Characteristics of a Historical Fiction Novel
Love history and love reading? Perhaps you are an ardent historian and want to write a novel? In either case, historical fiction could be the ideal genre for you. Historical fiction novels cover the entire span of history so you are bound to be able to find a story set in your perfect era. But what makes a great historical fiction?
A great historical fiction novel provides us with a window into another world; more than that, it inspires us to open a door to find out more about the era in which the story was set. Dry history text books, long on facts but short on drama, can often leech the life out of history, putting many of us off for life. But, approached from a different angle, driven by a well-crafted story with compelling characters, history can burst back into life.
All historical fiction books share some common features, so if you are a budding historical fiction writer, or a reader who wants to know more, here are the characteristics of a historical fiction novel.
Action, Adventure and History!
Whilst I do like historical romance, I'm also partial to some action and adventure. Historical fiction lends itself very well to battles, Crusades and derring-do! I've put together a list of some of my favourite historical fiction with action and adventure, hope you enjoy it too!
Definition of Historical Fiction
Historical fiction is fiction that is set in the past. The writer should be writing about a time period different from the one in which she is living. Some writers say that to qualify as historical fiction, a book must be written at least 50 years after the historical period it describes. Another way of looking at historical fiction is that the era in which it is set must be researched, not experienced.
Historical fiction should not be confused with novels actually written in the past. For instance, Pride and Prejudice is set at the turn of the 19th Century, but it is not historical fiction. At the time it was written, it was a contemporary novel, Jane Austen having written it around 1813. Hence, she was not reconstructing events, she was describing them from experience.
Bernard Cornwell - Journey from Historical Fiction Reader to Author
A Great Story
It seems obvious, but just like any other genre of novel, a historical fiction book needs to engage its readers with a great story. There should be a theme, conflict and resolution, all pulled together by believable characters and realistic dialogue. There needs to be a setting of course, which is where the historical detail comes in.
However, although meticulous research may result in superb historical details, it won't distract readers from a clunky plot and dull characters. The story must take centre stage; the historical setting should be woven into the plot with a deft touch, not stamped over the top of it.
Historical Fiction Sub-Genres
There is of course mainstream historical fiction, but there are plenty of sub-genres:
- Swords and Sandals - The Romans, particularly with gladiators and/or legionaries.
- The Age of Sail - Naval fiction, usually aboard British naval ships of the 18th and 19th century
- Bodice Rippers - Historical romances.
- Swords and Sorcery - really a sub-genre of fantasy, but related to historical fiction. Usually has an alternative historical element.
- Historical Mysteries - whodunnits set in the past.
- Western Historical - set in the American West
An Authentic Setting
If you are writing historical fiction you must provide your readers with historical accuracy. Many readers of historical fiction (and its sub-genres) are avid history fans and they simply won't accept historical inaccuracies. If you are planning on writing historical fiction, you will need to thoroughly research your historical setting.
Writing historical fiction is not the same as writing a fairy story. It's no good hoping that you can just make up what sort of castle the hero of your novel lives in; readers will not only know a motte and bailey castle from a concentric castle, but they will also know around when they were built, where they were to be found and have a pretty good idea of the daily routines of their occupants. If you are embarking on a historical fiction novel, don't fall into the trap of thinking that a wealth of imagination is going to make up for a lack of solid historical research. It won't!
The Historical Fiction Dialogue Dilemma
One of the things that can make or break historical fiction is the dialogue. People used to speak differently, but if the author tries to recreate this too accurately it can ruin the book. Trying to wade through reams of dialogue peppered with "forsooths, verily, thees and thous" can be tiresome, but conversely characters shouldn't sound contemporary. Perhaps the best compromise is where the author gives a flavour of the language of the times by choosing a few words or phrases that suggest the time period (and avoids modern phrases - OK!)
The characters in a historical fiction novel need not be real, but they do need to be realistic. Some authors do write fictionalise the stories of actual historical figures, which gives them a difficult task. The lives of famous people are well documented, so the story is constrained by accounts of their character and the events that actually happened to them.
This doesn't mean to say that great stories can't be written about historical figures, it just means that a writer has a great deal of research to complete before embarking on their writing. Elizabeth Chadwick is well-known for her meticulous research which has resulted in a series of books about William Marshall, the great medieval lord, and his family.
Other writers choose to have fictional main characters, with appearances and references to real people. CJ Sansom does with in his Shardlake series. Matthew Shardlake is a fictitious Tudor lawyer, but he is in contact with members of the Court including Thomas Cromwell, Queen Catherine Parr and has a humiliating meeting with Henry VIII.
There needn't be any reference to real people at all; The Pillars of the Earth creates an entire community of entirely believable fictional characters from a devious Bishop to an honourable builder. Indeed, so popular were the characters that Ken Follett wrote a sequel following the fortunes of the characters' descendants, World Without End. The first book has already been made into a mini-series whilst the second will be aired this year (2012).
Meet Two Historical Fiction Writers
If you are thinking of writing historical fiction it can be really useful to read advice from established authors. Two accessible and very successful authors are Elizabeth Chadwick and Julian Stockwin. Both have their own websites on which they give advice on writing and research, and you can keep up with their work and lives on Twitter.
Elizabeth Chadwick writes about the medieval period. Not only does she research her books from documents, but she visits locations and is involved in her local historical re-enactment society. No wonder then that her books feel so authentic.
Julian Stockwin has published a highly successful series about his fictitious hero, Thomas Kydd, who rises from pressed man to Admiral in Nelson's navy. Stockwin is passionate about this era and it shines through his work. As well as advice about writing, his website includes links to useful resources.