Historical Fiction: Good or Bad?

Just a short post before I get back into the swing of things. This weekend I’ve been swamped with three separate writing projects that were due on the same day, so I apologize, readers, and promise that CWC will be back to its regular schedule very soon. For now, I offer the question: what’s your stance on historical fiction?

I admit that I have a fairly strong bias against it. I was forced to read too many of those tedious young adult chapter books when I was kid, from the perspective of a kid whose father fights in the civil war or from a girl observing World War II. While there are stunning and truly moving examples of the genre (I’m thinking of Number the Stars), most of these books sacrifice writing quality for the easy gimmick of having historical events swirling around, often happening too perfectly or coincidentally right next to our ordinary main character. Adult historical fiction often falls into this same trap.

What’s your take on historical fiction? Do you enjoy reading or writing it, and what’s the appeal for you?

10 comments

  1. Tammi Kibler says:

    I think in any genre fiction some of the work transcends the genre and other work merely satisfies the masses. Not for me to question what other folks enjoy reading, I am just glad they read.
    I loved Michener’s Hawaii – my mother-in-law sent it to me when I arrived on Oahu and I feel I understood the local history and people better for having read it. I cannot imagine a better resource to bring one up to speed in a week’s time.
    However, not all historical fiction is Michener. Not all Michener is Hawaii.

  2. Elemarth says:

    I see historical fiction as realistic fiction set in the past. Yes, there are too many stories about the civil war and emancipation, and yes, it can be gimmicky, but stories set in the present often reuse the same plotlines. There’s good historical fiction and there’s bad, just like anything else. They can be truly good stories about people that happen to take place during war, or around famous or not-so-famous events and might be educational. I really liked the Dear America books when I was younger. And don’t forget Gone with the Wind.
    Then again, now I’m a history major.

  3. chris markel says:

    i think historical fiction has many possibilities. one of them being, one who has the historical background can express a theory they have about an event that is not accepted by the mainstream. historical demigods demand citations and documented proof for those who have a different slant on the accepted take on events, etc. and as those who really know, history is written by the victors. fiction allows us some license and allows us to look at events in a p.o.v. that text does not.
    i am at this time, working on a novel that does just that. its set in post world war two and takes some theories that are out there another step. and it should set many on their ear since it does not go with the accepted attitudes of the mainstream. and it would take the reader beyond the political garbage that bored them to tears when they were young.
    historical fiction has an abundance of fertile soil for planting new approaches and understanding for events that still have an impact on us today.

  4. Collin Snyder says:

    I agree that a lot of young adult historical fiction novels are less than satisfactory, but so are most young adult novels in general. Historical fiction, in my opinion, is one of the most respectable genres due to its endless capacity for making a story relatable. When done correctly, a good historical fiction novel or story can outdo almost any other genre of work because they have the most realistic, human characters and often the most powerful stories. When I think of historical fiction, I think of The Poisonwood Bible (a brilliantly constructed and passionately told novel), I think of A Separate Peace (one of the most moving books I’ve ever read). The decision as to whether a finished product is great or gross is determined by whether the author manages to seamlessly weave his or her own stories and characters into the events dictated by a set period in history, or simply endeavors to drop all the pieces in front of this history like actors in front of a green screen. When the latter occurs, we throw the book out with the clothes that don’t fit. When the former is accomplished, however, then we see the creation of an Epic, which in my opinion is a sub-genre for the elite few historical fiction works that integrate fact and fiction so beautifully that it literally appears as if the author has imagined and penned a new history himself. The two novels I mentioned above are, I believe, examples of this, but this is is no way contained to the novel; films experience this as well (Titanic, Ben Hur, Gone With The Wind, Gladiator, all are examples of historical fiction in the film medium that belong to the genre of “Epic”).
    All told, I think good historical fiction novels are pretty cool.

  5. dameia says:

    Historical fiction has its own dilemmas. For example, as mentioned above, you have to make those actual, documented historical events blend with your own storyline–or, more accurately, mould your storyline to the history. Which is a lot harder than one would think, since you have characters that want to run around and do their thing but they still have to follow the rules. Also, I would guess that historical fiction takes at least twice the background work that realistic fiction requires, since it frequently means that you have to write in the perspective of a completely foreign culture. When you write about less documented time periods (say, anything before the 1500s) then it means that much more research. And on top of all that, it still has to be readable–any historical information that is crucial to the story but not common knowledge has to be worked in in a believable manner. And of course, there are flops in historical fiction, just as there are in any genre as well as “literary” fiction. These are the authors who simply didn’t do their homework, and I personally feel that it is hardly fair to lump all examples of a genre (save a few) in with the crap. That said, I may also have a slight bias, as I am a classical studies major, archaeology minor, and have read books like “Mists of Avalon” and “Black Ships” as my historical (alright, historical-mythological) fiction examples.

  6. Lauren says:

    My view on historical fiction is probably biased by irritating books I had to read for school. My experience of historical fiction has been mostly negative, although there have been some good books.
    Maybe I’ve been reading the wrong ones.

  7. It is very difficult to move forward until we learn to appreciate the past. Advancement for the human race comes from not repeating past mistakes while building upon triumphs. There is much that history can still teach us. A well-written novel can inspire within any time period or setting. Properly constructed, the historical fiction novel can become a classic in itself having it’s own place in history.

  8. CgMacQ says:

    I must also confess to having a BA in history, and being a fan of good historical fiction, including historical fiction mysteries. The historical romances (of the bodice ripper sort) who want historical costumes in order to remove them, are a different thing altogether–I avoid them.
    My opinion on the book depends on whether the fictional characters or situation is woven well into the background. Great historical fiction can reveal truths better (on occasion) than a historical text. The stories also make history more accessible for children. I advocate their use in History and English classes, with the caveat that teachers should try to find the best of the genre.

  9. deb says:

    I agree it’s often gimmicky. But my daughter loved the Dear America books and honestly it’s a good way to make kids see history as something that happens to real people, as opposed to a list of dates and events in a history text. People need narrative, even a gimmicky narrative, in order to understand. Well done historical fiction is an education as well as an experience.
    Stories are stories regardless of the setting. I happen to prefer science fiction, but I do dabble in a bit of historical fiction from time to time. Whether the story is in Victorian England or on Mars or a starship so far out we don’t have a name for the star yet, it’s still all about the human experience. (Even if that ‘human’ has tentacle or green skin, or what have you. šŸ™‚

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