The Purpose of Historical Fiction

Some time ago, I posted 10 Thoughts on the Purpose of Historical Fiction. In that post, I included several quotes from Jerome de Groot’s The Historical Novel. I reread that article while preparing for an upcoming talk with fellow author Gina Buonaguro on the topic of Women in Historical Fiction.

Our presentation looks at the portrayal of women in historical fiction and the challenge to project women in their historic context while making the novel approachable to modern day readers. As Gina and I prepared, I came across that post from 2015 and had one of those ‘aha’ moments.

One of the benefits of reading historical fiction is for readers to appreciate the unfolding of certain moral developmentsby reading about the norms, values, and culture of the past and being able to contrast them with where we are in our today.

For example, my upcoming novel The Admiral’s Wife illustrates the racist attitudes that members of early twentieth century British society had for the nations they’d colonized – in this case, Hong Kong. Here’s my character, Isabel Taylor (the admiral’s wife) reflecting on this issue:

“Isabel smiled broadly in an effort to hide her discomfort over what Henry had just said. The tone of his words, if not the words themselves, had been less than polite. Had he intended to insult Mr. Li? She’d already encountered some of the discriminatory practices of the British: segregated hospitals, clubs that only accepted European members, hotels that barred Chinese and other Asians, and a zoning law preventing anyone of Chinese ethnicity, other than servants, from living on the Peak. But she hadn’t imagined her husband holding the kind of views that fostered these practices.”

Another purpose of historical fiction is to develop an awareness that the events of history have an impact on the contemporary.” The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick shows the seeds of hatred and rebellion that the Irish have had for the English. Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez reveals another way that slaveowners abused their slaves and the unending desire for freedom. Before We Were Yours reminds us of a time when the poor and their children were treated as chattel to be exploited.

Historical fiction can explore “various ways of facing, understanding and living with the horrific events in the past.” The WWII novels that are so prominent today certainly do that for us – what can be more horrific than Hitler’s murderous regime and the holocaust he perpetrated?

These are just three of the insights offered in Jerome de Groot’s book. More broadly, readers value how historical fiction brings the past to life. They value learning about history through fiction rather than non-fiction. And, of course, they also value being entertained.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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9 Responses

  1. Very good points, Mary. I think much of that is bound up with Toni Morrison’s reason for her works of historical fiction: to “bear witness.”

    Warm Regards,
    Shira

  2. Great post, Mary. Confirming of why I am writing my first historical fiction. Thank you. One testimonial from a reader of my book, “Even a small piece of history, told well, adds to the body of knowledge we have of life in our country.” –P. Walker.

  3. Thank you Mary. This is especially important for our youngest readers. I write middle-grade historical fiction which always brings the question, ‘but why did that happen?”

    1. Many thanks for stopping by, Jennifer. Middle-grade must be an exciting, yet challenging, age to write for. I’m always open to guest posts, if that interests you 🙂

  4. I love historical fiction but what depresses me is lack of accuracy, which is more common than you would think. The lead character often has attitudes and ideas which are of the 21st century and there are historical errors showing a lack of research. A really good novel reflects the times it portrays and leaves us, the readers, to make up our minds about how we feel about that era.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Misha. What you describe is not good historical fiction. I hope you’ve found others that truly transport you in time and place with the appropriate attitudes and ideas. There are many authors who do this well. Best wishes.

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