Friday, August 13, 2010

Bits and pieces

Happy Friday the 13th! Here's my irregular round-up of historical fiction news from various sources...

Speaker proposals are being accepted for the 4th North American Historical Novel Society conference, taking place in San Diego on June 17-19, 2011. The proposal deadline is September 30th, and registration will open in November. Author guests of honor will be Cecelia Holland and Harry Turtledove.

There have been a couple of relevant pieces in the British press in the past few days. In The Independent, Saul David writes about historians - others such as himself - who have turned to writing historical fiction. He cites Alison Weir as the first successful author of this type, with her 2006 novel Innocent Traitor. Her book may have made the biggest splash, but I'm curious if there are earlier examples. Carolly Erickson is one; her Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette is from '05, though the article takes a British viewpoint, and Erickson's novel wasn't published overseas.

Regarding this statement from the essay: "This, perhaps, is the main reason why books by historians-turned-novelists are selling so well. Many readers of historical fiction like to be entertained and educated, and the only authors they can entirely trust to do both are historians."

As a reader, I wouldn't say the last part is true at all; perhaps that's wishful thinking on his part? While historians can offer readers a sense of authority, the proof is in the actual writing, not an academic degree or other credential, and some of the novelists whose word I trust the most are not professional historians. Aside from this one questionable remark, the essay has a good take on its subject, especially for insights on how the writing process differs for history and fiction - and the pitfalls that historians can potentially fall into when crafting their storylines.

In today's Financial Times, A.N. Wilson looks at why historical fiction is so popular with readers, analyzing Wolf Hall , mostly, and some more recent examples of Tudormania. James Forrester's Sacred Treason and Peter Walker's The Courier's Tale (both UK) are also recommended... and the article gets into a history-vs-fiction discussion similar to the Independent piece. I did like this comment:

"The fantasist who uses history is perhaps distorting truth. But so is the scholar who thinks that the men and women of the past can be recreated by learning alone, without the alchemy of empathy. In any case, the historical purist who eschews fiction and only wants to read 'proper history' is possibly under the delusion that such a thing as objective historical analysis exists."

The concluding essay on the page is by James Forrester (aka historian Dr Ian Mortimer), on the difficult transition from history to fiction, and the different types of "truth" that can be revealed by each.

Lastly, the Wall Street Journal's latest "Dear Book Lover" column looks at historical novels set in Africa... well, a few of them, anyway. There are some nonfiction recommendations, too.

This weekend I'm curling up with Daphne Kalotay's Russian Winter, one of my BEA finds. Review forthcoming in a few weeks.


  1. My take, for what it's worth:

    History deals with what is most probable. Historical fiction deals with what is most dramatic within the range of what's possible.

    They are very rarely the same thing!

  2. Wow, these sound like great articles.

    I agree. As an English Ph.D, I can assure you that not all Ph.D.s make good writers. If a historian also has creative talent, I'm sure that intense study enriches his or her ability to recreate the past.

    Gary, I like your comment, but I'm not sure it always holds true. There are several moments in my novels in which truth is stranger than fiction. When my crit partner asks me if I'm going to keep this real historical event that seems incredible, I say "it really happened. I just need to make it seem more believable!"

  3. I also would disagree with the statement: "Many readers of historical fiction like to be entertained and educated, and the only authors they can entirely trust to do both are historians"
    I, personally, certainly trust authors like Sharon Kay Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick to both entertain and educate.

  4. Thanks for the links--they sound like very interesting articles.

    My pet peeve about historical fiction is when the author eschews true history altogether and has real historical figures doing things that we know they never actually did, just to get a colorful storyline going. In other words, they craft a work of complete fantasy and just stick real people's names on it to make it more commercial. I hate to think of people who don't really know anything about the subject reading some of these books and assuming this stuff really happened.

    Makes you wish you could take people to court for libeling the dead.

  5. Thanks for the link to that article--very interesting! I have to say I find the assumption almost a touch offensive--that the only person with authority to accurately depict history is a professional historian. What defines a historian? Can a historical fiction author not spend the same amount of time in the archives as a historian with a PhD or a university position, not have the same background knowledge through years of research? I not only think so, I quite nearly expect so!

  6. I'm inclined to think that novels by historians do well because they already have a built-in audience... those people who are already readers of their nonfiction will follow them over to fiction. If they already have a considerable fan base, they'll build up an even larger readership, especially in a time like now when historical fiction is undergoing a renaissance. But I wouldn't choose a novel written by a historian over anyone else's book based on that fact alone.

  7. Fantastic the WSJ post.

  8. I picked up Russian Winter at BEA too. I'm looking forward to your review!

  9. Anonymous7:54 PM

    Janet Gleeson has written history and biography, but also a mystery series set in 18th century England.

    Sarah other librarian

  10. Good one... I'd forgotten about Janet Gleeson.

    My Russian Winter review's going up on September 9th, as part of the author's blog tour. I decided to stop taking review requests temporarily - my schedule's getting too packed - but this one was a special case because I already owned a copy. Now to finish writing the thing...!

  11. Anonymous11:40 AM

    I found the articles in the Financial Times fascinating (FT is in Proquest Newsstand if you have access; article date is 8/14/10). I am feeling the same way with THE RED QUEEN and didn't finish it. I'm looking forward to RUSSIAN WINTER (as well as THE TRUE MEMOIRS OF LITTLE K, coming in October). Sarah Other Librarian

  12. I've just fixed the link... didn't realize the FT piece started asking for a login.

    True Memoirs of Little K is on my wishlist!