What Makes a Great Historical Novel?
By Jorge Sette
Historical novels are fictional stories written around real events that took place in a particular time period. One of the premises of this popular literary genre is that the author’s contemporary time and the period presented in the novel must be separated by a distance of at least 25 (though some say 50) years. Good examples of effective historical fiction are the Booker Prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, which look back on Henry VIII’s court in 16th century England.
However, if you take a book like Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, while it is a very sophisticated and entertaining study of New York City during the 1980s, it cannot be considered historical fiction, since the novel was written around the same time as the period it depicts. For the same reason, books like Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and Great Expectations are not historical fiction either. They are simply novels which were written in the past.
Historical novels may mix real facts, people, and situations with fictional ones, but what are the prerequisites of great historical fiction?
They are based on extensive and careful research.
Although we can’t expect historical fiction authors to be historians, they need to have an accurate sense of the period they are focusing on. To write a simple scene in one of these books, writers will have to know, for example, the kinds of clothes people wore; the objects they used; their language; the political and social context; how they celebrated their holidays; what parties they went to; their religion, and a lot more. Therefore, authors of historical novels must carry out a lot of research to be able to sound convincing about the times they are depicting.
The focus is on storytelling.
Authors need to keep in mind they’re not writing a history textbook. The research only helps to build the context in which a story will be developed. The most important part of their job is the creation of an exciting plot; the development of well-rounded characters (which may or may not be real); their ability to infuse the text with the right atmosphere; their craft in playing with language. They should also promote what all great literature promotes: a discussion or reflection on what makes human beings tick when put in certain situations.
Authors use creative ways of exploiting historical gaps.
It takes leaps of imagination to write historical novels. Successful writers of the genre will have to fill in historical gaps (like what people say in private, their feelings, their motives, etc) with interesting information. Part of this information will be inferred and some of it will be invented.
The story is preceded by an author’s note.
The reader shouldn’t be deceived. The author’s note will explain what in their story is based on fact and what is purely fiction. Writers will clarify what poetic license was taken in the book. They should also be explicit about the scope of historical information in the book.
Authors take the opportunity to discuss contemporary issues.
Historical fiction can be used as a powerful tool to address current issues. Although they narrate specific events that happened in past as context, the best historical novels offer an interesting angle on contemporary or timeless themes, such as the position of women and other minorities in society; the fairness of the social and political system; questions about the role and nature of human beings; the importance of religion and mythology, etc.
Historical novels – especially the ones that abide by the principles we listed above – are becoming even more popular these days. If you wish to start a journey discovering new titles, Bookwitty would suggest the following historical novels: Romola by George Eliot; Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood; The Egyptian by Mika Waltari; Waverley by Walter Scott; Number of Stars by Lois Lowry.
If you wish to start a journey discovering new titles, Bookwitty would suggest the following historical novels: Romola by George Eliot; Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier; The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell; The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon; Number of Stars by Louis Lowry.
What are your favorite historical fiction novels? Please use the comments section below to let us know.