Discussion – The Pros and Cons of Historical Fiction

Hello everyone,

I am back with another discussion post and having written last year about the pros and cons of thrillers, I have decided to write something similar about another genre. This time it is historical fiction.

Since I first decided to try out historical fiction towards the end of 2018, it has become my favourite genre so on that basis it was easy to think of several good points! But on the flipside there are some areas where on closer inspection, it is not quite so perfect.

A historical fiction novel always demands a lot of research on the author’s behalf and the best ones are usually all-encompassing, transporting the reader right into the midst of the time period in which it is set. In my experience, the less successful ones are those that lack that same level of detail, while there is perhaps a greater emphasis on the writing style than in other genres.

Without further ado, let us take a look at what historical fiction does so well, and the areas where it is slightly lacking.


Pros

It Reimagines History

History is such a broad and fascinating subject, and to document it in fiction brings a whole new perspective on events that took place many centuries or decades ago. We may get to experience them through the eyes of characters who never previously had a voice, or discover an original story set within the captivating backdrop of a particular era.

The inspiration for historical fiction novels can sometimes come from objects and artefacts, or through certain locations or activities that are no longer commonplace or have ceased to exist. I love the imagination and creativity that authors show in order to weave a story around these things, and admire the detail and research that comes with it.

Vibrant Settings

There is just something about period settings that makes them so special. When written well, they are evocative, beautifully realised, and contain such a huge degree of atmosphere. This sense of place is often the first thing you notice once you start the book, really drawing the reader in and providing a wonderful sense of escapism.

Along with that, we have the culture and customs of the chosen time period, such as the architecture, the language used, and social attitudes. They all add something to the story in their own way, and that helps to ensure that the setting is more important in historical fiction than in most other genres.

Educational Value

We can learn something new from just about every book we read, but historical fiction gives us the opportunity to find out about real events that we may not have known about before. Moreover it can raise awareness of a particular person or point in history that has not received due recognition, and really bring their story to light.

One example of this that I can think of is in The Invention Of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. It told the story of anti-slavery campaigners Sarah and Nina Grimke, two determined women who I had never heard of before, and by all accounts many others did not know about them either. To learn such things makes reading these books even more fulfilling.

Beautiful Covers

Almost every single historical fiction novel released these days seems to have an outstandingly beautiful cover, which immediately captures our attention and fills us with intrigue. Indeed, most of my absolute favourite examples of cover art come from this genre, often awash with vivid colours and intricate designs.

But the question is, why are historical fiction covers so impressive? I think it is a combination of the setting and all the objects and artefacts I mentioned earlier – they offer such fantastic creative potential – for artists as well as authors!

They Are Often Complimented By Another Genre

The good thing about historical fiction is that it is not just a recounting of past events, it often throws in elements of one or more other genres to make them more exciting or gripping.

Historical settings provide a superb backdrop for a mystery, with some of them even containing dual timelines or narratives – a handful of my favourite books fit that description! Along with that, they can be used just as effectively with the likes of romance, fantasy, and crime fiction.

Cons

Historical Accuracy

It is good to reimagine history, but it is also important not to stray too far from what really happened. I am all for authors using creative license – we see it all the time in films and television dramas with mixed results – but it has to be within reason.

When historical fiction novels document real events or explore the lives of real people, sometimes we get factual errors or anachronisms, and especially things that in no way would have happened due to a lack of plausibility. Story generally comes first, but an author doing their research is equally critical.

Some Historical Periods Are Overlooked

It is clear to me that certain historical time periods receive much more coverage than others in the genre, with the consequence that there are some others that have simply not been brought to our attention in mainstream fiction. Certain parts of history are saturated with literary depictions, while in the case of some others we have barely scratched the surface.

For example, there are numerous books either about or set in the Second World War, but relatively few that occur within the First World War. In terms of UK history, we see a lot more of Tudor or Victorian novelisations than Stuart or Hanoverian. There are storytelling opportunities everywhere – they just have to be grasped.

Lack Of Positive BIPOC History

When historical fiction novels prominently feature diverse or BIPOC characters, it usually tells of them being oppressed in some way, rather than something positive or uplifting. This is evident in the number of books that are based around the subject of slavery or some other form of persecution.

Of course, these stories are exceptionally powerful and have to be told, but it would be nice to see a bit more in the way of optimistic representation. We are gradually starting to see more examples of this, however we definitely need more.


Let’s Chat

Do you like historical fiction? Do you agree with my pros and cons, and can you think of any more? Let me know in the comments!

