Why I Love Historical Fiction
In my review of Gone With the Wind I stated that it was the greatest novel of all time. I read it (or at least tried to) for the first time when I was twelve years old and it really stuck with me. I was also just crazy about a series called Sunfire that featured different time periods with the main character living through an important event. So it kind of surprises me that throughout my twenties and thirties I not only didn't read historical fiction, I actually loathed most of it. I recall searching for books and scorning the ones that weren't actual history books or biographies. I ate up true crime, politics, and courtroom dramas like the ones written by John Grisham. And I still think all of those books added deep knowledge and value to my life. But I just couldn't bring myself to read anything considered both historical and fiction. Fast forward fifteen to twenty years and now it is practically all I read.
I used to think the dialogue and character interactions were cheesy. And sometimes in certain books they are. I also used to be frustrated with the idea that the historical figures didn't actually say or do some of the things in the book. The idea that real live human beings that lived years ago were talking to fictional characters drove me nuts! It just felt so.....wrong. I mean, if it wasn't all true then what on earth was the point? Wasn't I reading to learn something? The "fiction" part of historical fiction was what made me ignore the genre for years. I just couldn't accept the idea that something in the book didn't really happen. When I started reading Outlander that all changed because I'd finally found a book that incorporated history with characters that were compelling enough on their own to make me want to see what happened to them.
And that is the key I think to good historical fiction. It's that perfect balance between using the backdrop of a real historical event to plop down people (real or otherwise) who are themselves engaged in interesting enough drama to want to know their story as well as the history they are living through. If either one of these elements are out of balance, it ruins the book. But when an author does this dance well it is the best kind of book.
Sometimes I've tried an historical fiction book and it is masquerading as a book set in a time period with almost nothing to distinguish it from the present day. Sure there are bits of language, culture, and scenery thrown in but very little. The characters often do things or say things no one would have said or done and it just comes off as insincere. When done well, good historical fiction transports you to the time in a way no non fiction history book can. And that is how I started to transform my dislike of historical fiction. I found that even if I knew a time period well through facts, I didn't really feel immersed in the era. Knowing someone behaved a certain way is very different than hearing it through created conversations, or becoming attached to characters as people instead of the subject of a biography.
The irony of it all is that now I find it hard to go back to straight history books. I still enjoy "just the facts" but it feels kind of boring. I've let my imagination run free with historical fiction and now I can't get enough of it. The biggest problem I face is that there are so many books with so many sequels in this genre I will die before I read them all. I guess that's not a bad thing....I'll never run out of something great to read! What do you think? Is historical fiction your favorite genre? Has the answer to this question changed over time for you too?