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Living in the Past

When I was younger, I remember several times classifying my favorite types of books as specifically “about a girl my age during World War II.” And truly, looking at the bookshelf in my childhood bedroom, that preference is quite apparent. I’ve always enjoyed historical fiction, but it seems like I would go through phases of gravitating towards certain periods in history far more than others. In my later teens, it was Renaissance Italy and nothing else and I also remember a period of mid-1800’s frontier America. While historical fiction is in and of itself a clear literary genre, the case can be made that there are a myriad of sub-genres as well, divided up by era and place.

It’s a tricky thing, writing a story that takes place in a time no one living has ever experienced, and there are many ways to go about doing it—some more successful than others. I’ve read authors who go the route of writing the entire narrative—style, structure and language included, as if they were not writing about a long past time, but instead are living it and writing as contemporaries would. This invariably, in my opinion, comes out sounding awkward and forced, no matter how accurately the form is rendered. Maybe that’s why I stuck with 20th century histories for so long; there’s less opportunity for authors to pretend they grew up in regency England.

Reading historical fiction is where I’ve gained a lot of my knowledge of, as well as acquired an interest in, history itself. Thankfully, the latter arose or else I’m sure I’d have come to believe a number of things happened or didn’t happen due to the artistic liberties allowed to authors. Novels led me to real research, reading factual historical texts on my own volition simply because I just had to learn more about certain monarchs, historical figures or events. The advent of Wikipedia has made this all the more accessible, and I sometimes have to stop reading to run over to my computer and look up some obscure or trivial piece of information simply because it played an interesting part in the plot.

My television and cinematic historical preferences, however, are wildly different from my literary ones. Recently, I’ve taken to hours spent watching episodes of Downton Abbey, North & South and Gosford Park, though I have only a small interest in books set during the same years.  My guess is that for me, some periods can be better displayed visually and others in writing, but that’s only a rumination.

Regardless, there will always be a place for historical fiction on my bookshelves, though some eras will clearly outweigh the others as my tastes change and evolve. What’s your opinion? Do you stand for historicals at all, and if you do, do you find yourself gravitating towards certain periods in history over others?

11 Responses to Living in the Past

  1. Rowenna says:

    I love historical fiction, both written and visually presented in film/TV–I find that my taste runs more toward “ordinary grubby people” vs “royal court” rather than toward a particular time period. Though I do have a particular fondness for the 18th century. I mean, those clothes!

    The voice in historicals bothers me sometimes, too–I feel like I crave a balance between “What thou didst say was quite intriguing” and “Yeah, what you said was cool” that’s hard to hit. I like to see a historical aesthetic in the language, but not a dedicated reproduction (“I grew up in Regency England” syndrome). I also can’t stand invented history–when novelists make up things about real people. I love differing interpretations, but if there’s no evidence that so-and-so was the bastard son of so-and-so and this-or-that battle never actually happened…well, it bothers me. So I’m anal :)

  2. Carrie-Anne says:

    I only write historical fiction (and some soft sci-fi), and honestly have no interest in writing something contemporary. The only contemporary-ish things I’ve written have been when they’re part of a long, epic family saga/series, and the timeline gradually moves into the modern era. I’d never deliberately start a book in the present day, because I personally find that kind of boring. Most of what I read is also historical fiction, or at least books that were written in the past and now are about historical times/events, in spite of originally having been contemporary.

  3. I used to be more into historical fiction as a kid, although I’d like to start reading it more heavily again. (I’ve got a few on my shelf waiting to be read, so that’s good.) My favorite writer was Scott O’Dell, and because of him I gravitated toward anything with a female Native American protagonist. I read ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS about 8,000 times, and any books I could find on Sacagawea, and then branched out to things like JULIE OF THE WOLVES though the setting was more contemporary. Even of the American Girl books, Kirsten was my favorite, not just because she had a similar name and appearance, but because she went and lived with the tribe near her for a little bit.

    As an adult I’ve fallen prey more to the Regency and Victorian England fiction, but only on certain occasions and usually more in film or television. I loved Downton Abbey, btw. Need the second season!

    • Rachel says:

      I completely forgot that Kirsten lived with the Native Americans for a bit! She was always my favorite, too. Did you ever read the prequel to ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS or the other books in the JULIE OF THE WOLVES books? They weren’t as good, but I know I enjoyed them.

  4. Ciara says:

    oh yes, I don’t read historical fiction but I will read pretty much anything centred around Salem witch trials or European witch trials.

  5. Lisa Marie says:

    I’m not a fan of historical fiction, usually — at least not in a romance. I prefer contemporary romance novels almost exclusively.

    However, I’ve recently been seriously craving a romance novel set during the Great Depression or early WWII. I suspect that it’s because economically, America is headed down the same path (although to unknown ends), and I want to feel a connection with characters who’ve lived through that. There’s a certain romance to simplicity. Survival. And finding someone to love, despite those hard times. Please, *please* won’t you sign a romance author who writes a book like this? :)

  6. Julie Nilson says:

    I love historical fiction, but I rarely enjoy historical non-fiction. The non-fiction puts me to sleep (literally, in a lot of cases). I think the issue is that many historical non-fiction books tend to keep the subject at a distance, to a degree, while the fiction usually does a better job of letting you into the heads and hearts of the people involved.

  7. I love historical movies and tv, but I’m picky about historical fiction. I don’t have much patience for authors who seem to think that writing a story set in Victorian England means they need to adopt the ::nose pinch:: oh raaahther stuffy style that should have died with Henry James. My favorite historical fiction books tend to be about the United States before and during the American Revolution. I enjoy anarchy. The Civil War is good too.

    Favorite historical fiction authors (so far): Scott O’Dell, Irene Hunt, Elizabeth George Spear (sp?)

    Favorite historical TV/film: Band of Brothers, John Adams, The Right Stuff, Deadwood

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