Top Ten Tuesday – and Historical Musings #60: Ten reasons I love historical fiction

It’s been a while since I took part in Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl) so I decided I would join in today. This week’s topic is: “Reasons Why I Love…[a favourite book, genre, author etc]”. I didn’t get round to putting one of my Historical Musings posts together for this month – I’m finding that even though I’m on furlough with all the time in the world to read and blog, I somehow seem to be getting less done than ever before – so I’m combining the two here by listing 10 reasons to love historical fiction.

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1. It provides the perfect opportunity to learn about other times and places.
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 many cases my initial introduction to a new historical period or historical figure has been through fiction.

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 often seem to struggle to concentrate 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 which were actually written in the past and historical fiction). I live in the modern day, so I like my reading to take me somewhere – and sometime – different, especially at the moment with everything that’s going on in the world!

4. 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! My favourite historical fiction books often contain maps, family trees, character lists, authors’ notes and other material all of which adds to the world building. I really do like to feel as though I’ve stepped into a time machine and been transported back in time.

5. 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, I was struck by the similarities between modern politics and the politics of the Roman Republic, while Guinevere Glasfurd’s The Year Without Summer draws parallels between the extreme weather of 1816 and the climate change the world is experiencing today.

6. There’s so much variety!
Historical mysteries, historical romances, historical adventure novels, quick and light reads, long, challenging or ‘literary’ reads, books set in Ancient Greece, books set at the Tudor court, family sagas, classic novels such as A Tale of Two Cities, Romola or The Three Musketeers…the term ‘historical fiction’ encompasses such a wide range of different types of book that it should always be possible to find something to suit your mood.

7. 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 approach and a different way of interpreting the same historical people and events. One of my favourite periods is the Wars of the Roses and no two novels I’ve read set in that period offer the same opinion on Richard III or the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower. Only by reading as much as possible can you begin to put together a balanced picture and to start to form your own views.

8. Historical fiction can give a voice to women who were unable to tell their own story.
History has often been described as written ‘by men, about men’ and fiction can help to redress the balance. For example, I knew nothing about women like Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli until I read That Lady by Kate O’Brien or Lizzie Burns until I read Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea.

9. It’s a chance to get to know historical figures who have been forgotten or ignored.
Following on from reason 8, I have already mentioned some of the lesser-known women who have been subjects of historical fiction; there are also lots of men who have played important roles throughout history but whose names have been largely forgotten. How many people have heard of the Scottish soldier Thomas Keith and yet he had a fascinating life and career which is recounted in Blood and Sand by Rosemary Sutcliff.

10. There are just so many great stories to be told.
From the Thomas Overbury scandal to the Gunpowder Plot, from the Affair of the Poisons to the Pendle Witch Trials, the possibilities are endless!

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Do you enjoy reading historical fiction? Can you think of any other reasons to add to this list?

28 thoughts on “Top Ten Tuesday – and Historical Musings #60: Ten reasons I love historical fiction

  1. Pam Thomas says:

    I remember that after I’d started to read Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, I went to our local reference library and looked up relevant documents in the Calendar of State Papers – and found that many of the incidents she described had actually happened. That’s the biggest compliment you can pay a historical novelist – to be so in thrall to their characters and so convinced by the events in the book that you feel everything must be true, even if actually it isn’t.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, they are the sort of historical novels I love. By the time I read the Lymond Chronicles I was able to search for information on the internet as I went along, and later bought the two companion books, but there’s something very rewarding about actually having to go and look things up for yourself, isn’t there?

  2. Jess @ Jessticulates says:

    Great list! I completely agree with you – particularly about how historical fiction can return voices to the voiceless. I actually wrote the essay for my MA on the importance of historical fiction going where history can’t and shedding light on figures from history that have been forgotten, whether they’re the many peasants who’ve been forgotten in favour of their king or the royals we don’t hear as much about because they’re not from the western world.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think that’s one of the most important reasons to read historical fiction. It’s a shame that so many stories must have been lost or forgotten over the years because the people weren’t seen as important enough or couldn’t read and write to tell their own story.

  3. jenclair says:

    Yes. I love historical novels for all of the reasons you listed. If the author lists sources, even better, but I also research for more information.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it’s helpful if the author includes their sources, but like you, I often do my own research too if the subject interests me.

  4. setinthepast says:

    I’ve got a degree in history, but still didn’t get into medieval history until I discovered Jean Plaidy’s books. The medieval subjects at school and university were awful – why would a class of 11-year-old girls want to know about building motte and bailey castles or the lives of monks?! Historical novels have introduced me to a lot of areas which I wouldn’t have become interested in otherwise.

    • Helen says:

      I enjoyed history at school, but don’t really remember learning much medieval history. Most of my knowledge comes from historical novels too.

  5. Alyson Woodhouse says:

    I like Historical Fiction too for many of the same reasons. I especially find it much easier to relate to than Historical Non-fiction, and am much more likely to remember names, dates and so on if I have a picture of the people and scenarioes in my head.

    • Helen says:

      I do sometimes enjoy historical non-fiction if it’s well written and the subject particularly interests me, but otherwise I prefer fiction – I agree that it’s much easier to relate to.

  6. Terra says:

    I agree with each of your ten points, any one of them would be enough to explain how I enjoy historical fiction. Some writers are very gifted in bringing historic figures to life. For example I loved the book about C.S. Lewis’ wife, I think it was called Becoming Mrs. Lewis. She totally captured Lewis and his wife Joy.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, historical novels often bring figures to life in a way that non-fiction can’t. I haven’t read Becoming Mrs Lewis but I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  7. Judy Krueger says:

    I was just thinking about this very question this past week. I especially love how fiction brings the characters inner selves and individual experiences to the fore. That brings reality to the dates and facts and famous personages. On the other hand, when I read straight history, it is the historical novels I have read that make the events of history begin to fall in line for me.

  8. Lark says:

    Love all your reasons! So many of them are why I like to read Historical Fiction, too. Though I haven’t been reading it as much this year as I normally do. But I love learning about historical figures and the times they live in. Great choice for this Top Ten Tuesday! 🙂

  9. Calmgrove says:

    Number 8 on your list is particularly important, I think, but all are very valid and reflect my principles when, all too rarely, I gravitate towards historical fiction or — more frequently — speculative fiction based on an historical period, such as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell or Michael Moorcock’s The War Hound and the World’s Pain set during the Thirty Years War.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think that’s one of the most important of the reasons I listed. It’s sad to think of how many stories have been lost to history, particularly women’s stories, and historical fiction can help to redress the balance.

  10. piningforthewest says:

    I agree with everything, particularly number 2, it being so much easier to retain facts through reading fiction. That’s why I like to read authors who do lots of research into the subject.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it’s always good to know that you’ve found an author who has researched the subject thoroughly and can be trusted to get the facts right, at least as far as possible.

  11. Jo says:

    Great piece and oh so true on so many levels. I love my history and another one here that has a degree in it! But you learn a lot through anecdotal history, the people can tell you more as they lived through these times. And for those we can no longer talk to or there is little evidence of what they say historical fiction brings a different point of view. Historical fiction opens so many doors and worlds!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it does open whole new worlds – there are so many historical figures and periods I would never have known anything about if it hadn’t been for historical fiction.

  12. Jennifer says:

    I really like your list. I can’t think of anything to add except that I found my interest in history through reading Jean Plaidy’s novels in the late 1960s, Her characters made history come alive for me, and I wanted to know the facts behind the fiction.

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