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How do you define historical fiction?

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message 1: by Misfit (new)

Misfit | 75 comments Mod
Interesting blog post,

message 2: by MAP (last edited Apr 02, 2009 03:23PM) (new)

MAP Whoo. What a question. I'll try not to write an essay.

First, I think there are basically 2 types of historical novels. (Check out "historical fiction" section of my books to see examples.) The first are the type like The Sunne in Splendour, or The Lady Elizabeth, which take historical people and fictionalize (sometimes a lot, sometimes a little) their lives.

The other type are like "Nosotros Somos Dios" (actually a play) or the Edward Rutherfurd books, where almost all, or all, the characters are fiction, but they are positioned in a well-researched period in history, where the "real" history is having a great effect on the characters' lives. Maybe actual historical characters pop in and out, maybe they're just mentioned. But the main characters are fiction.

My mother actually prefers the second type; as someone who went very far in school as a history person, she doesn't like people trying to put words in the mouths of actual historical figures. I actually prefer the first type, though I do mind when historical fiction goes waaaay off the reality path for the sake of scandal or a good story or something (but that's a whole other topic.)

What I don't consider historical fiction are books that are just, say, "based in Victorian England" but none of the political/social elements are there or affecting the characters. It was just a setting and clothing style the author liked, and really, the story could have been played out in many settings. To me, there has to be SOME element of history to the story, besides just the date given. :)


Susanna - Censored by GoodReads (susannag) | 27 comments That is indeed an interesting blog post, Misfit.

For me, the chief requirement for historical fiction is that its setting must be historical to the author.

I really wonder about those people who complain about not enough famous people in a novel of historical fiction; what, do you expect to just run into someone famous on a daily basis in your own ordinary life? Are you yourself a celebrity? I didn't think so. Why then, should you expect this of your historical fiction?

Susanna - Censored by GoodReads (susannag) | 27 comments Interesting, MAP - my own preference, like your mother's, is mostly for the second category, at least in well-attested periods. (For the ancient world, I'm more forgiving, because we know relatively less with confidence.)

I trained as a historian. Historical inaccuracies can drive me up the wall. Of course, I'm more likely to catch them in a period I know fairly well. Unluckily for the authors of popular historical fiction, I'm fairly well-up on the Tudors and the Victorian period!

message 5: by Misfit (new)

Misfit | 75 comments Mod
Susanna wrote: "That is indeed an interesting blog post, Misfit.

For me, the chief requirement for historical fiction is that its setting must be historical to the author.

I really wonder about those people who ..."

Now I can read either, and historical romances (as long as there's more than wall paper). I love Du Maurier and while her books are in a "historical setting" i.e. 19C Cornwall I don't read them as historicals - I read them as novels. It really doesn't matter if the major players of the day play only minor roles - as long as I'm not led to believe they are more prominent.

I looked at the book info page and my immediate impression was a historical romance and or a novel in a historical setting. I also recognize several of the reviewers and for the most part their tastes always run very similar to mine (most of the time that is) so I would very much give weight to their opinions.

message 6: by MAP (last edited Apr 02, 2009 01:27PM) (new)

MAP Someone in the blog called novels set in the past but not historical per se "period" novels and I think that's a pretty good name for them. I think where the line is drawn between period and historical is a bit different for everyone, and I probably tend to be more stringent than others. (Though I will say I have the Scarlet Pimpernel under my historical-fiction tag, simply because the catalyst of the whole novel is the French Revolution. Some might not agree with that.)

I also agree with Susanna that the time must be set in the past from when the author wrote. Though a book like Forrest Gump certainly has a fictional character affected by, and affecting, historical events, these events are basically contemporary to the author, and therefore don't count (to me) as historical fiction. The same could be said for, say, Jane Austen's books, which certainly give us a great insight into the cultural and social norms of the early 19th century, but were written by a contemporary.

But, like I said, I'm sure the bar for what counts as "historical" vs. "period" vs. whatever else are slightly different for everyone. These are just the criteria I use when deciding how to tag my books on Goodreads :) And some of it, for me, is an emotional decision...whether it truly "felt" historical or not. Susan Kay's Phantom certainly includes many historical events and historical characters, and some very prominently, but for some reason I just don't approach the book with that mindset, and so it's under the "general fiction" section in my book list.

message 7: by Susan (new)

Susan (boswellbaxter) | 13 comments I prefer the first type--not necessarily with very well known characters, but with historical characters nonetheless. It's simply my preference, though--I don't consider novels of the second type "less historical" than the first type, and I've enjoyed novels of the second type and reviewed them favorably. But given my druthers, I'm more likely to read a novel of the first type.

message 8: by Bibliophile (new)

Bibliophile | 20 comments I would agree that “historical fiction” refers to fiction that is set in a period that is historical for the author. So Dickens wrote historical fiction in A Tale of Two Cities and contemporary fiction in Great Expectations.

I certainly do not think that “historical fiction” has to contain famous people, though of course, it may. And I actually prefer historical fiction that deals with fictional characters in a different time-period, rather than real people, because then I get sort of annoyed by the way that the author is portraying someone I already “know” (as opposed to his or her own character), although I do like Richard III in novels :D

“Period” novels to me suggest something different; to me, For Whom the Bell Tolls is a period novel, because it was written contemporaneously with the Spanish Civil War without the benefit of archival research or hindsight, so I’m getting a taste of at least one person’s attitude towards those events.

