Opinion Column

When History is Fictionalized…

I am a history nerd.

There is no debating this. If something seems ever so vaguely rooted in real history, I’ll probably give it a chance. This is especially, and maybe impossibly, more true when it comes to my favorite parts of history to study – Tudor England, World War I, World War II, the 1920s… to name a few.

This willingness to try just about anything is a path fraught with missteps.

Much like any favorite genre (be it books, movies, or television), the more you try new things within it, the more clunkers you will find. You’ll find absolute gems, of course, but you will also find plain old rocks that you toss over your shoulder in your quest for gems.

Is that a strange analogy? Maybe? Oh well.

In any case, here is my guide for what works and what doesn’t work in historical fiction. (This is, of course, totally my own opinion and I’d love to hear if you agree or disagree down in the comments.) Think of it as a way to maybe know what to look for, if you’re new to historical fiction.


DO…

  • (at least at first, if you’re new to the genre) stick to periods of history that you know something about. You want to learn from reading, but you don’t want to have to do prep and homework to prepare for fiction.
  • push yourself a little bit, by reading something that will might teach you something. History teaches us all, every day, so read something ‘old’ that might help make your world ‘new.’
  • make use of ‘if you liked that, try this’ lists because if, say, World War II historical fiction, is your proverbial cup of tea, those lists can be invaluable to discovering new favorites.

DON’T…

  • assume that ‘historical fiction’ means you have to read Tolstoy and Victor Hugo and even Jane Austen. Remember, in many cases, even their novels can be called ‘contemporary’ at least to their times. Read Middle Grade or YA or graphic historical novels if you like!
  • feel like you have to follow the crowd. As in everything, the crowd can be very wrong and historical fiction can veer toward particular interpretations of history that can be not quite factual.
  • ever be ashamed of what you read. If ‘historical fiction’ means ripped bodice lairds and lasses on the cover, go for it. Just look for the history around the sex!

My recipe for the perfect historical fiction

Since I’m picky (the Picky Nikki nickname of my childhood was both unfortunate and fitting!), and I like to talk about my preferences and particulars, here is what I consider the ideal ingredients for a historical fiction novel.

  • the best ones are not about the most famous people (think Henry VIII or Elizabeth I) because there is too much already known and they tend to read more like dry biographies or, if they invent scenes, too many facts can be wrong
  • the best ones are about events that are not the most famous (think D-Day or 11/22/63) for the same reasons as above
  • the best ones don’t change the dates of actual events, don’t change the key players in actual events, and don’t change the effects that actual events had on the world
  • the best ones are ‘inspired by true events’ or something similar to that
  • the best ones are the ones that teach the reader something, by making them a part of the story
  • the best ones are the ones that truly honor HISTORY

So… are you a fan of historical fiction? What makes the best sort of story for you? What are you favorite historical fiction novels? Let me know in the comments down below!

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