Hooray for Historical Fiction!

As I mentioned last week, I’ll be posting one more blog rerun today as I cope with a busy month that included attending a GREAT June 8-11 National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference in Manchester, New Hampshire. I’ll return to doing all-new posts next Sunday, June 18, but, until then, here’s a slightly revised piece from November 3, 2011:

It’s a current fact that I love historical fiction. No, not the kind that wrongly said Barack Obama was born outside the U.S., but the kind in novels.

Why is historical fiction great? For one thing, it enables you to learn about the past in a way that goes down easily and entertainingly.

I realize it might be better to read nonfiction history books than historical fiction. After all, historical fiction can idealize, over-dramatize, and “error-ize” the past. But this fun and absorbing novel genre is better than reading no history at all — especially when the author does plenty of research.

Books of total fiction are wonderful, but there’s something about partly factual novels that excite readers. Knowing that the made-up characters you’re bonding with are experiencing real events, living through real times of societal progress or regress, and meeting real celebrities of their era can help make a novel fascinating.

Want to know more about U.S. history? There’s Stephen King’s 11/22/63, which takes its title from the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Or try E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex — two books that happen to share a real-life character by the name of Henry Ford. Or William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner and David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident — a pair of novels that address America’s brutal system of slavery. Or Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, which includes Mexican as well as U.S. history; Gore Vidal’s Burr, Lincoln, and 1876; and many other titles by many other authors.

Almost everything I know about pre-1800 Scottish history I learned from Sir Walter Scott’s excellent novels, including Rob Roy and Old Mortality. I picked up some French history by reading Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (the French Revolution), Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and its sequels (in which Louis XIV appears), Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock (French immigrants in 17th-century Quebec), and Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (perhaps you’ve heard of her).

Care for a baseball book that mixes fact and fiction? Try Darryl Brock’s If I Never Get Back (about a time traveler from the 20th century who hooks up with baseball’s 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings as well as Mark Twain — before he wrote that Joan of Arc novel).

The 1800s are also the time of Alias Grace, in which Margaret Atwood brilliantly reconstructs a Canadian double-murder case and makes an engrossing character out of Grace Marks — who may or may not have participated in the killings.

Whether the real-life people in novels are obscure (Ms. Marks) or famous (Mr. Twain), historical fiction can humanize them — moving them from cardboard cutouts to flesh-and-blood protagonists who seem as three-dimensional as the made-up characters with whom they interact.

That, if you’ll excuse the hackneyed phrase, makes history come alive.

What are some of your favorite works of historical fiction?

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my new literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column — which discusses such topics as Trump’s pulling out of the Paris climate accord — is here.

31 thoughts on “Hooray for Historical Fiction!

  1. Nice column. One of the reasons I write historical fiction is the reason that you mention that “it enables you to learn about the past in a way that goes down easily and entertainingly.” When I was considering writing my first historical fiction novel, I chose fiction over non-fiction because I thought that non-fiction would sound like a textbook.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jimrada, for the kind words and excellent comment!

      While some historical nonfiction is very compelling to read, a lot of it does indeed remind a person of a textbook.

      Congratulations on your historical fiction writing!

      Like

  2. Happy Father’s Day Dave !
    Speaking of Stephen King, read that DT has blocked his twitter account, the gall of this man.
    Current history is what I am staying away from 24/7 news are good at it, repeatedly saying the same thing over and over again.
    This weekend we were having our public library book sale and finally I got hold of The Low Land , two bucks which is am amazing historical fiction. As you know last year I looked for it as well. Yesterday as soon I dropped the title several ladies in there started to look for it and found the book for me , also purchased Night School have not read that before.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Dave,

    No doubt when you originally posted this, I would have mentioned John Jakes’ “Kent Family Chronicles” as it’s my go to when it comes to historical fiction. It’s a well written blend of real life history and fictional drama.

    I would also add Ben Elton’s “Time and Time Again”. It poses the question, if you could change just one thing from the past, what would it be? The story focuses on The Great War, but it also weaves in some alternate histories where the World Wars didn’t happen, and some where they were a lot worse.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sue! You are getting me more and more interested in that Ben Elton novel. 🙂

      I’m also reminded of Jack Finney’s GREAT time-travel novel with a similar title — “Time and Again.”

      (Per your request, I deleted your other comment in the other blog post!)

