We learn to write by reading, and so I’d like to share with you some of the works of classical literature that have inspired me as a writer. There’s no better place to start than with the Greek historian Herodotus. Herodotus’ Histories is my favorite book of all time. I re-read Herodotus like some people re-read Tolkien. “The Tale of the Clever Thief” (that’s my own name for it; Herodotus didn’t give that particular story a name of its own) is one of the most delightful parts of the work.
Herodotus is popularly known as the Father of History. He is also known as the Father of Lies. Both titles are appropriate. Herodotus was the first (surviving) author in the western tradition to write about the past in terms of human actions and motivations, not the deeds of gods and heroes. He was also a storyteller who enjoyed spinning a good tale, even if he didn’t think it was true (and some of the things he did think were true are pretty outrageous).
Writers of fiction and writers of history have long had a kinship with each other.
It is a telling fact that Herodotus, founding father of western historiography, saw himself as carrying on the work of Homer, the great epic poet. Herodotus himself has often been accused of being better at spinning a yarn than at getting his facts right, and Homer tells us quite a lot about the real warlords and merchants of his day through his stories of epic battles and heroic wanderings. Fiction and history have always sat at the same table. As a professional historian and an amateur writer, I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about how the two go together.
Writing fiction means imagining people and worlds that do not exist. That, in its essence, is also what the study of history is about. Now, historians must keep our imaginations grounded in testable evidence and rational argument, but all those facts add up to nothing without imagination. We will never shadow the emperor’s agents as they crept the back streets of Rome sniffing out agitators, or break bread with a gang of workers in the shadow of a half-built pyramid and listen in to their work-camp gossip, or watch over Confucius’ shoulder as one petty, corrupt, minor official after another slowly drove him to consider whether there could be a better way to live. Those people and the times they lived in are gone, and if we are to make any sense of the evidence they left behind we must try to imagine the worlds in which they lived.