Prof. Cora Agatucci

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Introduction to Historical Fiction:
Soon Y. Choi

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"A thorny issue . . . is 
how to define Historical Fiction"
--Soon Y. Choi

Soon Y. Choi. "Part A. On Selection Criteria Used by Reference Books."  From  An (Almost) Complete Guide to Historical Fiction Reference BooksSoon's Historical Fiction Site.
URL: http://home.austin.rr.com/histfiction/references.html
[last accessed Feb. 2002].

Part A. On Selection Criteria 
Used by Reference Books
By Soon Y. Choi

"A thorny issue in selecting historical novels is how to define historical fiction. Some authors apply a strict test of historical accuracy, not only in terms of dates and names but also in beliefs and customs that a book's characters take up. "Historical Fiction" by Duggan and Taylor is an example. Hartman and Sapp's "Historical Figures in Fiction" lists only those that have one or more real historical characters in the plot. On the other hand, Rosenberg and Herald's "Genreflecting" follows the tradition, to the extreme, of treating historical fiction as romance novels. Thus, you will find most of your favorite historical novels under Romance genre, to your surprise.

"One can take the standard of historical accuracy too far. And when one uses historical accuracy as the sole criterion, too many books are considered as historical fiction. McGarry and White's "World Historical Fiction Guide" lists over 6,000 titles. They included books that accurately described an identifiable historical period, persons or events, even when they were contemporary novels at the time of publication. Thus, you'll see Jane Austen and Turgenev in their list.

"Although Austen and Turgenev are two of my all-time favorites, we need to apply our definition for historical fiction: i.e. the author needs be describing a historical era that preceded the author's life. This refers to the essential requirement for an author's conscious effort to re-create an era gone-by. McGarry and White included some (then contemporary) novels because of their "historical value." In terms of reading enjoyment, this should not make any difference: we experience the same "historical re-living" whether we read Robert Graves' "I, Claudius," or Turgenev's "Fathers and Sons." But what makes "I, Claudius" a historical fiction, but not "Fathers and Sons," is the difference in the creative process by the author. (I am NOT saying one involves more/better/worse effort from the author than the other. It's just what makes the historical fiction a distinct class of literature.)"

[From Soon's Annotated Bibliography:]

5. Historical Fiction
Compiled by W.A. Taylor, introduction by Alfred Duggan. Published for the National Book League, as a part of its Reader's Guides series, by the University Press. Published in 1957.
279 entries recommended among books published between 1923 and 1956. In alphabetical order. Historical accuracy is the criterion for inclusion. Each entry followed by a synopsis of plot.
Other Notable Features:
Subject index. Alfred Duggan's introduction gives an interesting short overview on how historical novels have evolved.

7. World Historical Fiction Guide: An Annotated, Chronological, Geographical and Topical List of Selected Historical Novels
By Daniel D. McGarry and Sarah Harriman White. The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 1st ed. published in 1963. 2nd ed. in 1973.
6,455 entries. Divided into three parts of Antiquity, Middle Ages, and the Modern world. Under each part, entries are listed first by geographical headings (continents), by broad chronological subheadings, and finally by areas. Each entry has a short (two lines) description on subject.
Other Notable Features:
Index of titles and authors. This book is more like a complete list of historical fiction that combines the first three books above, and updated.

10. Genreflecting: A Guide to Reading Interests in Genre Fiction
By Betty Rosenberg and Diana Tixier Herald. Libraries Unlimited, Inc. First edition published in 1982, 3rd ed. in 1991.
Books are listed under six genres: western, thriller, Romance, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Numerous subgenres by themes and types are given, as named by authors. Each of these subheadings is described briefly, and author and title are given that fall into the subheading. Some titles also have a description of subject, but not often. Historical novels are mainly under romance genre, but also under western and thriller (historical mysteries) sections. I find this book somewhat useful because of subgenres that are not available elsewhere. (Under romance, we see such subgenres as royals, saga, period romance, and time travel fantasy-romance. Other genres offer such gem(?) as mountain man, railroads, boy into man, mysterious rider, crime-rogue, military and naval adventure, etc.) But the list are not complete, sometimes only author names. And their subgenres are so arbitrary. More importantly, it's misleading by putting many historical novels under period romance, although most of these books do have a romantic concern worth a page or two. But then, which one doesn't?
Other Notable Features:
Useful topics on bibliography, history and criticism, journals, associations, etc., for each genre (which means that it has these topics for romance but nothing for historical fiction). Index for authors and titles.

13.  Historical Figures in Fiction
By Donald K. Hartman and Gregg Sapp. Oryx Press. Published in 1944.
About 4,200 novels published since 1940 are listed under 1,500 historical figures arranged in alphabetical order. You can look up a person such as Mahatma Gandhi, then it gives you a brief discription of the person, and a list of authors and books written about the person. Also published reviews are cited for each book. No description about the book (other than the person it's under, of course). The person might be the hero or heroine, or only a minor character, in the book. Also, the subject matter of the book cannot be guessed. For example, a book may be about any historical events that Gandhi was involved in. Nevertheless, it presents a very valuable in subject search. Reading levels for juvenile and young adults are indicated.
Other Notable Features:
In addition to separate indexes for authors and titles, it has an occupation index for historical figures, e.g. labor union official, mathematician, actress, etc. Books that don't have prominent historical figures are not included.

Soon Y. Choi
"What is history but a fable agreed upon?" - Napoleon B.
Soon's Historical Fiction Site is " the most comprehensive of the WWW sites devoted to historical fiction. Includes a master list of historical fiction writers with a short biography and list of works as well as links. Also a pseudonyms list and current historical fiction best sellers at Amazon."
(last accessed March 2002)

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Humanities Department, Central Oregon Community College
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