There is a small independent bookshop in Greenwich, CT called Diane’s. They have a shelf with nothing but historical fiction titles, particularly ones with romance. Every time I go there, I want to stick a label on the shelf that says, “Lauren’s Shelf.” As much as I love this store, it is the only one I’ve come across with a separate section for historical fiction. Barnes and Nobles keeps their historical novels mixed with the rest of the fiction section. So does a great used bookstore in New York City called The Strand. I always wish that this wasn’t the case. Mysteries have their own sections and fantasy and sci-fi books often do, too. Why is my genre of choice discriminated in this way? Maybe it’s because historical fiction can be hard to define. As I said in a past post, it can range from Ancient Egypt to the Vietnam War. In that case, maybe a section called period books would be more appropriate. What are your thoughts on separate bookstore sections for certain genres?
For my 20th post, I’m straying from the topic of books for a bit and talking about period movies, which I love. I constantly say that although I’m neutral towards Keira Knightly’s acting, I will watch most of what she’s been in because so many of the films are costume dramas. Many of these films only appear in art house theaters. I’m not sure why, but I accept it and go to the closest theaters that play my kinds of movies. The frustrating thing about costume dramas is that so many are based either on real events or classic books. Almost none of my favorite historical fiction novels have been made into movies. Keira Knightly has been in Pride and Prejudice and will be in Anna Karenina, both based on classic novels. She also starred in The Duchess, based on a true story. There are so many BBC adaptions of classic Victorian novels. Still, many film lovers complain that these novels have been adapted for film too many times. My solution? Make new screenplays about fictional characters in these era or base them off of contemporary historical novels. Can we see those on film?
I began reading adult historical fiction with The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly. It was huge with 592 VERY large pages. I continued with the 976 page Forever Amber by Kathleen Windsor. Next came the 768 page Through a Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen. The Other Boylen Girl by Philippa Gregory and To Dance with Kings by Rosalind Laker weren’t quite as massive, but they were still pretty big.
My father used to tease me about reading tomes. Forever Amber hadn’t made it to the kindle when I read it, so I remember reading this huge book on the New York City subway while everyone else used their tiny e-readers. I really should read Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet, but I feel as though I’ve been worn out of 1000 page books. My friend had a great theory as to why Forever Amber had been so popular when it was written in the 1940s: women didn’t work so much. Therefore, they had time to read books like that. Authors like Charles Dickens would write big books because they were paid by word. It must have been hard to write a book that could make him money, but not overwhelm readers with the length. I guess that’s why serialized versions of his books came in handy.
I’ve come to the realization that a lot of historical novels are very long, but not all. I feel that reading long books has given me a strange kind of discipline. Still, I’m on the look out for shorter book these days, especially since it’s so difficult to read for pleasure during college when there’s so much reading I have to do for class.
As a student writer, I’m still trying to perfect short stories. I really haven’t gotten into novels quite yet. But the most frustrating thing with historical fiction short stories is the lack of places to publish them. I’ve seen so many wonderful short story anthologies and literary magazines that publish mainly literary fiction. I’m really not sure about science fiction or fantasy. Maybe those writers are having similar problems. There are so many historical fiction novels in bookstores, but I rarely see any short stories. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough. On the bright side, I have found two literary magazines specifically for my genre, namely Lacuna Magazine and The Copperfield Review. I just wish there were more mainstream literary journals that published my kind of work more often. Currently, I’m taking a writing course at college and my short stories are constantly historical fiction, to the point where I’m a bit afraid that the professor will think I can’t do anything else. I might post a short story here one day, but I’m a little afraid of people stealing my work. Any comments on historical fiction short stories would be most welcome!
