The Liberties of Historical Fiction and What makes a perfect work of historical fiction

Non-fiction is a wonderful genre when the author has an engaging writing style; but historical fiction can really bring an historical event to life – so that we can visualise it and, if we’re really lucky, put ourselves in that time and place with the characters.

But with that said, historical fiction is responsible for reenforcing outdated ideas about the past, and when it becomes popular (or rather if) does it do more harm than good?

As a self-confessed history nerd, I know that if a work of fiction captures my imagination, I will nine times out of ten, research the time period myself and see how realistic the portrayal was. It doesn’t spoil my enjoyment of the fiction if I find huge errors, but it might make me a little wary when reading future books by the same author. 

Often the worse thing, in my opinion, that an historical fiction author can do is weave a fictional character into a sea of ‘real’ historical characters and present them as just as real. Not that I don’t appreciate that many ‘bit parts’ will be fictional, but surely, not the main character in a story of King’s and Princes. (I was once traumatised after reading a trilogy of books of over 500 pages each when this first happened to me – and I’m naming no names!)

But there are also far worse things – they can use glaringly modern terms, or misinterpret the events, or put a rosy ‘romantic’ glow over it all (as happens in much historical fiction about women!) or present their heroine as rising about the societal norms whilst inflicting those norms on other characters.

Don’t get me wrong here, I strongly believe that humankind has not suddenly undergone some strange enlightenment in the past century. I believe romantic love must have existed for far longer than some historians would have us believe. Today’s population can’t wholly be the result of non-consensual sex and rape, for if it us, what does that really say about men and women as two separate genders. I think some commons sense must be applied. Men and women have been in relationships since they first walked on Earth. And in Anglo-Saxon and Viking times (before the Christianisation took place) men relied on their wives or common law wives to run their homes in their absence. If not love, then at least trust must have existed.

But I digress, so far my pet hates are too much romance, too much ‘bad’ history, and too much ‘one rule for everyone else and a different one for the authors hero or heroine’. To that I must add historical fiction that’s exclusively ‘man’ orientated – battles, blood and gore (yawn!).

So what makes my perfect word of historical fiction;

1) a good storyline that’s more truth than fantasy

2) a firm grounding in the time period

3) characters who are people

4) to be taught something

5) a series of books – I don’t like stand alone novels as a reader, I’ve not yet decided as an author.

6) something different – not the same people told from a different point of view i.e. the Tudor women.

If I think of anything else, I’ll add it on. Let me know what you think.

 

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