What readers want from historical fiction

Another fascinating blog post from author Carolyn Hughes; one of a series of posts based on her 2015 PhD thesis on the subject of authenticity in historical fiction.

People read historical fiction for a range of reasons including understanding the lives of those who lived in the past (especially those marginalised by history), immersion in a different time and place, and a desire to learn about history from stories. (Reference made here to Mary Tod’s 2013 survey of readers.) Similarly, readers require varying degrees of historical accuracy; for some a “sense of authority” rather than absolute correctness may be adequate – but only if the story is good enough.

My own reason for loving historical fiction above all other genres is the escapism afforded by immersion in another world – but a world that has tangible links with my own world (which explains why I dislike fantasy and science fiction, I suppose). Do I, as a reader, care about historical accuracy? Yes, increasingly so – because the greater one’s knowledge of a particular period (in my case WW1) the more irritated and distracted I am by errors and lazy resort to stereotypes and clich├ęs. Would I be more easily pleased when reading a novel set in another era? Up to a point, maybe – but I think my built-in bullshit-radar would still start be bleeping away in the background.

Which brings us to an interesting question; do readers of historical fiction chose their next bedtime book on the basis of period or type of story – or is choice a much more subjective and random process? Does it matter? Probably not. Harry Bingham of the Writer’s Workshop advises authors not to waste time worrying about about genre; that’s what publishers are for, apparently.

In the meantime, my job is to tell a bloody good story set in a world that is rich and believable and (to quote Carolyn Hughes) conveys “a sense of historical truth”.

Source: Authenticity in historical fiction (II)

About Hannah

Author of literary historical fiction set in the First World War. Revising my first book, writing the next, seeking representation. Mountaineer, gardener, traveller, off-road runner. Africa, modern history, coffee, roses, films, book and unrealistic romance. NHS midwife in a former life.
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