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Purpose to historical fiction?

For discussions of historical fiction. Threads that do not relate to historical fiction should be started in the Chat forum or elsewhere on the forum, depending on the topic.
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Alisha Marie Klapheke
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Location: Franklin, TN

Post by Alisha Marie Klapheke » Thu December 30th, 2010, 7:23 pm

I like how Susan put it. Reading HF gives me a jumping off point for research. It makes a tomb meaningful and a trip more delightful. HF piques my interest in a certain time period or for a particular person in history. I do not require historical perfection in the fiction that I read. I do not throw stones because I don't want stones thrown at my own writing! As a reader, I want entertainment and an experience in the past. If the details are a bit off, well, I'll figure that out through follow up research.

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Currently reading: "Serpent's Point" by Kate Ellis
Preferred HF: Plantagenets, Victorian, crime, dual time-frame
Location: Essex/London

Post by Madeleine » Thu December 30th, 2010, 7:47 pm

I read primarily for entertainment and escapism, and I read a lot of non-HF too. However if I'm interested in someone who's in an HF novel, whether they're the main character or not, I'll do further research on them and like to think I've learnt a bit more about history rather than just endless lists of dates and Acts of Parliament, which were often glossed over at school eg the Irish Potato Famine reduced to a couple of tiny paragraphs in my exercise book! However I don't like it when authors hit the reader over the head with facts, as if they're thinking that because they spent all that time doing their research, the reader has to know every single thing in great detail - often, they don't, especially if it's not that essential to the plot, although I do admit that I've read modern authors who do the same thing.
Currently reading "Serpent's Point" by Kate Ellis

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Post by donroc » Thu December 30th, 2010, 8:55 pm

I read HF for entertainment, information, and new insights that have not appeared in NF covering the same era, persons, and subject matter.

I write HF to tell a good story about people and their times that inspire my imagination while painlessly educating the reader about the era and personages.

Have I succeeded? Only those who read my writing can say.

Bodo the Apostate, a novel set during the reign of Louis the Pious and end of the Carolingian Empire.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXZthhY6 ... annel_page

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Joined: August 2008
Interest in HF: started in childhood with the classics, which, IMHO are HF even if they were contemporary when written.
Favourite HF book: Prince of Foxes, by Samuel Shellabarger
Preferred HF: Currently prefer 1600 and earlier, but I'll read anything that keeps me turning the page.
Location: California Bay Area

Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Thu December 30th, 2010, 10:35 pm

I'm with LH in that I find nothing more entertaining than learning. But fiction's first purpose is to entertain, and if a fiction book doesn't entertain me, I won't finish it (unless there is another purpose, such as book club, college assignment, etc.).

I don't mind variation from the 'facts' for the sake of story. Unless the variation is in a direction that takes it too far--I suppose under the category 'defaming the dead' -- which is an odd little quirk of mine I doubt many readers share.

I do like author's notes. And I do enjoy the web's incredible power to give me follow-up at my fingertips -- a serious distraction when reading e-books!

And just for the record, quite a few books in the non-fiction history section have less truth than good HF. Even worse for the hypocrisy, as they are being marketed as true.

Must get back to work...internet time limited.

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Post by Perdita » Thu December 30th, 2010, 11:49 pm

For me HF is about dramatising the sometimes dry accounts of history we read in biographies and non fiction. A historian gives us all the facts and the author gives us the emotions and drama. For example, David Starkey might give an expert analysis of Henry VIII's reign but in order for it to mean anything we need HF authors to give the people involved a voice.
I think we humans instinctively need to tell the stories of our forebears - it probably goes back to when we were cavemen and told stories round the campfire!
Also I like historical accuracy in my HF but if the author gets right to the heart of the personalities involved and tells a fantastic story, the accuracy starts to matter less. With HF I'd rather have a great story than a history lesson.

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Post by annis » Fri December 31st, 2010, 12:42 am

It seems to me that what most readers really want of HF is to experience life in another period of history. It's all very well getting the facts right, but the author primarily needs to get the mindset and attitudes right - setting up the cultural framework and belief systems in context.

Elisabeth Storrs' novel The Wedding Shroud, which I read recently, is a good example of an author recreating another time so convincingly that I emerged from the story feeling as if I had been living it, and not only knowing more about Rome and Etruria in the fifth century BC, but the extent to which everyday life and culture was so strongly influenced by the gods and the supernatural.

Scott Oden gave a perceptive and thoughtful reply on this subject in an interview he did for Historical Novels Info about his latest novel, The Lion of Cairo:

"Q. Did adding magic to the historical swashbuckler mix require a major shift in mind-set for you as an author?