      Like

  4. Hi Dave, it’s interesting that you picked this column from 2011. I’m not sure if I was commenting at that time, but I don’t remember it (which may be due to memory loss or this was a period when I was undergoing so many medical issues at that time); however it really struck home with me today. I’ve been going through another reading gap for a few weeks, so in trying to get out of it, I pulled out one of my favorite authors, who’d probably fall in the mystery/historical/ suspense/romance genre, Barbara Mertz, who died in 2013. She mostly wrote under the pseudonyms of Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels. The Peters’ novels are mostly about Egyptologists from the Victorian times when so many amazing artifacts and burial places were being found — she actually graduated from the University of Chicago, with a degree and PhD in Egyptology, so she definitely knew her stuff. Another one of her characters was Vicky Bliss, an art historian at the University of Munich.

    My personal favorites are the Barbara Michaels books, which mostly have moments of history and supernatural suspense thrown in. I just started to reread “Patriot’s Dream,” which is set in Williamsburg during the 1970’s, yet weaves in a story about the people who lived in this area, including slaves and their descendants years before. Is she the greatest author ever? No, but she can write a quite good and engrossing novel, made more interesting by her historical knowledge. I also love her for her appreciation of art, vintage articles, old homes, and especially her love of animals, especially cats and dogs.

    I was wondering how I could express my appreciation for her today, but your column gave me a great opportunity. Thanks, Dave!

    Liked by 1 person

    • A happy coincidence, Kat Lib! 🙂

      I think I remember you starting to comment a little after 2011. Perhaps in 2012? But I’m not totally sure.

      Those Barbara Mertz/”Elizabeth Peters”/”Barbara Michaels” novels sound really interesting, and that author definitely had the academic training for what she wrote about. Also, as you alluded to, one doesn’t have to be Dostoyevsky or George Eliot to write very readable, entertaining, well-worth-the-time novels.

      Pulling out a favorite author sounds like an excellent way to end a reading gap!

      Like

      • So, Dave, I thought I’d take this moment to let you know that I’m on a countdown to leave on my road trip to Durham from Philly next Saturday. I got my car back the other day and had it inspected yesterday, so all is well with that. My car actually looks and drives better than it did before, so I should be grateful for that, but I had to put out over $900 to do so. My biggest problem now is to figure out how to get my dog Willow in the car for 7-8 hours, as well as how I can do the same for me! When I start to worry about those things, I do realize I can pull off anywhere to stay overnight (after determining which hotels along the way are pet-friendly). I’m excited to visit my girlfriend Louise, and I know she feels the same.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Good luck with the trip, Kat Lib! It sounds like it will have its challenges, but it’s great that your car is now (expensively) in tip-top shape — and that you’ll be seeing a friend. I hope Willow ultimately finds the long trip to be fun/interesting!

          Like

  5. Howdy, Dave!

    — What are some of your favorite works of historical fiction? —

    Reluctantly shoving aside for the present purpose beloved alternative historical fictions such as Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” conjectural historical fictions such as Norman Mailer’s “Ancient Evenings” and psychohistorical fictions such as Isaac Asimov’s “The Foundation Trilogy,” I am a big fan of two of the novels you mention in your above blog post (E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime” and Mark Twain’s “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc”) and a little fan of one of the others (Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” which features my favorite opening and closing paragraphs in all of literature).

    At the time of your original blog post, I also should have assiduously championed the likes of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and, of course, Henryk Sienkiewicz’s “Quo Vadis?”

    Now, however, I would say all these brilliant stars in the firmament dim in comparison with Sienkiewicz’s “The Trilogy”: “With Fire and Sword,” “The Deluge” and “Fire in the Steppe.”

    Live and learn.

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, J.J.!

      Yes, historical fiction has its subcategories/sub-genres — and I’d like to read more of those novels than I have.

      I agree — there is probably no work of fiction with as good/as famous an opening AND closing passage as “A Tale of Two Cities.”

      “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” IS a great book, and certainly different than much of Twain’s other fiction. Not a lot of humor in it, plus it stars (or at least co-stars) a female character. As you know, Twain spent many years writing and researching the novel — and he said it was his favorite of his books.

      I think you are Sienkiewicz’s biggest fan. His work must be amazing.

      Like

      • — I think you are Sienkiewicz’s biggest fan. —

        I certainly would like to believe so, but I think there may be a number of other aficionados with claims to this title, such as Ana of the Geddy Lee Fans, James A. Michener (whose own “Tales of the South Pacific” is on the list of my favorite works of historical fiction) and about 38 million citizens of the currently sovereign state of Poland.

        — His work must be amazing. —

        To say “The Trilogy” is amazing is to damn it with faint praise, but similar superlatives also fall well short of the mark, which may be the truest measure of the author’s achievement as a master storyteller.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I thoroughly enjoy historic fiction but a careful eye will reveal the subtle differences between a novel written during an era and a modern novel set in the same era. Historic writers do an excellent job of capturing the sense of the era – but all too often the sense is a contemporary view of the past.

    Hint… might be an idea for a column.

    Liked by 1 person

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