I also consider “historical romance” as different from historical fiction and to be flippant, historical romance is when everyone has their own teeth and is literate (and quite often has anachronistic attitudes about life contemporary to them.) For example, I consider Dorothy Dunnett a (fabulous) writer of historical romances, while Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders is historical fiction – people are sort of surly and believe in witchcraft and eat grass and stuff like that :P

message 9: by MAP (last edited Apr 02, 2009 01:44PM) (new)

MAP Are you defining "historical romances" as romance novels set in a period setting? Because I've had the novels of Dorothy Dunnett described to me, and I definitely never categorized her as a romance novel writer from those descriptions.

Or is the "romance" part simply that life in a time period is portrayed as much less smelly/harsh/difficult than it really was?

(Sorry, I realize you sort of answered that yourself, but I was still not totally sure)

Susanna - Censored by GoodReads (susannag) | 27 comments I personally would consider historical romances a subset of historical fiction. Also historical mystery. But that's just me.

message 11: by Bibliophile (new)

Bibliophile | 20 comments Or is the "romance" part simply that life in a time period is portrayed as much less smelly/harsh/difficult than it really was?

Yes, this. It's a thoroughly romanticized view of the past; Dunnett did an amazing amount of research for her novels, but her main characters (at least Lymond and the hero of the Niccolo books) are definitely larger-than-life, Romantic figures. Although I would argue that the Lymond books are also romances in that other sense of the word :D At least, they have a love affair that I love!

I'm an economic historian (modern Central Europe), so I think a lot of authors of my definition of historical romances ignore the messier, dirtier, more difficult aspects of life without antibiotics, sewage systems and general standards of public hygiene! I'm always fascinated by social history (of the kind pioneered by Braudel) rather than the Great Man/Woman kind of history, which may be why I like novels that are about made-up characters.

message 12: by MAP (new)

MAP Misfit probably understands the reason I'm asking...;)

I got stuck reading some romance novels when visiting a family member a couple of weeks ago...both were set in the past, but I would call NEITHER of them historical! In my (very humble) opinion, slapping people in 19th century dress does not historical fiction make!

message 13: by Misfit (new)

Misfit | 75 comments Mod
Now for me there is no flat way to categorize historical romance. Some are just fluff and nonsense in a wall-paper historical setting and some are real meat and bones with tons of historical detail - but too much romance for the "serious" historical reader. I have some books strictly categorized as romance that I loved to bits with all the details but then more of your mainstream romance reader will be bored to tears. Roberta Gellis for example - I've seen posters on the Amazon romance boards complain about her because she's got too much detail and not enough romance in her books. To each his own....

message 14: by MAP (new)

MAP Hey, I'm not saying that romance novels can't also be historical novels, I think they can. I'm just saying that a romance novel (or any novel) that is, as you say, wall-papered with a historical setting and nothing more would not be given my "historical-fiction" tag on Goodreads. And as I've said before, I'm probably more stringent in my definitions than others.

message 15: by Misfit (new)

Misfit | 75 comments Mod
MAP wrote: "Hey, I'm not saying that romance novels can't also be historical novels, I think they can. I'm just saying that a romance novel (or any novel) that is, as you say, wall-papered with a historical s..."

I wasn't picking on you, honest. Too funny, but I had joined a historical romance group here at GR and someone was asking for suggestions for something different and I mentioned my list Books too good to be classified as straight romance. A couple of readers took offense that I was putting them down and got a tad bit snarky. I dropped the group and haven't gone back.

Wonder if Barb's beginning to regret what she started here? Nice lively group for one that's less than two days old, eh?

message 16: by Bibliophile (new)

Bibliophile | 20 comments Susanna wrote: "I personally would consider historical romances a subset of historical fiction. Also historical mystery. But that's just me."

I agree - I just think I make a mental distinction between historical fiction that's more literary (and also more realistic) and historical fiction that uses the past as a backdrop for this great story (mystery or otherwise). This is not to denigrate genre fiction at all - I adore the Lymond books I mentioned, and Lindsey Davis's historical mysteries set in Ancient Rome are among the books that I find myself re-reading quite often. So it's a fluid concept for me, in many ways.

But I just finished reading The Greenlanders and THAT book made me feel like I was actually LIVING in Greenland, circa 1410 both because of the way the characters interacted with each other and with their idea of the divine and how they reacted to what happened in their lives. They weren't 21st century people in costumes; they struck me as really living in their own times. I think the opening of The Go-Between sums up this distinction for me beautifully - "The past is another country ..." And unless I feel like I AM in another country (not just my own country with more silk and satin), I don't think it's GOOD historical fiction, though it may be good historical genre fiction.

(Though, honestly? I don't think about these things too much most of the time!)

message 17: by Barb (new)

Barb | 34 comments Mod
Hey Misfit,
I love a lively discussion!
In fact I always enjoy my book club more when there is someone to disagree with. I find when we all liked the book we hardly have much to say.

And I don't know how but I missed this thread some where along the way!

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