose were how to carve a willow whistle, tune my car, and always carry water and a blanket while traveling. Oh, and changing oil. He was big on oil changes… The older I get, the more I realize I learned from him. But the greatest influence was probably my mother. She had a lot of serious problems that impaired her ability to raise us kids, but she gave me the love of books, and that opened an escape hatch to the universe.

    Historical figures…? That changes from time to time, but right now I think I’d say Eleanor Roosevelt. She accomplished so much in the face of such virulent hatred (for instance, FDR’s enemies spread rumors that his handicap was from syphillis transmitted via Eleanor’s affair with an infected black man) that I’ve got to admire that woman’s guts.

    • Lee, the oil change? That’s got to be a generational thing. My dad is still a fanatic about oil changes. *g*

      Eleanor Roosevelt — great choice. Amazing what you can get done when you don’t stop to worry about what other people might think.

  10. Joshua Chamberlain was an amazing guy. There is a very nice museum in his honor in Brunswick, Maine (home of Bowdoin College). He is also buried in the cemetery in Brunswick and I have visited his grave.

    As for people who’ve had an influence on me, I think I would pick my grandmother. She was a wonderful woman who had an incredible number of accomplishments in her life. I learned so much from her and still think of her every day, even though she died 31 years ago.

  11. Kate, when I hit my adolescence I tried to tune the history lectures out with books — I always had a book with me. So no matter where I was, I was doing my best to be somewhere else. *g*

    TE Lawrence is fascinating.

  12. I like the sound of The Dark Farewell! I see my tbr list never gets any shorter 🙂

    I think on balance I admire King Alfred the Great most in history – took a country on the verge of falling to invasion, reconquered at least half of it, brought peace, taught himself to read and then established the first navy and the first universal schools. Its rare to get a king who’s as good at peace as he is at war.

    In my personal life, probably my husband, who continually does a great job at counteracting my insecurity 🙂

  13. Hmmm….greatest historical figure??!!!! I can’t decide between Dr. Seuss and Mark Twain,

    Dr Seuss’ imagination was incredible. And his so very clever books that are fascinating to children yet carried messages appropriate for their time (and sadly, many of the issues still exist)….wow.

    And I just like Mark ‘Twain and his witticism. I want to “hang” with him!

    My father is a Korean war vet as well; he’s occasionally told the “funny” stories and has just recently told a few of the more horrific stores (he’s 83). He was an 18 y/o with high blood pressure when he was drafted; he downed a bunch of his medication so he would pass the physical…..then went without medicine for the rest of his stint. Because “that’s what you do.” He’s actually my biggest hero, if truth be told.

  14. I love all of your stories and am waiting for a follow-up to Somebody Killed His Editor. I laugh every time I read it!

    My grandfather, who tragically had Alzheimer’s, would tell me stories about his years as a fireman with the city when they still used horse-drawn wagons. He was full of wonderful stories right up til the end.

    • Thank you, Angela. I admit I laughed plenty writing it. *g*

      That is a tragedy. I admit that Alzheimer is on my secret dread list. Our family has been miraculously free of it so far but I fear all these tin cans are going to catch up with me one day.

  15. This was a lovely, moving post, Josh. Your father sounds like a wonderful parent. For good or ill, we never stop being our parents’ children.

    My favorite historical person is Alexander Hamilton, the most complex man I’ve ever read about. (Complex people fascinate me.) Orphan, bastard, Washington’s right-hand man, the first Secretary of the Treasure of the United States at 32–and he had to invent the entire system!–through sex scandal, political scancal, personal tragedy of unbearable proportion, and a shocking too-early death. If his life had been a novel, nobody would have believed it.

    The real-life person who most influenced me was my mother. I seldom saw her smile. Seven kids, poverty, a husband hooked on gambling, two sons in jail, an abusive father who followed her around for years after she married–and yet she survived and persevered. I don’t know how. But she did. By example she taught me that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

    • Ruth, your mother sounds like my father’s mother — right down to surviving a spouse with a gambling addiction. Fascinating. I think the truth is, with each generation we’re increasingly soft and selfish.

      Alexander Hamilton — great choice! Larger than life, absolutely.