A. Not so much, no. One thing that's always bothered me about the bulk of the historical fiction I've read is that it fails to tap into the sense of wonder and mysticism a character from, say, the eleventh century would likely possess. With such an emphasis placed on historical accuracy - from veracity of dating to what a Crusader would wear - superstition and a belief in sorcery tends to fall by the wayside. Is it real? Is the protagonist’s knife possessed? Do the dead truly speak to the villainous necromancer? I don’t know, but my characters believe it’s real and that’s enough for me."

bernard Cornwell also embraced this approach in Agincourt. Religion is so bound up in everyday medieval life, that it seems perfectly natural that the main character, Nicholas, should have visions and talk to the saints. Whether they are imaginary or not is irrelevant to his belief that they are real. Karen Maitland is another author who manages this well, particularly in Company of Liars.
Last edited by annis on Fri December 31st, 2010, 6:33 am, edited 2 times in total.

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Interest in HF: I can't answer this in 100 characters. Sorry.
Favourite HF book: Checkmate, the final novel in the Lymond series
Preferred HF: Literary novels. Late medieval and Renaissance.
Location: Catskill, New York, USA

Post by Margaret » Fri December 31st, 2010, 1:11 am

I'm with LH in that I find nothing more entertaining than learning.
Me, too.

Too often, I think, people make the assumption that entertainment and education are somehow mutually exclusive opposites, which makes entertainment sound disreputable and frivolous while it makes education sound punishingly boring. Education is only boring if it seems to have no relevance to our own lives - why would any of us want to occupy our time in a pursuit that will be utterly useless to us? But education is deeply interesting to us if we know, or instinctively sense, that it will help us understand the world we live in better, which - in theory, at least - should help us to live better ourselves.

What I want to learn from historical fiction is not a compendium of names, dates and facts. That I can get from nonfiction - and if I'm really interested in a particular subject and trying to learn more about it, the bare names, dates and facts are not boring at all to me - look at how fascinating genealogy can be, for example! But historical fiction needs to somehow bring those names, dates and facts to life. When I read a historical novel, I want to be drawn deeply into the story of the people and events, almost as if I were living it myself, so I can learn something more fundamental and difficult to grasp than the merely factual. Essentially, I'm trying to figure out how to live a good life through the examples of the people I'm reading about. That's a really complex thing, because life is complex, and didactic novels with an obvious, simplistic message don't succeed with me.

For example, in Edith Pargeter's A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury, I was caught up in the characters' dilemmas. Prince Hal was torn between admiration for Harry Percy's honesty and openness and his need to adopt the personal traits, including discretion, that would make him a king who could offer stability and safety to the people he ruled. Learning that his father was not trustworthy was a painful lesson for him, but it brought maturity that he needed in order to become a good king. Even today, for those of us who never expect to become kings, we need to learn how to balance honesty and trust with a certain amount of shrewdness and discretion in order to get along well in the world. And I'm oversimplifying the novel here - it was much more complex than that, but the essence was that we need the agony of waking up to the truth about the people we care about if we are going to live successful lives. To an extent, reading the novel allowed me to add the experiences of the characters to my own life, to augment the richness of my own experience, something I think every good novel does. To do that, it had to be both entertaining and based on a sound enough factual underpinning for me to find it credible.
Browse over 5000 historical novel listings (probably well over 5000 by now, but I haven't re-counted lately) and over 700 reviews at www.HistoricalNovels.info

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Post by lvcabbie » Fri December 31st, 2010, 1:29 am

I read to learn in an entertaining manner.
Conducting research is where one needs the dry, matter-of-fact approach to an era. But, fiction brings it to life through the author's imagination what what an individual of that time would see and experience.

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Post by EC2 » Fri December 31st, 2010, 4:44 pm

As a reader I read historical fiction for the story and sometimes learn stuff along the way if it's that sort of novel. If it's about a real person then I expect integrity and a decent amount of research. Story telling and historical integrity do not have to be mutually exclusive. If I am really interested in a subject then I'll go looking for myself, but most of the time I'm not and the novel sufficiently satisfies me at that level. So I prefer my writers not to talk bollocks even if it's fiction.

As a writer - You write to your personal ethics, integrity and preference and for the audience that will best appreciate your approach. I know what I like as a reader, and I'll avoid writers who don't fulfil that criteria, but they might be someone else's shining star - so each to his or her own.
Les proz e les vassals
Souvent entre piez de chevals
Kar ja li coard n’I chasront

'The Brave and the valiant
Are always to be found between the hooves of horses
For never will cowards fall down there.'

Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal


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Post by Telynor » Fri December 31st, 2010, 8:41 pm

I read HF for both reasons. For me, it's pure escapism at times, and honestly, the only way that I am going to be able to see a great part of the world are through the pages of books. (you can ask me why, privately, it's ok) But I'll use a good or interesting HF to give me a leaping off point for further research -- if I like the characters or the place or the history, then I have a point of reference for exploring the NF side of things.

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