31 thoughts on “Discussion – The Pros and Cons of Historical Fiction

  1. yep, I agree with your list. I don’t read historical fiction, I did try it quite a few times but it just doesn’t seem to be my genre. One of the main reasons is your first con. Just like you said, you absolutely have the right and you should be creative in your interpretations and everything, but when facts are thrown out the window…. xD A book though that is historical fiction/memoir is The memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. That is by faaar my favorite book of all times ( and I dare say that because I am sure no other book will surpass it haha).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Ah that’s such a shame you have been put off historical fiction, yes sometimes authors do take too many liberties. Thank you for letting me know about your favourite book though, it sounds great!!

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  2. I’ve read a handful of historical fiction novels and I’ve enjoyed every one of them, but it’s the kind of genre I have to be in the mood for. I agree with every point you make here. To me, the best historical fiction novels are the ones that take the time to shine a spotlight on the lesser-known events of history, like Salt to the Sea did with the often-overlooked WWII tragedy of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. I tend to struggle with novels that feature historical characters more, just because it’s hard to separate the fiction from the fact sometimes. Brilliant post! πŸ˜€

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Lois! I agree, it is difficult to read too many historical fiction books at once but they often turn out to great when we do pick one up. I also love it when these books enable us to learn about a forgotten point in history too.

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  3. I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but what I have read I enjoyed – for all the pros that you listed. I think I tend to avoid historical fiction only because I’m not sure how factual the basis is, and if it didn’t honour the time period I know I would find that frustrating. Great discussion post as always Stephen 😊

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    1. Yes, facts and the overall veracity of events are so crucial in historical fiction. We rely on the author to not stray too far from them and it can be frustrating when they do. Thank you for the kind words, Jess 😊

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  4. Nice post. I enjoy historical fiction, but not all the time. I find them so interesting and I like to learn new things about how characters interact in historical times. Historical Fiction is good to read once in a while, but I can’t read them all the time. I like to break them up with some comedy and contemporary fiction.

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  5. I like reading historical fiction but it is not always clear for me if a certain historical period is displayed correctly (if it is not a fantasy or a parallel universe where history varies from the real one). Unfortunately, over the years, I’ve noticed a lot of books mispresenting my culture and history. I can imagine other people who notice the same about their history and culture feel similar to me. I do agree it’s a great responsibility for an author to conduct a proper research to achieve maximum credibility.
    Great post, Stephen! I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the topic!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Nastassja! I agree, it is such a fine balance to find credibility and I’m sorry to hear your genre has sometimes been misrepresented, but when the author gets it spot on it creates the best books!

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  6. i love this post, stephen! i only started reading historical fiction a few months ago, but now it’s one of my favourite genres! authors definitely need to do a lot of research, and when they’ve done it you can get such an amazing story! the lack of positive BIPOC history, or sometimes even the erasure of BIPOC characters is something that needs to be improved, but i’ve been reading a ton of #ownvoices HF too, recently, and that shares their experiences in an accurate way! πŸ’›

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    1. Thank you so much, Ahaana! πŸ’› Yes, the research that authors put in can often combine with a mesmerising plot and that’s what – for me – makes the best historical fiction novels so special. You’re right, we are definitely seeing more #ownvoices books in the genre now, which is wonderful to see!

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  7. I love this idea for a post Stephen, especially as historical fiction is one of my favourite genres too! I agree that historical settings are a real stand out element of the genre, as they can be so atmospheric. The Invention of Wings is on my TBR and I’m really looking forward to reading it πŸ“šβ€οΈ X x x

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    1. Thank you, Florence! Historical fiction is a wonderful genre and those settings often provide an added dimension as well as a huge amount of atmosphere. I’ll look forward to your thoughts on The Invention Of Wings, I have a feeling you’ll like it! ❀

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  8. Well, many BIPOC people were oppressed, so that makes sense. However, I’m finding more diverse authors are trying to tell stories of their own people where they overcome such difficulties – in one way or another. By the way, my biggest CON about HF is that some authors don’t know the fine line between enough and too much history, which makes for a tedious read (especially if they name-drop famous people all over the place, and the protagonist gets lost in the shuffle).

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    1. Yes, I am definitely starting to see more of those stories too and that is great. I agree, it is a very fine balance in terms of how much history to include. I think it should be authentic and accurate, but the story and its characters ultimately come first.

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  9. Great idea for a post! I rarely read hist fic because I find it difficult to get into – in my experience few authors know when they have enough historical detail already and can get on with telling the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!! Yes I think authors can get too far into the historical aspect – it adds to the atmosphere but sometimes at the expense of the plot. When the author gets it right, however, it can make for a very special read!

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