Three Flavours of Historical Fiction


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Having examined historical fiction by writing it, conducting global reader surveys and reading extensively, it is clear that this highly popular genre comes in a multitude of flavours. The obvious flavours concern time period, location and sub-genre such as mystery, saga or romance, but it seems that other, perhaps more subtle, variations distinguish historical fiction for readers.

What about variations based on character type, historical density and adherence to factual events?

Is the novel concerned with ordinary people or famous historical figures?

Character type continuum Eleanor of Aquitaine (Elizabeth Chadwick), Mary Magdalene (Margaret George), Thomas Cromwell (Hilary Mantel), and Isabella of Castille (C.W. Gortner) are examples of authors writing about famous historical figures while Bernard Cornwell writing about Nicholas Hook in Azincourt or Jacqueline Winspear Maisie Dobbs series feature ordinary people. ‘Those connected to the famous’ might be considered part way along the character type continuum with novels like The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (Ernest Hemingway’s first wife) or C.J. Sansom’s series about Matthew Shardlake (serving under Henry VIII).

How much history is incorporate into the novel?

Historical DensityWe’ve all read novels where history is merely a backdrop for a satisfying read – a mystery that just happens to be set in ancient Rome or a romance that plays out in the middle ages. In such cases, authors still need to create historically accurate settings and consider the morals, values and culture of the day, however, these stories are less dependent on historical events for their dramatic twists and turns.

Sharon Kay Penman’s recent novels on Richard Lionheart are examples at the other end of the spectrum, incorporating the historical record in great detail as the story unfolds. Edward Rutherfurd’s novels also incorporate vast amounts of historical detail on the cities and places he writes about, even though many, if not most, of his characters are fictional.

A second aspect of historical detail relates to plot. More specifically, how closely does the plot depend on factual events?

Historical events continuumAt one end are totally fabricated plots—Deanna Rayborn’s successful novels come to mind, while at the other end of the spectrum are plots that take all their twists and turns from the historical record—Conn Iggulden’s excellent series on the Wars of the Roses is a good example.

From an article in The Telegraph, David Mitchell, author of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Groot, had this to say about historical fiction: “One reason [for its continued popularity] is that it delivers a stereo narrative: from one speaker comes the treble of the novel’s own plot while the other speaker plays the bass of history’s plot.”

Mitchell goes on to say: “Perhaps this is the paradox that beats inside historical fiction’s rib cage: the “historical” half demands fidelity to the past, while the “fiction” half requires infidelity – people must be dreamt up, their acts fabricated and the lies of art must be told.”

Using Mitchell’s analogy: the bass of history’s plot booms louder and the fidelity dial is tuned more acutely when authors create novels on the right hand side of each of these spectrums.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.