Historical Musings #15: Six reasons to love historical fiction

Historical Musings This month’s post is inspired by last week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic which asked for ‘reasons to love x’, with x being a favourite book, character, author etc. Although I didn’t participate, I started thinking about the reasons I love reading historical fiction…and I have listed six of them below. I briefly mentioned some of these things in my very first Historical Musings post last year (Do you read historical fiction?) but I have expanded on them and added to them here.

1. It provides the perfect opportunity to learn about other times and places.
I haven’t formally studied history since I left school, but I’m a firm believer in voluntary, lifelong learning – and what could be more enjoyable than learning through fiction? When I read a good historical fiction novel, I am left with the feeling that not only have I been entertained by a great story, I’ve also learned something new. If a subject particularly interests me, I sometimes look for a non-fiction book so that I can add to my knowledge with some factual information, but in most cases my initial introduction to a new historical period or historical figure has been through fiction.
Which leads me on to my second reason…

2. I find it much easier to retain facts gained through reading fiction rather than non-fiction.
For some reason, no matter how hard I try and no matter how fascinating the subject, I always seem to struggle to stay interested when I’m reading non-fiction. By the time I reach the end of the book I find I’ve forgotten a lot of the information I’ve just read. I am much more likely to remember names, dates and facts if they are given to me in the form of historical fiction.

3. It’s a great way of escaping from modern life for a while.
Although I do sometimes like to read contemporary fiction, I am usually much happier reading books set in the past (both classics and historical fiction). I live in 2016, so I like my reading to take me somewhere different! Reading historical fiction can be a thoroughly immersive experience. I love books where the author has clearly gone to a lot of effort to create a complete and believable historical world – and yet the very best authors make it seem so effortless! I know it’s a cliché, but I really do like to feel as though I’ve stepped into a time machine and been transported back in time.

Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results. - Niccolo Machiavelli

4. Understanding the past can help us to understand the present – and maybe even the future.
Just because a novel is set in the past doesn’t mean it can’t incorporate themes which are universal and timeless. When I read Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy recently, I was struck by the subtle parallels he drew between modern politics and the politics of the Roman Republic, while novels such as Harvest by Jim Crace and Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie show the effects of progress and the conflict between new technology and traditional methods, things which are still relevant today.

5. There’s so much variety!
Historical mysteries, historical romances, historical adventure novels, quick and light reads, long and challenging reads, books set in Ancient Greece, books set at the Tudor court…the term ‘historical fiction’ encompasses such a wide range of different types of book that it’s always possible to find something to suit your mood.

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history? - Marcus Tullius Cicero

6. I love to see how different authors portray the past and how they tackle some of history’s greatest mysteries and controversies.
Some people may wonder why I enjoy reading about the same topics over and over again. Well, no two books are exactly the same and every author has a different opinion and a different way of interpreting the same historical people and events. Only by reading as much as possible can you begin to put together a balanced picture and to feel sufficiently well informed to start forming your own views.


Now it’s your turn! If you also enjoy reading historical fiction, can you think of any more reasons to add to the six I’ve listed above?

23 thoughts on “Historical Musings #15: Six reasons to love historical fiction

  1. Pam Thomas says:

    Your first two reasons illustrate why it’s absolutely vital that historical novelists do their research and get it right.
    I’ve read far too many books where it’s patently obvious that the author has done very little research, if at all. I know, none better, that you can’t produce a perfect re-creation of a period hundreds or even thousands of years ago, but for goodness sake make the effort to weed out those jarring and erroneous details that jolt the reader back to earth with a bump, and at the same time display your own ignorance and/or laziness.
    Examples I’ve read over the past year or so:
    The tins in an eighteenth century larder
    Tomatoes in a pasta dish eaten by Leonardo da Vinci
    The wide fields of oilseed rape in eighteenth century England
    The fully-functioning Roman Catholic nunnery operating openly in Restoration London (in real life, it wouldn’t have lasted five minutes)
    All of which could have been corrected in five minutes on Google.
    Historical novelists have a duty to ‘get it right’, for precisely the reasons you give – we’re not only entertaining the reader, by a process of hopefully subtle osmosis, we’re educating them too. Our views of historical events are heavily influenced by the novels we read. If you alter the details of history and fact to suit your characters and your plot, or even because you can’t be bothered to look it up, then you’re cheating your readers, you’re cheating yourself, and you’re letting down your profession.

