It fascinates me that there is such a range of genres in fiction and non-fiction and that people can be so tempted by some and so repelled by others. Crime, mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, comedy, horror, and more – there’s no accounting for taste. Today I’m going to talk about why historical fiction calls to me. But I would love to hear what draws you to your favourite genre too!
Having sampled many different genres over the years, I have come to identify historical fiction as my top choice in both reading and writing. I enjoy historical fiction because, rather like fantasy, it takes me out of the world I know and transports me to another setting altogether. I don’t want to encounter places and times I’m familiar with, I prefer to escape to somewhere unknown, where customs, language, clothing and relationships are out of the ordinary and beyond my own experience.
Broadly speaking, there are two approaches to historical fiction: 1) where the narrative is concerned with real historical figures and events, or 2) where it is a tale of complete fiction that just happens to be set in the past.
In the case of the first method, it might seem tired to revisit a period that has already been covered by historians but some retellings open up a whole new facet of the assumed history. For example, one chapter that has been well-documented in the records is that of Henry VIII and his six wives. However, The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory explores the circumstances surrounding the second wife’s sister, Mary Boleyn, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (along with its two sequels) chronicles the life of Thomas Cromwell and the part he played in bringing some of those wives to the throne. Both of these authors take a series of historical events and look at them from a new angle, while still basing them in fact. If the writer can find the right balance between presenting the established facts and weaving a thrilling new tale, then you hold a gem in your hands.
With the second perspective, some writers might prefer to immerse themselves in a brand new story rather than recount a piece of history everyone already knows about. However, avoiding any references at all to historical facts may cause the story to seem unrealistic. It would be inadvisable, for instance, to set a storyline in Europe in 1940 and omit the fact that World War II was happening at the time. It still needs to have a framework of believability (otherwise it would be best to head on over to the genres of fantasy or alternate history instead).
In my own series, A Matter of Class, I have tried to combine the two approaches, making sure the backdrop is based in reality but bringing the fictional story to the forefront.
One important factor that presents itself in historical fiction is research. It is necessary to be very careful with the details, and on occasion I find myself asking questions such as “When did the longcase clock start to be called a grandfather clock?” (not until the 1870s), or “When did ‘hello’ come into common usage?” (out of place in 1800 but grand by 1860). This demand for thorough research has the consequence of making the storytelling far more complicated – instead of the character just hopping into a car and heading for his destination, one must worry about the frequency of stagecoach stops or whether trains have been invented yet…!
And how much research is too much? An overload of detail is suffocating and does nothing to add to the story, while using outdated terms can also alienate the reader if they don’t understand them. (*cough* Georgette Heyer.) In the end, the reader still wants to be entertained with a good tale – if the writer is spending too much time describing the lace cuffs and snuff boxes and not enough developing the characters or plot, then maybe they should be writing a research text instead of a piece of fiction.
The main thing to remember about historical fiction is that you have to really love it to stick with it. It takes a long time to construct a novel set in the past, and it requires a good deal of world-building similar to genres like fantasy and science fiction. But, if you do love it, it will be worth it!
So those are some of my thoughts on the genre of historical fiction and why it appeals to me. But which genres interest YOU? Readers, what makes you pick up a book from one particular genre over another? Writers, what makes you passionate enough about a genre that you want to write in it and have you encountered any obstacles in your chosen fields? Historical fiction fans, would you agree with what I’ve said above or do you have anything to add? I’d love to hear what you think!
(P.S. Sign up to my newsletter if you would like to see the cover design of A Class Apart, the first book in my as-yet-unpublished historical fiction series – to be revealed in the first issue in April!)