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The Joys and Pitfalls of Writing Historical Fiction

I’ve always loved history. I know, I’m a nerd, but not just a history nerd; I’ve been a band nerd, an audio-visual nerd and a coding nerd.

I love history enough that I have always read books on history and watched documentaries without it being required so, in college, I discovered that I could take sociology courses to fulfill my humanities requirement. As a result, I didn’t take a single history course in college. I figured I already knew it all (!).

But I’ve had several opportunities for projects that required researching history over the years: I wrote a script for and produced an five-year denominational report using slides and video which drew its inspiration from events of 100 years before; I produced a video documentary on the 150-year history of Atlanta First United Methodist church, the only church mentioned in “Gone With the Wind” (as Wesley Chapel); I’ve researched and written a couple of scripts about the history of Hawaii where I’m living (Kapi’olani as received honor at film festivals).

Special problems of biblical historical fiction

The reason I’m writing this post is right now I’m finishing up a biblical historical novel titled Quest for a King, which is part of a proposed series called “Age of the Kingdom.” It’s set in the time leading up to and including the united monarchy of Israel, which included the reigns of Saul, David and Solomon. After Solomon’s death, the Israelite nation split into northern and southern kingdoms and did not unite again. Both were subsequently conquered and scattered by ancient empires, with only the southern kingdom being reestablished, but never again as an independent nation.

There are unique challenges to writing a novel about events that happened 3,000 years ago. Many insist the events recounted First and Second Samuel in the Old Testament are not historical events at all, but merely legend. I’ll do another post on why I believe the stories should be treated as history, and that’s what I have tried to do in Quest for a King. I received a bachelor’s degree in theology and worked for several years in ministry so it’s natural for me, with my interest in history, to want to retell these stories from the Bible.

But 3,000 years ago and half a world away, the culture was VERY different from ours today. Indeed it’s difficult to really get a handle on some things that were commonplace and assumed at that time. Take for example the cultural practices around marriage.

I do. Or do I?

First, unlike today, marriages were usually arranged by parents for maximum financial and societal advantage. Love was often not part of the calculus. If it happened, that was great, but it wasn’t the primary consideration. It’s surprising to 21st century people that First Samuel says Michal, King Saul’s daughter, loved David – surprising because it’s the only time in the entire Bible where it says a woman loved a man or vice versa.

Second, polygamy was common. Not universal – there were plenty of monogamous marriages – but men having more than one wife was common and was not frowned upon. Indeed King David, who was said to be “a man after God’s own heart,” had eight wives and at least 20 concubines. His son Solomon had 300 wives and 700 concubines!

But you had to be rich to have a harem. Usually men took second wives if their first wife failed to give them a son, and that’s the next thing about marriage that differs from our culture. Having sons was extremely important, because only men could inherit and own property, work outside the home to provide a living, etc. And in a largely agrarian economy, having sons to work the farm meant the difference between success and failure and the financial viability of the family. The book of Ruth in the Bible is largely devoted to the need for a widow to remarry so she would be financially supported.

The importance of having sons led to the next big difference with our culture today: Levirite marriage.

Cringe worthy…

Suppose a firstborn son died without having a son himself. It meant that his widow and daughters, if any, had no inheritance and no way to make a living. The solution: the second-born son was expected to impregnate the wife of the first-born son and, when a son was produced, he would be the heir of the first-born son, even though his biological father was the second-born son.

There is a tragic story in Genesis 38 in which Tamar is the unfortunate wife of the first-born son of Judah. Her husband died without an heir, and her father-in-law failed to force two of his brothers to father a child with her. Upset that Judah refused to force his sons to give her an heir, Tamar went to the extreme of disguising herself as a shrine prostitute. She positioned herself to be seen by her father-in-law, seducing him and becoming pregnant. Judah condemned her for being pregnant out of wedlock until she brought forth proof that he was the father.

There were many other differences with our culture, having to do with personal and family honor, which we can’t relate to today. So trying to write about how people reacted in certain situations is often challenging so that modern readers understand why people act as they do.

These kinds of things, plus the unbelievable cruelty practiced even by God-fearing Israelites in this distant past, make Quest for a King definitely NOT a children’s book, even though some of the stories, like David and Goliath, are among the most beloved Sunday School lessons. For children, the stories are usually sanitized, then rarely revisited, except as an occasional sermon illustration.

I have tried to show the reality of the stories in the biblical narrative against the background of the culture of that time and place. Some of those realities are brutal, but to gloss over them or ignore them would be to ignore things that seemed important to the biblical writers and would not allow us to see the events in their real context.

The central idea embodied in the series Age of the Kingdom is, during the brief 120 years the nation of Israel was united under kings, the monarchy was of a different character than other nation states. While Saul came to regard the throne as his own to be defended from those who might take it from him, ultimately the kingdom is God’s kingdom.

To be continued…


  1. […] is a follow-up to the article “The Joys and Pitfalls of Writing Historical Fiction” and specifically my new novel “Quest for a […]

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