Recently on Crime Reads, novelist Raymond Fleischmann wrote a compelling editorial called "What We Write About When We Write About the Past". Fleischmann has one novel on shelves, so I (almost) identify with him on that point. He also thinks about our relationship with past generations a lot, which I have done in great detail on this blog - and again.
Fleischmann's main insight, that historical figures are shockingly similar to modern people, is something I've thought and read about. Whether it's the gritty journalism of Erik Larson's Dead Wake discussing young adult Lusitania passengers like Preston Prichard, or historical fiction with a basis in old newspaper articles like J.R. Moehringer's Sutton, the trend has gone from presenting "overly stodgy, prim, and restrained" characters, as Fleishmann puts it, to presenting people who actually lived.
My favourite line from Fleischmann's article is his accidental thesis statement in the middle:
Certain customs and social conventions change, certainly, but make no mistake: People are people, and they always have been. Seventy years ago, your grandparents told dirty jokes. They did the same stupid stuff that young people do today. They used curse words, many of which are the same curse words we use now. They felt self-conscious. They were aware of their flaws. They fought with their spouses, and they drank too much sometimes and made fools of themselves. There’s a picture that occasionally makes the rounds on the Internet of a Victorian couple trying not to laugh while getting their picture taken, and I absolutely love this picture. I like it not just because it’s cute, but because it reminds us that the people who lived many decades ago weren’t so different from us in a great many ways. [emphasis added]People have always been people. Whenever I write fiction set in any past time period, I remind myself of that.