Welcome back to Gernrely Speaking, the part of the show where we crack open a genre and look at what it means when we mention it here. As I’ve mentioned before, the literary classifications we call genres exist as much as an expression of opinions as they do a scientific taxonomy of fiction. So keep in mind that any definition of a genre is as much a subjective idea as it is an ironclad classification, which is one of the reasons this segment’s name is a pun based on the phrase “generally speaking”.
Today we’re going to look at a genre that doesn’t get much press these days: Historical fiction.
What’s that? You’ve never heard of historical fiction? You don’t know what it is or what it looks like? Well then we’d better start there. Historical fiction is an aesthetic genre that generally has:
- Real History. Lots and lots and lots of history, the historical kind of history that comes out of history books. “Historical” is in the title because there has to be solid, well researched history serving as the foundation for this story. While some of a historical fiction novel is fiction the broad backdrop for the story has to be historical. This is why a novel series like the Thieftaker can kind of sort of qualify as historical fiction – while the main character, his magic and his close associates are fictional, the backdrop of events he lives in are not.
- Encounters with historical characters. Much like with it’s counterpart, alternate history, half the fun of historical fiction is seeing known historical figures in a new light. In this case the new light revolves around whatever scenario the new story adds to the historical record. Murder investigations during the revolution? Sounds like the mind of Ben Franklin might be needed. Stuck behind Confederate lines during the Civil War? Enter General Lee! If you’re a history fanboy then historical fiction is definitely a genre for you.
- The ability to pass without trace. The heart and soul of historical fiction is that it is something that could have happened during the known historical events depicted in the narrative. It’s a “what if” but a very specific one. So nothing the fictional characters do can have any outcome on actual historical events. No matter how much those events may grate on those characters, both protagonists and antagonists are going to have to live with the verdict of history as we know it.
What are the weaknesses of historical fiction? The biggest drawback to this genre as a writer is the amount of research you will have to put into writing it. The facts have to be right, or someone in your audience is going to spot your mistake and call you on it. Again, this is historical fiction. It has to actually be historical while still being fiction.
The second big hurdle is all those historical characters. While historical figures from ancient times like Ceaser, Nebuchadnezer or King David have a little wiggle room in how we can expect their character or disposition to be displayed, by the dawn of the age of exploration there’s enough written in enough different sources that a competent, well studied author can make a good stab at knowing what an important person was like day to day. And again, you have to get it right because the kind of people who will read these books are the kind of people who will catch these discrepancies and be upset by them.
The third problem is for readers new to the genre. They might find the careful web of historical facts and important events distracting or confusing, taking away their ability to keep track of a well written yarn.
What are the strengths of historical fiction? If you love history you will geek out over well written historical fiction. They’ll mention all the important things and you will most likely love every minute of it. It’s just like a well written tribute to your favorite movie, novel or comic book character – there will be easter eggs and fanservice just waiting for you to catch it. The fact that all the events and characters were real just adds to the fun.
For people who aren’t into history, good historical fiction is a great chance to learn about historical events in a gripping and exciting way. The works of G. A. Henty, a historian from the 19th century, were intended to teach his readers the history of Britain while entertaining them and exciting their imagination. Other authors may put less (or more!) emphasis on the actual historical narrative in their books but all the good ones will make sure there’s plenty of historical fact there. If you love a good book but never managed to make it through a dry history text in school, this may be exactly what you need to start a lifelong love of the past.