It seems to me that historical fiction is a genre that is dominated by women. The few historical novels that I’ve found that are written by men have been mysteries. There are a few exceptions such as Ken Follet, author of The Pillars of the Earth, and C.W. Gortner, author of The Last Queen. And might I point out that C.W. Is a gender neutral name. I have recently discovered a fantastic historical mystery writer named David Liss, author of A Conspiracy of Paper. He really knows how to add details to his period. Okay, so I’ve listed three. Now I will make a list of all the women writers I have read:
Tasha Alexander (And Only to Deceive)
Elizabeth Chadwick (The Greatest Knight)
Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring)
Laurel Corona (Finding Emile)
Catherine Delors (Mistress of the Revolution)
Jennifer Donnelly (The Tea Rose)
Sarah Dunant (The Birth of Venus)
Philippa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl)
C.S. Harris (What Angels Fear)
Karleen Koen (Through a Glass Darkly)
Rosalind Laker (To Dance with Kings)
Deanna Raybourn (Silent in the Grave)
Anya Seton (Katherine)
Kathleen Windsor (Forever Amber)
I think I’ve made my point. The question now is why. Why are women so much more into drawing from the past, especially when men have completely dominated political history for so long. Maybe it has something to do with fashion and scenery that girls are just more into. Maybe it’s because I’m limiting myself to anything that predates 1900 and is in Europe. I do hope to go to the Historical Novelist Conference in Florida this coming June. I read about last year’s conference where almost everyone in the room was a woman. I really don’t expect any difference this year. If you have any opinions as to why women dominate this genre, please leave your comments!
You want to know something that I really don’t tend to like but is a very popular type of historical novel? Fictionalized biographies.
Elizabeth Chadwick’s novel, The Greatest Knight, was fantastic, but I kept wondering why she took William Marshall, an important historical figure with many non-fiction biographies and make a sort of dramatized version of his life. I just don’t see the point in that. If you disagree with me, as many of you will, please post your comments.
Another example of this was Philippa Gregory’s book, The Other Boleyn Girl. It was interesting the way she took a real historical figure that not many people know about and wrote a fictionalized version of her life. But if she was going to explore that person, why not just make a non-fiction piece? She used hardly any fictional characters, if any at all. Also, when it came to certain events and facts, her historical accuracy was not good to begin with. Yeah, I’m bashing one of the most successful historical novelists of today. Again, please feel free to disagree with me.
I find it so much more original to create one’s own characters. I feel like authors who don’t do that are relying on history a bit too much.
Laurel Corona seemed to agree with me when she wrote her novel Finding Emilie. On her website, she mentioned that while she could have written about the female French scientists, Emilie, she didn’t want to write all about someone’s life when there ate biographies that already do that.
The real person who fascinates me the most in history is Charlotte Corday, a woman who was against the violence in the French Revolution. She correctly blamed the majority of it on Jean-Paul Marat, who constantly wrote about killing people in his newspaper in order to progress the revolution. Not only did Corday murder Marat, but she did not hide her crime. She knew exactly what she was doing and was willing to pay the price of what she thought would lead to progress. She brilliantly said, “I killed one man to save 100,000.” She was, of course, guillotined. Marat’s murder made none of the progress that Corday hoped for. He became a martyr, immortalized in Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting of his death in a bathtub.
Still, I do not plan to write about her life in a dramatized way. I might include her as a minor character in a novel or perhaps one day write her biography. I might even do what Laurel Corona brilliantly did and find or make up a relative of hers and write about that.
Please leave comments as I know that this is a very individual opinion.
Some historical novels involve many real people. Others do not. Personally, I don’t think that this is a deciding factor when determining how good a book is. I believe that it’s often simply a mark of the personal author’s style. Many books without historical figures will mention them, but not introduce us. One thing I have learned is that in the majority of cases where we meet real people, the characters are rich and powerful. This seems to be a logistic. Dukes met men in parliament. You likely met the Louis XIV of France if you attended his court as a nobleman. There are certainly exceptions, like the peasants and skilled workers who made that swamp into the Versailles that we know of today. But the majority of poor people didn’t know royals and other significant people. “But wait,” you say, “Not all real people in history were rich and powerful.” Very true, but there’s a lot written about the rich and powerful in primary texts, which are the basis of non-fiction secondary sources. There’s not a lot written about real poor people. There are exceptions to that rule too, like the French peasant Martin Guerre. His story was written down because it was so unusual. He ran away from his family only to have an impostor come back and live in his place for years, confusing everyone. I mentioned in an earlier post that I’d like to write about the middle class and to be perfectly honest, I’m having a difficult time finding real people to incorporate into my stories. But I don’t think of that as a huge problem. As long as it is rich in period detail and works within the time frame, it’s historical fiction. Please leave your opinions on real life characters in the comments section.
I’d love to know how to write a mystery. I’m not sure if there is a particular formula to it (if anyone knows the answer to this question, please leave it as a comment). I do, however, know what makes a darn good historical fiction piece. (Do you really think I could write this blog if I didn’t know?)
