Over at her blog, Pamela Freeman, an author of fantasy, children's and now historical fiction, muses on world building in a recent post.
Her current work is set in WWI, and some of her beta readers, she discovered, knew little of that era. She realised you can't take historical knowledge for granted, so the same issues of "how much of the world to show" occur as do when creating a world beyond our own in far time or space.
As I wrote on her blog, it makes me think of how one wastes the knowledge of the older members of our families. Sometimes, they don’t want to talk about it, and we can’t do anything about that. My grandfather, who came back from Gallipoli with serious “shell shock” as they called it then, never spoke of his experiences to my knowledge, and I suspect he had good reason for his reticence.
Other times, they just don’t think to talk about it.
My parents were too young to actively fight in WWII, but both have amazing tales to tell of the era. My dad, on duty as a naval spotter, the day the Japanese submarines came into Sydney Harbour. My mother, working for the National Emergency Services, getting the call to dash down two levels below Wynyard Station where she’d transcribe secret service messages–she was a whiz at shorthand. Stories I’d never heard until recent times, as they slowly succumb to dementia and their past returns at the expense of their present.
This is the history of real people, the history that will be lost as they die or forget or fail to tell the stories. It is one of the reasons that historical fiction, well-researched, is simply crucial to our understanding of ourselves. History books might capture the big event and the Significant Dates, but it takes fiction to truly understand the personal, the emotional and the intimate.
Our failure to seek out those stories not only diminishes our relationships, it diminishes our history.