Why do you love historical fiction?

(c) Wikimedia (c) WikimediaWell, why do you?  I know why I love historical fiction but I’m not saying.

Maybe you can’t stand historical fiction.  If that’s you, I’d love to hear from you too.

Why?  Well, the Copperfield Review, a journal for readers and writers of historical fiction, which will celebrate its fifteenth anniversary, wants to hear our views, for a feature in the new year.  An expanded version of my blog post on the Anne of Green Gables Museum in Prince Edward Island, Canada, appears in the current edition of the Review, btw.

A few weeks ago someone put me on the spot by asking me what I meant by historical fiction.  There is no such thing, she said.  It has to be historical something, so let’s think for a moment about the various historical genres, excluding, of course, proper non-fiction history (popular and academic):

Documentary Fiction – blow by blow, and often biographical, accounts of what actually happened, written as (most frequently) drama or film (eg Steve Jobs film, which I haven’t seen)  or in the form of a novel.  TV companies can’t get enough of documentary fiction, especially if it features self-important generals.  I often feel they’ve run out of proper fiction.

Historical romance – Georgette Heyer’s girl-meet-boy stories, normally set in the Regency period, are good examples, if old fashioned ones.   A rollicking good read, all of them.

Fictional biography – Think Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which featured Thomas Cromwell’s life story, written up in a dense novel.

Historical mystery/ crime – A rapidly expanding genre.  Ellis Peters’ Cadfael series (written in the 1960s and 1970s) is my favourite.

Family sagas – ‘The Forsyte Saga’ by John Gallsworthy, or Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, or (dare I mention it?) Downton Abbey.  I read most of the Palliser novels a long time ago.  (In those days, I was dependent upon the public library and its stock.)

Alternate history and historical fantasyDestiny’s Rebel, by Philip Davies, the last book I read, falls into this category.  It was all about a princess in a fictional land in a fictional world, but loosely based in medieval times.  Much  fantasy fiction is set, very loosely, in the medieval world.  Vampires and zombies may also feature.

Steampunk (a sub-group of historical fantasy/alternate history)  Think G D Falksen and his astonishing pastiches, incorporating jingoism, lots of brass, goggles, dirigibles and all things that fly.

Children’s historical fiction – Same sort of thing, but for kids.

So, what do you like about historical fiction – or not?  Please let me know by commenting.


16 thoughts on “Why do you love historical fiction?

  1. Hmm… I would argue there is such a thing as Historical Fiction – aka Lit-Fic in a historical setting, such as A Tale of Two Cities or Burial Rights by Hannah Kent. (And I’d put Mantel in there too, to be honest.) I read these because, if they’re well done, then the setting adds an extra level of interest to the plot and characterisation, and might even teach me something about the history or culture of the time and place.

    The only other historical category I really read is crime – and frankly I read it to get away from the tedium of forensics and police procedural stuff which contemporary crime focuses on. Plus, for whatever reason, historical crime novels tend not to be filled with gratuitous violence, sex and foul language. Hurrah!

    1. Thanks FF. Are you saying that like all historical fiction if it is well researched, because the setting adds extra interest to the plot and characterisation? And that you like historical crime because it’s more to do with crime, less to do with procedures and forensics?

      1. Yes, the research has to be solid especially if it’s set in a period I know something about. And as far as crime goes, yes, it’s partly that, and partly that, for whatever reason, writers of historical crime tend not to use the kind of violence and graphic sex and language that a lot of contemporary writers mistake for being ‘gritty’. I’m convinced it’s the sleaze factor in contemporary crime that’s led to a big increase in historical crime and in the resurgence of ‘classic’ crime recently. We don’t all want cosies, but equally we don’t all want to be disgusted or harrowed every five minutes…

  2. I like the kind of historical fiction which is well researched, doesn’t mess with known facts but fills in the unkwon sections with what might have happened.

    I strongly dislike the kind which has characters with modern attitudes and behaviours set in a pseudo historical situation.

    1. Thanks Patsy. One of my pet hates is historic characters with right-on politically correct attitudes. Some writers try to get away with it by calling their work ‘fantasy’.

  3. I love well written historical fiction that speculates on the motivations of a real character from the past and explores why they acted in a particular way. It helps to consolidate your understanding of the period and relate to our ancestors. What I find fascinating is how human emotions and responses to these have changed very little throughout the ages.

  4. Thanks FF, for clarifying and expanding. You know what? I think I’ll writing historical crime.

  5. Hi Charlie, I wasn’t going to read this as I thought ‘I don’t like historical fiction’ but a quick reassessment was in order! (a) I’m writing a novel set in he late 1970s – um – history! (b) I used, as a child and teenager, to love Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy (less so) and (especially) Elizabeth Goudge. The former two, like you, I borrowed from libraries, the latter I bought. I loved her Cities of Bells books, Green Dolphin Contry and her children’s book The Little White Horse is one of my all time favourites. So, I suppose I do like historical fiction. And yes, that includes Ellis Peters’ crime fiction tho it’s the only historical crime I’ve fallen for. I admired Wolf Hall but abandoned it two thirds of the way through – I knew what happened – I suppose I am a reader who likes not to know what the ending is and despite her prose I was out of there! Actually, I’m not a great fan of hers, Wolf Hall is the nearest I have come to finishing one… So, there we are. And you know my views on Downton! Interesting post, thanks. Mary

  6. I adore Steampunk. It’s the perfect level of fantasy for me. I like the fact that the fantastical events are explained and fit into the world and that adventures still require brain power, not just being born to a prophecy! As a child I read Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman and as I’ve grown up I’ve just kept reading steampunk. Most recently I read The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman and I am very much looking forward to the next in the series!

    1. Thanks, Louisa. Fantastical events explained and how they fit into the world is yet another dimension.

  7. Hi Charlie … I love historical fiction and have done so since my early teens. Can’t get enough of being transported back in time with a wonderful story and believable characters. I think historical fiction is a meta-genre as you point out in this post – all sorts of story types come under its banner. You and your followers might be interested in the surveys I’ve done asking readers about their historical fiction preferences. You can find the 2015 survey report here http://awriterofhistory.com/2015-reader-survey/ and there are lots of other posts as well as reports from 2013 and 2012. All best, Mary (aka M.K. Tod)

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