My question is what makes the two work well together. I have found that some historical mystery authors are good at writing both mystery and historical fiction while others are only good at writing one or the other. One thing I’ve learned from my reading is that you must excel at both for a historical mystery to be good. Two examples of this are Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn and What Angels Fear by C.S. Harris. Both these books, in my opinion, were excellent historical novels, incorporating lavish historical detail. Silent in the Grave, in particular, added interesting themes pertaining to ethnic diversity in late Victorian England. However, I will not lie. These authors needed some more practice in writing mysteries.
I knew from the third chapter on who the killer in Silent in the Grave was, though there were some details involving the murder that surprised me. What Angels Fear involved a killer who we didn’t really meet until he was revealed. (Please forgive me if I end up giving anything away to anyone). I consider that cheating.
On the other hand, both Raybourn and Harris have written more historical mysteries as a part of a series, so perhaps their skills improved with practice. I almost never read two books by the same author because I like the variety of different voices, so I won’t be posting about sequels anytime soon. It’s not because I didn’t like the books; it’s because I like to vary my authors.
I personally think that writing a mystery is much harder than writing a historical story. I know that many people will disagree with me and if you do, please feel free to comment.
One thing I like to remember is that there can be suspense without a mystery involved. That is definitely something I hope to write into my fiction. And maybe I will one day try my hand at mystery writing, though I will take a workshop first.
The definition of historical fiction is debatable. Take the book, The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold. It takes place in 1973 and was written in 2002. Still, almost anyone who has read the book will tell you that this story of a teenage girl being raped and murdered and the effect of the death on her family has nothing to do with history. Therefore, it is not historical fiction. Isn’t it?
At the same time, the Vietnam War was just ending that year, 1973. A novel about American soldiers leaving Vietnam and the tragedy that the war left behind would certainly be considered historical fiction.
“Wait,” you ask, “So time isn’t what makes fiction historical?” Well, yes and no. A book written today about the 1920s or before will almost always have period detail in it, whether the author intended that or not. So books written today about that era or before will almost always be historical fiction. The 1960s and 70s were somewhat similar to today when compared to the 20s. So authors writing about that period have two options: be like Sebold and write about the 1970s in a non-historical way or be like Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, and write about the 1960s in a historical way. Another reason The Help is historical fiction is because it deals with a political issue of the time.
Here’s another question: what if a book was written in the 1940s about the turn of the century. That is very difficult one. Let’s do a little math: 2012-1972= 40. 1942-1902= 40.
Did I not already establish that books written today about the 1970s don’t have to be historical, but they can be? Well then, it is my theory that books written in the 1940s about 1900 have that rule applied to them as well.
So that’s my view on what makes fiction historical or not. I highly encourage you to comment and tell me what you think about all this.
Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Bronte Sisters, etc. are all great Victorian writers with books rich in period detail about the time they were written in. So, they’re historical fiction, right? Absolutely not! If a book is written in a certain time in history and it’s about that time, the book is not historical. Case closed. You can argue with me in the comments section, but I seriously doubt that you will change my mind on this one.
There are however, Victorian authors who wrote historical fiction. “What?” you ask, “Didn’t I just say that Victorian writers weren’t historical fiction writers?” Uh, no I didn’t! I said that if a book is written in a certain time in history and it’s about that time, the book is not historical. George Eliot wrote a novel called Romola about the 1400s. It was written in the 1800s. So it was historical fiction, even when writers today write about the 1800s as historical fiction. Kind of confusing, isn’t it? A little. Mark Twain followed the same example as Eliot in writing both about his time (1800s America, a time now written as historical fiction today) and times even older than his, one example being the Prince and the Pauper, taking place in the 1500s.
Aspiring authors are often advised to read books similar to what they want to write. Since I want to write historical fiction, I read a lot of it. But historical fiction writers also should be reading books written in the period they want to write about. Do you want to write about Enlightenment France. Try Voltaire or Rousseau. How about the poor in Victorian England? Go to the library and check out Dickens. If you’re more interested in the gentry, Jane Austen had better be on your Kindle or Nook! Books written in the time you want to study can be very much like primary sources, similar to diary entries or letters. And arguably, they are just that, primary sources.