Judging by the list of Emmy nominations, Americans appear to be in love with the past. 2011 has been a ripe season for popular shows exuding nostalgia for the not-so-perfect Twentieth Century. The recent past is also the favorite setting of present bestselling historical fiction. Why is historical fiction (and drama) still alive and well when is much more difficult to read and to create than other genres?
Historical fiction is an umbrella term that shelters several subgenres such as historical mysteries, historical romances (what in my day were known as bodice-rippers), inspirational period pieces, and nostalgia yarns. It even encompasses the fantastic, whether it´s alternative history, historical fantasy, steampunk, time travel stories a la Outlander or paranormal romances. The genre’s possibilities are eternal.
True historical fiction applies to novels dealing with actual historical facts and real people as dramatic personae. Examples of historical fiction are Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, Robert Graves’ I Claudius, and, in terms of current television shows, Emmy winning nominee Boardwalk Empire that deals with a historical person, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and his part in the politics and rise of organized crime in Atlantic City.
Going over the top twentieth most popular items in historical fiction, I expected to find historical romance galore and plenty of medieval sagas a la Ken Follet. Surprisingly, the only material of that sort was precisely Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, which still enjoys an enviable enduring popularity.
Now, the three titles within the New York Times List are set in those despised decades. There is The Paris Wife (Paris in the 20’s), Civility Rules (1938 New York), and War and Honor which is an actual World War II novel. Other war novels doing well in category lists are Tatiana de Rosay’s Holocaust fable Sarah’s Key and Amazon Bestseller War Brides. I wonder what changed. Why is it trendy now to write about the first half of the Twentieth Century? Why is recent history much more fascinating than ancient eras?
Often, I meet people who shun period pieces with excuses such as “I know so little about that period, I can’t follow the plot” or “I get confused with all the historical details.” Others, like yours truly, thrive in learning historical facts through an entertainment medium. In fact, one of the few reasons why I would throw away a book might be its historical inaccuracy.
Much more difficult that the research process is trying to create characters living in a time alien to us. How did they think? What moved them? What were their values and concerns? And that is where historical fiction and drama tend to fail. Most serious historical fiction authors will run into two ominous characters: Mr. Political Correctness and Madame Modern Sensibility. On encountering them, the author is forced to make a choice on how to portray the past and its inhabitants.
There are three unofficial schools that guide the historical fiction novelist in this quandary. One advises to depict yesteryear as much worse than today, an emphasis on our ancestors’ barbaric ways and primitive mentalities as if to make the reader think he is fortunate to lie in such progressive times like the third Millennium. Then there is nostalgic fondness: to describe days gone by as in Don Quixote’s Golden Age monologue, a lost magical world when everything was better and nicer than today. Finally, is the easiest and most common approach: show the past as a mirror of the present. People have always thought and acted as we do, they just dressed differently and were much more backwards (technologically speaking) than us.
As only a witness could testify of how a historical period really was, all three approaches are legitimate. That doesn’t stop us purists from clenching our teeth when reading hidden current agendas behind a harmless historical tale or glancing through stories that are so anachronistic in language and mentality that characters appear to be attending a costume party.
I have to say that I love research and find tremendous pleasure in reconstructing lost worlds, but is that reason enough to write a historical novel? So I ask those who dare to evoke the past in writing. Why do you do it? What made you select a particular period for your tale’s setting? What is the biggest challenge in writing historical fiction?