Historical Musings #1: Do you read historical fiction?

Historical Musings Something a bit different today – and hopefully on the second Sunday of every month to come. I am conscious that my blog is, and always has been, very review-dominated and that despite experimenting with different types of weekly or monthly features in the past I have never managed to keep posting them regularly. I’m hoping that I’ll be more successful if I stick to a book-related topic that I’m particularly interested in and passionate about – and one of those topics, as will be obvious to any visitor to my blog, is historical fiction!

I have a whole list of potential ideas for future posts (and I know not everyone shares my interest in historical fiction, so some posts will be less specific to the genre than others) which include discussions, lists and recommendations. For my first post in the series, though, I just want to ask a very simple question:

Do you read historical fiction?

If you answered yes, what is it that attracts you to this genre? And if you answered no, can you tell me why not?

I enjoy reading historical fiction for many reasons. If I’m honest, one of them is purely escapism. I spend every day living in the 21st century and as I unfortunately don’t possess a time machine, I rely on books to take me somewhere different. The term ‘historical fiction’ encompasses a huge variety of books covering almost any time period, person or event you can think of, so I can usually find a book that will take me wherever and whenever I want to go!

Another reason is that reading historical fiction gives me an opportunity to learn about other times and places while also enjoying an entertaining story. I often struggle with non-fiction and find that I’m more likely to retain historical facts if they are presented to me in the form of a novel. Also, many of the themes and ideas in historical fiction are universal and timeless; understanding the past can sometimes help us to understand the present.

There are many, many other things I love about historical fiction but I’ll talk about some of those in future posts.

Now, what about you?

30 thoughts on “Historical Musings #1: Do you read historical fiction?

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    The answer is yes and no! Yes, I do read historical fiction, but it tends to be *old* historical fiction, rather than the modern type e.g. The Leopard, which I read recently and is set in old Italy at the time the nation was formed. Having said that, I read a lot more when I was younger- now I tend to read not by genre but by what takes my fancy!

    • Helen says:

      I don’t deliberately choose books based on genre either, but the books I’m naturally drawn to do tend to be historical fiction rather than any other genre. I agree that the older/classic historical fiction novels are the best. The Leopard is rapidly moving up my TBR pile!

  2. beckylindroos says:

    Yes in general, but not any old historical fiction! Over the years I’ve become both more particular about the history itself as well as the way it’s presented. I like everything from Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series to Garcia Marquez’ and One Hundred Days of Solitude. I love Thomas Pynchon. I like those authors because they get the facts right but then twist them into their own ideas (not agenda). Or they present socio-cultural history which doesn’t have to be so “fact-based.”

    I’m not so big on the fluffy kind of historical fiction which focuses on the “universal themes” of relationships.

    Historical fiction needs to be well written (The Blue Mountain by Meir Shalev, Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon.)

    I don’t like books in which the authors seem to have an agenda – (Roth, Grenville, Vidal, others).

    I don’t like historical fiction which panders to the 21st century readership. (How wrong anti-homosexuality is.)

    I really like old historical fiction – the classic stuff – written 50+ years or more after the events described – War and Peace, A Tale of Two Cities, The Leopard, because classics give readers a peak into the world of the era in which they were written. So what did Dickens’ readers know/think about the French Revolution?

    • Helen says:

      I completely agree with you on authors who pander to a 21st century readership. I prefer characters in historical fiction to feel like real historical people – not modern day people with modern views and attitudes.

      I prefer classic historical fiction too – A Tale of Two Cities is my favourite Dickens novel and I also love authors like Alexandre Dumas, Rafael Sabatini and Walter Scott. As you say, there is an extra layer in those novels because you’re learning about the era in which the book was written as well as the era in which it is set.

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    Great news! I look forward to future posts on the topic.

    I do read and enjoy historical fiction. I love being taken to a different time and place. While it’s not truly possible to escape our present day consciousness, the best historical fiction authors really give us a feeling of entering that foreign land, the past. I find this an endlessly fascinating enterprise.

