Fictionista, Foodie, Feline-lover

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Some Thoughts on Historical Fiction

From now until the end of the month, enter the March Mayhem contest sponsored by Joanne Renaud, Kat Laurange, Donna Thorland, Lynne Connelly and Kat Parrish. Details and entry form here.

I've always been an omnivorous reader. I've always read a lot of nonfiction--I loved biographies when I was in elementary school and these days I'm a sucker for books like Bowling Alone, The Collapse and Revival of American Community and Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. I also love reading travel memoirs, from Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence to Video Night in Kathmandu. When I worked at Warner Bros. there was a travel bookstore just down the street and I probably bought two books a week there. So many places to visit! And I think my fascination with other places has carried over into my fascination with other times. Fatherland and The Years of Rice and Salt.
And alternate versions of time. (Loved Robert Harris'

Even as a kid when I read fiction, I read widely and without a lot of discrimination. I loved mysteries and they were my go-to books of choice, but I lived in a neighborhood with a small library and after I'd read all the mysteries, I started reading everything else. My library had two sections--fiction and nonfiction, plus a shelf of LARGE PRINT books for the grannies and a little cubby hole of children's books for the little ones. And that was it. You had Agatha Christies novels shelved next to Bernard Cornwell's and Arthur C. Clarke. It was like the literary equivalent of the iPod Shuffle. I'd just pick up books that looked interesting.

I stumbled across some of my favorite historical novels that way--The Name of the Rose (bonus for it also being a mystery),  I, Claudius, Sir Walter Scott's The Talisman, Midnight's Children. In school I got a steady dose of what I think of as the "war books" (Johnny Tremaine, Red Badge of Courage, April Morning, All Quiet on the Western Front, Rifles for Watie), but for pleasure I sought out books by Victoria Holt and M. M. Kaye, historical novels that were set in such wonderfully exotic places that I truly felt like I was time traveling.

So I read historical fiction as a child and continue to read it as an adult. Winston Graham's Poldark books?  Loved them.  Anne Perry's Charlotte and Thomas Pitt mysteries--more addictive than the first season of Downton Abbey.

In fact, there's now a whole sub-genre of mysteries set in historical times and I read them all, from Kelli Stanley's "Roman Noir" to Sharan Newman's Catherine LeVendeur series. (I also devoured Newman's trilogy of stories about Guinevere.) I tend to binge-read when I first discover a writer. (It took me about a month to read everything that Tanith Lee had written up to the point I discovered her, and she kept up that pace nearly until she died. Then there's Stephen King. I'm about five books behind him.)

One of Tanith Lee's least-known books is The Gods are Thirsty, a novel of the French Revolution. Stephen King's mystery, Joyland, is a wonderful evocation of the 70s. Yes, historical fiction, all the cool kids are writing it. And all the cool kids should be reading it. It always depresses me to hear that readers stick to one genre or another--whether it's grimdark or contemporary romance. There are so many books that cross genre lines, so many authors whose work transcends categorization that they're missing out. If Doctor Zhivago were published today would it be labeled a "romance novel?") and ghettoized in the book store? Would Oscar and Lucinda be dismissed as science fiction set in the past?

Read past your comfort zone. Embrace historical fiction.

1 comment:

  1. I agree! For any reader, but especially for writers, you *have* to read outside of your genre. You can tell when an inexperienced author hasn't read widely, and that's always a shame.

    Also, you've given me a bunch of new books to check out! :D