What Makes Effective Historical Fiction

I’ve been a fan of historical fiction for most of my life.  There is something enchanting about a well-written and well-researched novel that can not just transport you to another time and place, but actually make you feel the ethos and the atmosphere of the time.  Although few historical novels accomplish this feat exceedingly well, there are a few.  As an avid reader and aspiring writer of the genre, I’ve developed a few thoughts on what I believe makes for effective historical fiction.  This is not to say that historical fiction that does not necessarily do these things is ineffective; it is merely to suggest that historical fiction that employs these strategies is, in my opinion, effective at creating a particular type of relationship between the contemporary reader and the past moment being depicted.

As I have already suggested, I understand the historical past as being fundamentally and inescapably different from the present.  This is not to say that there are not points of similarity.  Instead, it is to argue that the structures of thought and means of making sense of the world were not the same as they are today, and that it is often a mistake to assume that people in ancient Greece, for example, conceived of homosexual behavior as an identity in the same way that contemporary Western culture does (this argument is more fully laid out in the groundbreaking work done by classicist and queer scholar David Halperin).  Effective historical fiction, rather than just plopping down contemporary American heroes and heroines in a past time, actually attempts to create characters that live and engage with their world in a way that is at least somewhat similar to that of how we believe people in that period might have behaved.

The historical novels of Mary Renault are an excellent case of historical fiction that manages to capture the strange, alien nature of the past.  Her prose often features a syntax that is subtly different than our own, and when I read her work I often find that there are passages that, because of her prose and the foreignness of the worldview of her characters, require some re-reading to gain a full understanding of what is actually happening.  Though this might be a turn-off for some readers, I actually find it a compelling reading experience, as it allows me to get a glimpse, however, brief of a way of speaking and a worldview that is different from my own.

Just as traditional historiography forces (or should, anyway) us to think about the role that the past has to play in the development of the present and the future, so historical fiction, if done effectively and with an eye to difference, can make us think critically and deeply about our relationship to the world that has come before.  Once we acknowledge that there are deep and sometimes insurmountable differences between the past and the present, we can begin thinking of new and more exciting ways of engaging with the world that came before us.

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