Dipping Into History
When I select a novel for pleasure reading, I don’t often turn to historical novels. Admittedly as an editor, I don’t have a lot of time for pleasure reading, yet I do enjoy historicals from time to time and know they have a solid place in the overall fiction marketplace.
A few years ago, Sarah Johnson, Assistant Professor at Eastern Illinois University, said, “the popularity of historical fiction seems to be on the rise. A number of authors best known for their work in other fiction genres are turning to the historical past for inspiration. Included in this group are Michael Crichton (best known for his contemporary thrillers), John Grisham (famous for his courtroom thrillers), and Amy Tan (widely published in contemporary women’s fiction). Historical novels have also won some of the major literary awards of the past several years.”
For many years I read the historical fiction from Bodie Thoene. The writing and the characters of these books kept me turning pages late into the night. I was fascinated with the Zion Chronicles and Zion Covenant series and highly recommend these books. While I am a fan of Bodie Thoene’s work, I believe these novels are stronger than some of her recent titles. I’m always fascinated by what draws writers to putting together a historical. You learn a bit of my insight if you read my profile about the Thoenes.
In the April 10th issue of Publisher’s Weekly, historical novelist Ron Rash talked about his motivation for writing historicals saying, “Now that I have finished my novel, put in it everything I learned from decades of research, I know I will never know what my ancestor might have felt at Shelton Laurel. Nor will I ever fully understand what happened in Cambodia and Rwanda. But if I failed to achieve understanding, I gained awareness. That may be the best that any work of historical fiction has to offer—not just to its author, but, more importantly, to its readers—a chance to grapple with the mysteries and complexities of the past, in hopes of seeing the present a little clearer.” (Follow the link to read the entire article.)
Isn’t that the task of the historical novelist? To grapple with the past and shed light on the present events? It seems like this light shedding process happens for the writer and the reader. It’s something to think about as you begin reading your next historical novel and dip into history.
Thanks, Terry, for giving credence to the historical. I've read and attempted to write historical fiction for years and also enjoy the Thoenes. Though I consider myself a meticulous researcher, one thing I've learned with certainty is that historical fiction is, indeed, fiction, and some more than others.
Revisionists haven't omitted the fiction shelves (and some of their non-fiction might be better served there) from their efforts to rewrite the past. I've been amazed, in fact, to gleen from the comments of friends and acquaintances how much of their rewritten histories are now viewed as factual. It makes what the Thoenes or David Robbins or Sam Pakan does all the more important.
Historicity is next to literacy is next to godliness, or something like that. (I think that should qualify as a revisionist quotation of Ben Franklin.)
I wonder if you were expecting me to stop by and comment???
Anyway, thanks for posting some encouraging news for historical novelists. I belong to the Historical Novel Society
and some of us have been seeing a return to the popularity of this genre also, not just in books but also in movies.
You said: Isn’t that the task of the historical novelist? To grapple with the past and shed light on the present events?
That's part of our task. But also to get the historical facts right. If you don't LOVE research, and don't have a drive to get the details correct, please pick another genre.
It's not our job to rewrite history, but every author is going to interpret events in their own way. That's okay. Like Sam said, it's FICTION.
And if historicals don't float your boat, consider that there are historical romances, historical mysteries, and so on. My book has even been called historical fantasy--it that strange, or what???
Back in the day the Thoene's wrote a wonderful little writing instruction book called Writer to Writer. It was the first writing how-to book I ever read from a Christian perspective, and I was greatly encouraged. I believe it's out of print now, but there might be some used copies available somewhere.
You mentioned contemporary writers turning to historicals. An author in the CBA who's done this is James Scott Bell. His novel Glimpses of Paradise takes place in early 20th century LA. It's a fascinating book that is fast-paced yet is chock full of historical insights about Hollywood and the era.
Terry, it's great to see a nod for historical fiction. Although it's a genre which I also agree will always have a place in fiction, a stigma still exists overall. Of course, the same could be said of any genre when judged by those who aren't fans/readers of it.
But you made a great remark about our responsibility as historical writers. And Cindy added to it. We *do* shed light on past events, but we also have an obligation to do our research. Like this current buzz with Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, his inaccuracy of factual events in history is causing a lot of people to be misled by his distortion of the truth.
For me, I ascribe to the old adage: "those who don't know their past are doomed to repeat it," or something along those lines. By shedding light on the past, I strive to share the wisdom gleaned from our ancestors and provide an intriguing story wrapped inside the portrayal of another time.
Now, I just need to get the books in print. :)
Thanks for your insightful comments on the historical novel. My current WIP is an historical, so what you wrote was especially timely for me.
Keep up the great work you do on your blog. :-)
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