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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!