What Do We Love About Historical Fiction?


As a historical fiction writer, I spend a lot of time with my thoughts drifting through a different century. Whether it be for my own projects, a marvelous new historical I just read, random questions about past events and people, or discussions about the historical fiction genre itself, I’m pretty much always ready to talk about history.

A Tale from the Decameron (1916) - by John William Waterhouse

A Tale from the Decameron (1916) – by John William Waterhouse

Historical fiction has always been one of my favourite genres to read, so it’s not a surprise that I gravitate to it in my writing, although I have written stories set in modern times, too. For me, historical fiction has always been a form of entertainment escapism. Readers (and writers) have the opportunity to be immersed in a different world and culture, and yet still care immensely about the characters. Circumstances and way of life have changed, but human nature is essentially the same. The fact that the events and ideas of a story are based on past reality only adds fascination.

This quote from Sharon Kay Penman (a wonderful HF author) sums it up well: “Good historical fiction…allow[s] us to empathize with [the] characters, to care deeply about their fate. But we never forget for a moment that they are not our neighbors, not ourselves, for their expectations and ethics and boundaries are not ours. Their lives are firmly rooted in alien soil.”

When a historical novel really resonates with me, I always want to know more about the time period and people who lived in it. Sometimes this means reading more novels about the time period, or even biographies and non-fictional accounts. A compelling historical novel can be a key to unlock the reader’s curiosity, to open their mind about a past way of life and see how much things have changed. There’s a reason I could never watch The Tudors – after reading The Other Boleyn Girl back in 2002, I went on to read much more about Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, and it increased my enjoyment and knowledge of the time period, but correspondingly decreased my tolerance for historical inaccuracies. The dangers of indulging your curiosity!

As someone who is trying to join the ranks of historical fiction authors, I’ve learned a lot about the genre from a publishing perspective. Most really popular historical novels feature a well-known person from history, and are told either through that character’s perspective, or through the viewpoint of someone close to him or her. A story that takes place in a less well-known time and place, or about an obscure figure, will be harder to sell. Most of the time, the narrator is a female.

I understand how this formula has created a successful and lucrative historical fiction niche. I wonder, though, if the restraints of this are part of the reason that there are about a million (I’m a writer, not a mathematician) novels about the Tudors out there. It’s always a special thrill to discover a new book that transports you to a time and place that you’ve never experienced, and more so because this isn’t always easy to find.

If you’re a big historical fiction reader, like me, what do you like best about the genre? Share a unique historical you read, and let’s get a reading list going. Even though this entire post has been focused on historical fiction, if you have a particular fondness for another genre, please do leave a comment to share why. I’d love to know more about people’s favourite genres.


Woman Pouring Milk - Vermeer

Woman Pouring Milk – Vermeer


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