Belinda is an historical fiction reader/writer and so Word Nerd asked her to do a post on what good historical fiction is. Here's what she has to say.
An Introduction to Historical Fiction by Belinda Kroll
"Without historical accuracy, my books would be fantasy. With only historical accuracy, they would be textbooks. For historical fiction, there must be a story, accurate in detail but brought to life through imagination and creativity."- Karen CushmanI like to think of historical fiction as the first cousin of science fiction and fantasy, if only because all three genres depend on world-building. While science fiction and fantasy may borrow from the histories of our world, historical fiction is defined by extensive research of past eras. For many readers, historical fiction is a fun way (or only way) to learn about the past because it provides a human element to bone-dry textbook facts as the author attempts portray how life was.
The standard is any book set before 1912 (or sometimes before WWI), is considered historical, and how an author relates the historical information defines the sub-genres. There are costume dramas, where clothing defines the historical context. There are comedies of manners, where social norms define the context and provide plot twists. Historical romance has romance as the main theme with a historical context, whereas a straight historical focuses on political intrigue and may have a romance as a plot thread. War historicals rely on particular wars as the underlying theme, paranormal historicals play upon previous sensibilities about life after death... There are more sub-genres than I can ever care to list, which is the best part of historical fiction, I think.
Above all, good historical fiction will make you more interested about the time period. Good historical fiction is good literature and good history. If the author manipulates historical fact, then some historians argue the novel is no longer a straight historical. Then again, some say historical fiction is as much for historians as supernatural fiction is for ghosts, or science fiction is for physicists. One of my favorite trends from the historical fiction genre is when authors have a note at the end discussing what actually happened and why they made a time-line tweak, if they did. These author notes often come with a list of suggested reading if the reader is interested in learning more about the actual event, and for an information junkie like me, that's about the best thing an author can do.
So how do you pick a good historical fiction? I begin with Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Elizabeth Gaskell, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, etc., and branch out from there. Favorites in the genre are Ann Rinaldi (The Last Silk Dress, The Fifth of March, Wolf by the Ears, In My Father's House), Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring), Philip Pullman (Ruby in the Smoke), Jane Yolen (Briar Rose), Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities), Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlett Letter)...
I suggest talking to your local bookstore clerk to see what are the bestselling books in the genre, and add some of your own interests to the mix to see if there's a historical fiction book with your interest as a subplot. If you can dream it up, I'm certain some author, somewhere, did the same thing.
Belinda Kroll has a book published through Aventine Press. She writes the blog Worderella Writes at Siriomi Web Designs.