CHECK IT OUT: Historical fiction genre gets a boost

Published: Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 01:31 PM.

Interest in historical fiction has never been higher with Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Booker Prize for “The Luminaries” falling so closely on the heels of Hilary Mantel’s wins in 2009 and 2012 for “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies.”

No longer derided as “bodice-rippers” with anachronisms or boring textbooks dressed up with poor plots, historical fiction is gaining the respect of critics and readers alike and regularly appears on bestseller lists around the world.

Definitions vary as to how far in the past the time setting must be to qualify, but Walter Scott, who is credited with “inventing” the historical novel in English during the early 19th century provides a useful criterion in the subtitle of “Waverley,” his initial historical novel, the story of Scottish life at the time of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745: “‘Tis Sixty Years Since.” So generally this limits it to events that take place at least 60 years before publication, during a historical period with which the author has no personal experience.

The historical novelist's challenge

Historical fiction is one of the more difficult and demanding narrative forms as the author must master both verifiability and invention. The historical novelist must balance the difficulties of representing history accurately and telling a good story while imaginatively filling in the gaps and lack of historical record.

Take too much latitude with the facts of history and the illusion of authenticity is shattered; take too little and the information of history never comes to life.

The value of historical fiction authors in no way detracts from the work of historians. Though one deals with the verifiable and the other with the imagined, both play important roles in bringing the past back to life.

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