Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Thursday, January 13, 2011

New year - new blog

To fulfill one of my New Year's blogging resolutions, I'm starting this one as a place to share my interest in history, as approached through historical novels. When I mention a specific novel, I'll include a link to its Wikipedia article, if available. WP article quality is uneven (except, of course, for Stone's Fall, which I wrote) but the best ones (to my mind) provide lots of links to related historical subjects. There are sites that keep lists (and sometimes reviews) of historical novels, subdivided by period, or location (at some point, I'll add a link list to this site, but the first is Historical, edited by Margaret Donsbach). Such sites are good starting points to find an interesting time and place, although the sheer volume of titles makes it hard to find a novel with all the qualities I look for. A new novel by an author I like is usually a good bet, so maybe I'll add a list of favorite authors somewhere in here). Following are some of my criteria for a superior historical novel:
  • The ability to inspire me to further research an historical topic. My first love is history, but I'm lazy. Novels are an easy way into a subject. If it grabs me, I move to non-fiction. This is also a fun way to fact-check the novelist. Especially fun is a novel that creates a fictional plot line running parallel to (and offering a plausible alternative explanation for) the historical record. Stone's Fall, by David Liss, is a good recent example. The plausibility breaking point, for me, lies somewhere between Stone's Fall and The da Vinci Code (although I enjoyed that one for the descriptions of historical places, and as a pure thriller). A corollary to this first point is:
  • Inclusion of enough history to make the novel an interesting historical story. I stay away from novels that are set in some vaguely historical (but often very romantic) place, with a story mostly disconnected from recorded events.
  • Accurate depiction of historical events. This may seem obvious, but it excludes many of the novels I look at. Also, the farther back in time, the less historical accuracy is possible. That's why, for example, I enjoy many novels set in ancient Rome (about which a lot of historical material exists), but would tend to avoid a story set in North America during the same time period. Nothing entirely prehistoric will be high on my reading list; by definition, it can't be historical (sorry, Jean Auel fans). I can, however, suspend my disbelief through the opening chapters of the occasional sweeping epic saga that begins in prehistory, e.g. some of the novels of Michener or Rutherfurd.
  • Accurate depiction of historical characters. This is even more problematic than events, for the same reasons - and one more. Novelists, more than historians, have to imbue characters with at least a bit of personality. This includes the perilous task of inventing dialog. However, unless the time period is extremely recent, those characters emerge as impossibly contemporary. World Without End is a novel I thoroughly enjoyed, but which was marred somewhat by the obvious modernity of the characters. Wolf Hall was better, but I'm still skeptical. Did the novel capture any of the real Thomas Cromwell, or is it just that the writing is good enough to make it seem authentic. We'll never know.
That's enough bullets to get us started, I think. From here on, my plan is to blog about what I'm currently reading, and perhaps backtrack occasionally to fill in more reading history. There won't be many current best sellers - sorry, my book-buying budget is very limited. Next up will be the Inspector Troy series, by John Lawton.

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