    • Helen says:

      There are some authors I know I can trust to have done their research and checked their facts, but sadly, as you say, there are a lot who don’t. I don’t always spot every inaccuracy, particularly if a book is set in a period I know little about, but the sort of examples you mention should jump out at anyone and there’s really no excuse for them!

  2. Anbolyn says:

    I think all of your points are fantastic, but I think the biggest reason I read historical fiction is for #3. I love to immerse myself in different time periods! I don’t read a ton of historical fiction, but I do really enjoy it and wish I had time to read more.

  3. FictionFan says:

    I can’t think of any reasons to add to yours either. I do enjoy historical fiction but it has to be good historical fiction. I don’t mean that to sound book-snobby, but badly researched and sloppy stuff just throws me right out of the story, and makes me wonder why the author bothered. One of my pet hates is when all the characters have oh so 21st century attitudes, all liberal and politically correct. And I did laugh at Pam’s examples – I’ve come across a few things like that too! But I just finished Exposure by Helen Dunmore set in the 1950s and I thought her research was fabulous – the whole thing felt totally authentic.

    • Helen says:

      I often come across characters in historical fiction with 21st century attitudes and it certainly is annoying! It seems that a lot of authors find it hard to get the balance right between a strong, interesting character and one who feels like a believable person of their time. I have a copy of Exposure which I’m hoping to read soon, so I’m pleased to hear you found it authentic!

  4. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock says:

    I have to agree with you on every point. One thing I also appreciate with historical fiction is that it can show different perspectives on the same events. For instance, I’ve tended to read books about the Wars of the Roses from a Yorkist perspective, but I’ve just been recommended a book that puts the Lancastrian point of view.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, that’s one of the reasons I like to read multiple books on the same subject. There are always two sides (at least) to every story.

  5. Lark says:

    You hit all the reasons why I like reading Historical Fiction. I like delving into another time period; meeting historical characters; learning about history in a way that doesn’t feel like school; and I also like those interesting bits of historical trivia that seem to be in the best historical fiction reads. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I’ve come across some fascinating trivia in historical fiction too. That would have been my seventh reason if I had continued the list. 😉

  6. jessicabookworm says:

    I don’t think I can add an extra reason but I can whole heartedly second many of your reasons, particularly reasons 1 & 3. I am continually trying to learn more, whether that’s through reading non-fiction or fiction, and I love to escape in my reading, hence why my favourite genres are fantasy and historical fiction 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I do like fantasy too, even if I don’t read as much of it as I would like to. Reading fantasy is the perfect way to escape for a while. 🙂

  7. J.E. Fountain says:

    Alright Helen…I’m up for the challenge. I’ll suggest a #7, but I’ll concede it is already implied a bit in the combination of yours. I’m reading a little piece of historical fiction right now you might have heard of…War and Peace. I’m about 80% through…whew! Anyway, #7 – It connects us with the whole of humanity. Imperial Russia, Napleonic wars, European Courtiers, early 19th Century warfare…all very foreign to me, but I am struck by the common chords, of these worlds and centuries apart, that resonate so clearly.

    • Helen says:

      Congratulations on getting so far through War and Peace! I read it a few years ago and I definitely agree with your reason #7. So many aspects of that book are still relevant today.

  8. emmarosemillar says:

    Reblogged this on Emma Rose Millar and commented:
    There’s no other genre for me. History is so rich with amazing stories and vibrant characters. I never get tired of writing about it.

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