what historical fiction readers really want

Last week’s post on the challenges of writing historical fiction garnered more copious feedback than my posts typically do, including a book recommendation from my uncle; some thoughts on the benefits and challenges of research from my former student Kandy Crosby-Hastings, a historical fiction writer herself (read her savvy observations in the comments to last week’s post), and some comments from my dad, which I’ll return to shortly. I also received a nuanced response and respectful critique from another former student and my occasional Twitter interlocutor (occasional because I’m really bad at Twitter), @Andy__Ford, and it is his epic series of ten tweets that I would like to spend most of my post engaging with today. And that’s because I realized, after reading his comments, that my previous post presented an unfairly generalized portrayal of historical fiction readers. Today, I’d like to complicate that portrayal a bit.

My post last week was directed toward historical fiction writers, not readers. I was also trying to be amusing, which sometimes gets me into trouble. I was also trying to keep my post relatively short. So I fell back on the bogeyman story that I tell the students in my creative writing research class: If you don’t do your research, those cranky historical fiction fans will find all your mistakes and eat you alive in a public forum!!! Although it supports the basic premise of my course—research is important—this story is based on a caricature, and like all caricatures, it is rather unkind. Here is Andy’s response: “I don’t think those Goodreads trolls actually exist, and if they do, they’re probably in the minority….As a reader I am happy to suspend my disbelief so I can enjoy a story, and I think most readers are like that.” In other words, historical fiction fans aren’t waiting to pounce on writers for committing an anachronism; they just want to enjoy a well-told story like readers of any genre do. My conversation with my dad reinforced this point: he sent me a really bad review that he gave a book classified as historical fiction. But he criticized the book for bad writing, not for historical inaccuracy, and so he applied the same standards that he would to any book. As Andy said in another of his tweets, “I don’t think the details matter as much as the feeling”–the feeling, that is, of what it must have been like to live in the world where the story is set.

While writing this post, I remembered something. Last week, I claimed that I had never written historical fiction except for a Civil War story I handwrote in elementary school. But just now, I remembered the short story called “Dinner Party, 1885” that I wrote at the end of the summer between the two years of my master’s program. I had spent the summer maxing out my check-out limit at my university’s interlibrary loan department, reading everything I could get my hands on from and about the Victorian period, including a number of 19th-century health and hygiene manuals, which related directly to the topic of the thesis I was about to start writing. By the end of the summer, I felt like I was a Victorian, and so that short story flowed out of me in a way that no piece of writing has since then (certainly not these blog posts!). I was proud of that story, and it ended up being published in my university’s literary magazine. (P.S. A long shot–If anyone still has that issue of Lamp, could you scan a copy for me? I don’t have the story anymore.) But here’s the key: I don’t think I spent much if any time looking up details like what the exact cut of my protagonist’s waistcoat would likely have been. I wrote the story from the feeling I got from reading all those books, from immersing myself in the period. Yes, if I were to expand that story into a book and/or try to market it to a wider audience, I would probably do some fact-checking. But that would be an afterthought, not the heart of the story. And so we return to the point I made at the end of my last post: no amount of accuracy can make up for a bad story with stilted characters.

I hope I’ve done some greater justice to historical fiction writers and readers this time around. Keep the comments coming!


6 thoughts on “what historical fiction readers really want

  1. Todd Stockslager says:

    Interesting note on the response of readers to accuracy in what they are reading: After posting a review of a short biography of Napoleon to my Amazon account several years ago, I was taken to task for a nuance of interpretation (not a factual error!) by a representative of a society of Napoleon fans. Yes, there are such fans and societies, and they are fierce in defending his reputation! Perhaps the fact that I was reviewing a biography, not a historical fiction, and that my review was attempting to convey a true representation of the biography made their criticism sharper than would be the case of a reader of historical fiction. In any case, it was one of the drivers that convinced me to move my book reviews elsewhere (to Goodreads–which is now owned by Amazon).

  2. Carol Saylor says:

    Hi Tess,
    If you can get a copy of your short story called Dinner Party, 1885, I would like to read it, also. TIA!

  3. Kandy Crosby-Hastings says:

    I can agree. Good writing is important. I will admit I enjoy writers who do their homework, though. One of my favorite historical fiction writers (from our current day) is M.J. Carter. I enjoy her writing because she includes enough history to provide, what I consider, a local color in her work. She is a historian. I used her nonfiction book as a source for a history research paper for a Modern Europe class. Caleb Carr is another one that I have enjoyed because he adds that extra detail. (His novels take place in America rather than England, but I still enjoy them). As far as writing style goes, my favrorite historical fiction writer (again, from today) is probably Sarah Waters. I cannot vouch for the themes of many of her novels (which would probably be offensive to many). However, her writing style is exquisite, as is her inclusion of the details of the time eras in which her stories are set. I have researched a few topics she has included in her novels that are set in Victorian England, as well M.J. Carter’s, because of their expertise in providing that detail. Whenever I see a novel set in nineteenth-century England, I try to read it because of my own writing.

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