    Like you, I remember historical facts far better if they’re embedded in a narrative. But I have to remember that historical fiction is not history — some books are more accurate than others, and it’s not always easy to tell what’s true.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, sometimes it’s hard to tell whether a novel is accurate or not. If I find I’m particularly interested in a certain time period or historical figure, I sometimes look for a good non-fiction book to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge. Of course, non-fiction is not always completely accurate either!

      • Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

        Definitely — lately I have become incredibly annoyed with some “non-fiction” works that were so full of guesswork and speculation that they would have been more honestly (and engagingly!) presented as a novel.

  4. Lisa says:

    I do read historical fiction. I like it because I enjoy learning about history, and historical fiction sometimes fleshes out the bare bones of history. It also can focus more on regular people and their lives. But I am also very picky about what historical fiction I read. My gold standards are Dorothy Dunnett and Patrick O’Brian, and for me they’ve set the bar very high.

    • Helen says:

      Dorothy Dunnett and Patrick O’Brian have certainly set very high standards. I’m so glad to have discovered both of them in the last few years – and pleased that I still have so many of O’Brian’s books to look forward to!

  5. Yvonne says:

    I’ve never really thought about why I read historical fiction. I always have. So the main reason would have to be that it stems from my love of history and a fascination with the past. Reading historical fiction is an entertaining way to get my fill.

    As I’ve grown older my appreciation of this genre has changed. Growing up my favourite books were the classics, especially Dickens and Austen, which at the time I thought were good stories. In my teen years I discovered Thomas Hardy, Georgette Heyer and Frank Yerby, and formed a romantic notion of history.

    However, it is as an adult reader that I realised the true value of historical fiction and the reason I’m so addicted to it now. The classics were not just good stories they were a glimpse of the social and political conditions of the time, presented in a format guaranteed to hold my interest like no school text book or work of non-fiction could. This holds true today. I like nothing better than to read a well researched and well written novel that enhances my love of history.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for your comment, Yvonne. Your last paragraph describes exactly why I love reading historical fiction too. Non-fiction books and school text books give you the facts, but fiction brings the facts to life.

  6. jessicabookworm says:

    Helen I agree with so many of your points. My two favourite genres are fantasy and historical fiction, and that is mainly because I find them the best to escape from the ‘real’ world into. I live now so in my reading and other entertainment I want to be taken somewhere else 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I like fantasy too, although I don’t read it very often. It’s a great way to escape from reality for a while, and quite similar to historical fiction in that respect!

  7. Jemma says:

    Yes, I do read historical fiction, though it is not my dominant genre choice. Really, I read books from many different genres, making historical fiction a small percentage. I agree with your comment about how I am more likely to retain information about or be interested in historical context if I read a book about it. This probably goes back to my Literature studies at university!

    I think that I often don’t choose historical novels because the period of history or the serious nature the book seems to be written in can intimidate me somewhat. I have an unfounded preconception that certain periods of history will be boring to read about, including war-time in any age, medieval literature (though I’m sure I’d love it really), the 18th century etc. I’m not terribly brave about historical choices, but I must say that read the reviews on your blog has helped to open my mind to different subjects or times that I otherwise probably would have ignored out of apprehension.

    • Helen says:

      I can understand feeling apprehensive about certain periods of history! I tend to avoid books set in Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece – and books with a lot of battle scenes. I love medieval history, though. I used to think it sounded boring, but once I started to read books set in the medieval period I found it fascinating.

  8. daniellecobbaertbe says:

    I don’t think in genres and always find it difficult to answer which genres or types of books I prefer. What I don’t like are graphic accounts and therefore I sometimes have issues with novels set in the middle ages. I remember trying ‘Heresy’ by S.J. Parris, but when the public burning became to graphic for me, I gave up on it.

    I prefer books that make me think or that learn me something. As I have an interest in history, I tend to read historical fiction on a regular base. My idea of something lighter to read between books is a memoir. Escapism, yes sure, with a cosy mystery.