  16. Great post, Josh.
    I’d have to say my dad influenced me the most. He had little formal education, but was a voracious reader. In our house books were the most precious things we owned. He overcame childhood polio in that he learned to adapt and never shirked working on his feet long shifts at first a tavern he managed during WWII and then through luncheonettes (think coffee shops) he partnered with his brothers-in-law. He and my mom were like your dad in that they preferred going to historical sites when they visited us. (Bored my MIL silly). He loved people and was always curious to learn more about them whether it was the waitress at a Perkins or his hospital nurse.
    He died after a long illness in the hospital. At his funeral held just two days later, he had over two hundred people from all walks of life and from as far away as California, drop everything to pay their respects. His charge nurse returned days early from her vacation upstate NY to be there.
    He was the type of guy who would give you the shirt off hs back -even when he didn’t have one. He taught me that everyone had a story worth telling.
    For history – Abraham Lincoln. There is something so homely – not regarding appearance – but so unprententious. There is just so much to admire about him.

    • Your dad sounds like an amazing man, Jeanne. That’s really astonishing — and moving — that so many people showed up to pay their final respects.

      Abraham Lincoln — I read so many bios of him in grade school. I’ve always felt like he was family. *g*

  17. Wonderfully put!
    Wonderful written historicals made me research more about Catherine Swynford, whom I now admire a great deal – she never gave up on politics and John of Gaunt even when he choose both before her.

    My grandpa was another fantastic man. He teached us a lot of love, even while having a wife that over the decades abused him and his children with her passive-agrassive way

    • Ah, that’s very interesting, Sempra. About Swynford — but also about your grandmother. That kind of passive-aggressive thing makes for wonderful villains in fiction. Not quite so entertaining in real life, true enough.

  18. Nice post! Will have to get The Dark Farewell when it’s out. I’m always looking for fiction set in the 1920s, and it sounds great.

    William Haines for the historical person. Although, if he was a bit more historical, I might say Paul Monette. But he only died about 15 years ago. My mom for the person in my own life.

  19. My favorite historical figure is Carrie Chapman-Catt. She was instrumental in getting women the right to vote. What was a tragedy to me is that I never heard of her until College! I wrote a report on her and she was absolutely the classic manager. I was a manager at the time and I was very influenced by her. She had goals, plans and she followed them. The southern women in the movement wanted to slow down the process and she give them an ultimatium. Get on the team or get out of the way! Yet, she was reported to be absoluted charming. The one trait I could never cultivate but I really envied. She had the ability to turn surly crowds into glorious united Americans. Believe it or not, she sold sewage systems and community organization. She also started the League of Women Voters after we got the right to vote.

    My other role model was my mother. Tough, hardworking and determined that her two children would be able to take care of themselves. She made is learn things we didn’t want to know, take risks we were scared to take and learn to play bridge which we loved. What can I say, she never quite, never gave up and kept on going being herself. She also had charm. What can I say, they left the charm gene out of me but I did succeed to do what I wanted to do and absoluted loved what I did so she certainly accomplished her goal for her kid.

    • Murphy, I remember seeing a PBS special on Chapman-Catt years ago. It was appalling to me to hear the arguments against women getting the vote. Clearly it was a threatening notion.

      Your mom sounds like she was a wonderful woman.

  20. Josh, loved your blog!

  21. Your post rang a number of personal bells. Complex man, lots of childhood trips, each and every one with a running commentary on the history of the place: you could have been talking about my own father, Though, bar room brawls, womaniser: no, you weren’t *g*.

    He was a history teacher for over 30 years, and after he retired, he actually went back to studying, finally getting his PhD (about some REALLY obscure bit of German history) at the age of 73.

    The first time my parents visited my English mother-in-law, she showed them round Suffolk and parts of London. And I remember her bemusement when – wherever she took them – my father knew a lot more of the place and its history than she did herself; bearing in mind that she was a teacher herself, and that he’s German.

  22. Lovely post Josh, your dad sounds a lot like mine, mine was a womaniser until he married my step mom, now the thumb print glows!

    We did historical sites around europe, have you any idea how many standing stones there are in Brittany and Normandy! And Rome is still my favourite city for the history, Roman and mithraic temples.

    My paternal grandparents were huge influences, although their lives were easier than many other posters, but they had the time to have fun whist teaching us faith and patience and lots of little things that I find myself qoting to my own children.

    Historically, Johannes Gutenberg, books have been incredibly important in my life since before I started s chool, so the biggest influence has to be the man who introduced ‘modern’ printing.

  23. I enjoyed your post. It’s not every person who can regard a complicated parent so understandingly (I know from personal experience!).

    “It’s an early planet”. 🙂 I love that, too. So true.

  24. Thanks, Mara. *g*

  25. Tonight I’ll be saying my esteemed parent and he’ll be picking names out of a hat (okay, a salad bowl). I’ll announce the winner tomorrow.

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