Historical fiction is a literary genre wherein the plot evolves in a time and place somewhere in the past with a crucial component of historical fiction being that it explores the prejudices, prevailing social conditions and trends of the period depicted. It’s a broad term for a genre that has evolved to include many subgenres with examples including alternate history, historical fantasy to name but two. Of course, all genres attract their share of critics and the Historical Fiction genre is no different. From online reader reviews to literary commentators Historical Fiction novels are often criticized for their lack of authenticity because of inaccuracies in the events recounted. Because of this definitions differ as to what constitutes a ‘genuine’ historical novel and when the term ’historical novel’ might properly be used. More importantly it begs the question as to What Makes Bestselling Historical Fiction Novels.
It’s not a debate with an easy answer but what we can say for sure is that Historical Fiction has rich and diverse roots, especially in the UK and the USA. With notable luminaries including American James Fenimore Cooper, English author Georgette Heyer and Scottish novelist and poet Naomi Mitchison though the genre has since significantly evolved. Interest has waxed and waned over the years but works like Ken Follett‘s Pillars of the Earth, Neal Stephenson‘s Baroque Cycle and Pat Barker‘s Regeneration Trilogyhave laid the foundations for an enthusiastic readership which continues to grow. Indeed, there are few fans of the genre who haven’t read The Other Boleyn Girl, by British historian and author Philippa Gregory, Water for Elephants by Canadian-American writer Sara Gruen, Wolf Hall by English writer Hilary Mantel or Beloved by the iconic American writer Toni Morrison. This brings us back to the debate as to what constitutes a ‘genuine’ historical novel and what all the aforementioned authors have in common is exceptional attention to detail. They bring the periods about which they write to life and in doing so add an all-prevailing sense of authenticity to their works. The key is robust research. It’s time-consuming but can never be overrated.
Google ‘Writing Historical Fiction’ and there is plenty of advice to be had but research by necessity should always be at the top of an aspiring or established Historical Fiction authors list. As always we welcome your feedback and for authors penning their first Historical Fiction novel the resources listed below are a great place to begin that all-important research.
British Records Society (archive)
British Museum (archives)
British Monarchy (Royal Archives)
Writers Write (resources)
Reading The Past (news, reviews)
British Online Archives
British Newspaper Archives