    And reading on its own is relaxing.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, novels set in the middle ages can be quite graphic sometimes! It’s realistic, I suppose, but I can certainly understand why you would want to avoid books that are too graphic.

      I love books that make me think too, and that leave me wanting to find out more about the subject I’ve been reading about. I like to be entertained, but I also like to finish a book with the feeling that I’ve learned something from it.

  9. beckylindroos says:

    A bit more: One thing I really enjoy in historical novels is the opportunity to look stuff up. I don’t really care if it is “real” or not – that depends on the book (One Hundred Years of Solitude), because I give the credit to the author’s imagination or to the research – whichever. So long as there’s no “agenda.”

    I think a good definition of historical fiction is that it has to take place at least 60 years prior to the birth of the author – (that’s the criterion the Walter Scott Prize uses). That way the author does not have personal experience of the material – he has to research in one way or another. I could write a novel about the Vietnam War days and it would be a memoir – my granddaughter would write one as historical fiction. lol –

    It really is different when you see how an author uses and writes what he’s researched and the stuff he’s lived. – The former explains a lot more than the latter.

    • Helen says:

      I think the Walter Scott Prize criterion is a good guideline to use. I have trouble thinking of a book as ‘historical fiction’ if it is set in the author’s own recent past.

  10. Cat says:

    I don’t remember a time when I didn’t read historical fiction as my father fostered my interest in history and the past particularly British history from an early age. Nowadays I’m more selective and leave the over romanticised novels ( those covers with cut off heads) alone preferring the classic Victorians and a look at an era through the the eyes of a contemporary writer or a favourite author who I know does his/her research well. I also read a lot more non-fiction.

    • Helen says:

      I’m not a big fan of the type of novels with the ‘cut off head’ covers, though I do read them occasionally. I prefer to read classic historical fiction and my favourite, trusted authors – and am trying to read more non-fiction these days too.

  11. Jo says:

    I love historical fiction and that simply stems from a great love of history as a child, an enquiring mind and having done a degree in history! I indulge more now as my job has nothing to do with history ironically.

    I agree with a previous comment about thinking in genres, during university and afterwards I read what are labelled Aga sagas and they were all set from the First World War onwards so although they were cosy reads they had a big dollop of history in them. I still read books like that to this day.

    It is only in recent years that I have read more specific historical fiction like Alison Weir and Philippa Gregory and of course a lot of it is supposition, but I do know from history degree work about sources, information and filling in the gaps. However I learn a lot from reading fiction and that then moves forward me onto reading more about a subject.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve always been interested in history as well – it was my favourite subject at school. I didn’t do a history degree but sometimes I wish I had. And yes, you can really learn a lot from fiction! Of course you can’t just assume that everything you read in a novel is completely accurate, but it can still be a good starting point for finding out more.

  12. tanya (52 books or bust) says:

    If you ask me, do I read historical fiction, my quick answer is no. But in reality, I do, in fact, read a lot of historical fiction. The problem for me is the term. When i hear historical fiction I think all Victorian times, and women in corsets. I forget that all the stuff set in WW2 and the fifties is also historical fiction. So while I love ‘recent’ historical fiction (20th century), i don’t go in for much deeply historical fiction.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, the term ‘historical fiction’ covers a much wider variety of books than people tend to think. 20th century historical fiction can be just as fascinating as the sort set in the more distant past!

  13. Corinne says:

    Have you read Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor? It’s a tad silly (the heroine), but the description of the period is excellent — well, I think. I don’t have much experience yet with historical fiction. You might check it out though, if you haven’t read it. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I have read Forever Amber and enjoyed it, though I remember being very frustrated by the ending! I loved the setting and agree that the recreation of the time period was excellent. I must read it again one day.

      • Corinne says:

        Oh, me too on the ending! She had planned to write a sequel set in America but never got to it. SO WOULD HAVE READ IT! 🙂

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