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?