Twelve years ago, I made a conscious choice to stop writing standard academic history books. Instead, I switched to creative non-fiction, choosing characters who lived through important historical events but who had left little or no documented evidence of their lives. I was fully aware that I was risking my professional and academic reputation by doing so, but I had retired from teaching and could do what I loved. I could try to please myself and my readers rather than a tenure and promotions committee. I believed—then, as now—that readers wanted both facts and drama, that they wanted to be caught up in a story while learning something new in the process.
I also knew that great stories influenced more people than heavily-footnoted academic tomes. Ask medievalists for example, what sparked their interest in medieval history. Chances are, the answers will include “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” or any number of historical novels. My own personal spark came from “Kristin Lavransdatter” by Sigrid Undset.
Now some ten books later, I have just received an invitation from a well-respected historical society to review a new book for their journal. The book tells the stories of two relatively unknown Southerners who took opposite sides during the Civil War. The editor explained that he was asking me because of my demonstrated knowledge of South Carolina history. He also commended my reputation as a successful author of fact-based biographical novels . . . and he mentioned the book I had written twelve years ago. I am surprised, but delighted to accept the invitation.
The take-away? Take chances. Do what you love instead of what others think you ought to do. Count your successes, not by money or awards or promotions, but by the level of satisfaction you receive by following your dreams. In the long run, that’s all that matters.