Prof. Cora Agatucci

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Introduction to Historical Fiction:
Joyce Sarricks

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“Accuracy is essential.”
--Joyce Sarricks


Sarricks, Joyce (Literature & Audio Services Coordinator, Downers Grove Public Library, Downers Grove, IL).  "Writers & Readers: Historical Fiction--Rules of the Genre."  Booklist 1 April 1999.  Rpt. NoveList News June 1999.  [ NoveList News is produced in the Durham, NC office of NoveList, a division of EBSCO Publishing]. Last accessed March 2002.  [Sorry! Link broken as of April 2003. ~ CA.]
URL: http://novelist.epnet.com/nlwebp/NoveListNews/nlnews9906.htm


"Writers & Readers: 
Historical Fiction--Rules of the Genre"

by Joyce Sarricks

The simplest definition of historical fiction is that it is set in the past, before the author's lifetime and experience, but there's much more to it than that. Historical fiction makes a point of conveying a serious respect for historical accuracy and detail, and its intention, beyond providing reading pleasure, is to enhance the reader's knowledge of past events, lives, and customs.

Four basic elements characterize the genre. First, there is a wealth of accurate historical detail relating to characters, events, and, most importantly, setting, including geography, customs, beliefs, culture, society, and habits. Most readers would agree that this focus on specifics is what they respond to most readily when they read historical fiction.

Some authors are more skilled at integrating historical information into the story than others. More sophisticated authors deftly weave in details without overwhelming the story and without dropping large sections of "history" in the midst of the plot. Sharon Kay Penman, for example, illustrates the life and times of Richard III in The Sunne in Splendour(1982) by presenting the politics, personalities, and power struggles of fourteenth-century England. As the reader follows Richard from his childhood to Bosworth Field, Penman deftly blends historical events and details of the period into the character's life experiences, creating a wonderfully complete story.

Accuracy is essential. Many readers, myself included, derive a great deal of our knowledge of history from historical fiction because we don't respond to the often-dry style of history textbooks or biographies. We turn to historical fiction to understand history from the inside, from the perspective of individuals caught up in events from the past, and even though we know we're not consulting primary sources--and suspect that the authors have, by necessity, taken some liberties in telling their tales--we trust these novelists to do so responsibly, that is, without falsifying facts as they are generally known.

The second element relates to characterizations. Readers expect authenticity in the portrayal of characters, even if they are not real historical personages. Glaring anachronisms of language, behavior, or fact are distracting and can cause readers to distrust the author. For example, to have a fourteenth-century woman hold twentieth-century views wreaks havoc in the context of a historical novel and results in unintentional humor. Characters must "feel" real.

The third characteristic involves story lines. In some historical novels, characters are more important than the story itself. Max Byrd's historical novels, for instance, offer warts-and-all portraits of real people, such as Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Other writers place greater importance on the plot and less on characters. In Bernard Cornwell's two series of historical adventure--the Sharpe series, set in the Napoleonic War, and the Starbuck Chronicles, set during the U.S. Civil War--each book dramatizes a particular battle in great detail. Down the Common (1996) takes this even further in a straightforward, unemotional, and rather bleak account of a year among the peasants and rural nobility in medieval England. The characters themselves are not important except in the way they reveal the kinds of lives people led.

Historical fiction need not be tied to any particular event. Candace Robb's excellent mystery series is set in fourteenth-century York and features the fictional sleuths Owen Archer, formerly head archer for John of Gaunt, and his wife, Lucy, an apothecary. They mingle with real historical characters as they solve mysteries that reflect political and social issues affecting England and its people, from kings to serfs.

The final element is pacing. Historical novels are usually big books, and they are not generally referred to as "fast paced." A phrase such as "leisurely unfolding" perhaps better describes most novels in this genre, but they do pull readers quickly into the story and keep them entranced to the very end.

As important as it is to understand the range and appeal of historical fiction, it's useful to know something about the fans of the genre, too. Historical fiction aficionados read to learn about historical events, personages, and the life and customs of another time and place. They seek more than just facts; they want history to come alive through exciting, dramatic, clever, or entertaining stories. They are also looking to the past for understanding of the present and intimations of what the future may bring.

Many fans prefer to read about a particular country or a specific time. Some readers will only select historical fiction about the American West; others won't read anything set in England no matter how highly recommended it may be. On the other hand, if a reader is fascinated by a period of history, a country, or a historical figure, he or she may tolerate a wide range of quality in terms of writing style. Someone interested in England's King Henry VIII and his wives, for instance, will be willing to try everything from Bertrice Small's steamy Love, Remember Me (1994) to Margaret George's journal-based novel, The Autobiography of Henry VIII (1986).

Readers who love literary fiction may read a wide range of award-winning historical novels set in different countries and time periods because they appreciate the style and high quality of the reading experience. And most readers of historical fiction are looking for big books rich in social and cultural detail in which they can immerse themselves, slipping away from the cares of the present.

The historical-fiction genre embraces a wide range of novels, from the more serious and literary to sagas, romances, adventure tales, and mysteries. Some provide intimate psychological portraits, others are more exterior and action oriented, but time and place are always the most important elements. In the novels of James Michener, for example, the setting almost becomes a character in its own right. Fiction encapsulates much of a country's culture, and historical fiction can be seen as part of a long tradition of interpreting and preserving past events. Look at Homer and his stories of the Trojan War, sung for generations to keep the history and the story alive. The best historical fiction combines both of these elements to help readers understand the past, a key factor in comprehending the present and envisioning the future.


Joyce Sarricks is the Literature and Audio Services Coordinator for the Downers Grove Public Library in Downers Grove, Illinois, and author of a forthcoming book on genre fiction for librarians to be published by ALA Editions.  This article previously appeared in the Booklist, April 1,1999.  Sarricks is also a member of the NoveList Editoral Board.

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