Genre Lessons: Historical Fiction

Pizarro seizing the Inca of Peru.

Pizarro seizing the Inca of Peru by John Everett Millais. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month we’re reading historical fiction, which is especially relevant to me because I’m in the process of querying my YA historical fantasy novel. So I’ve been reading a lot of historical fiction already this year, but added some new time periods and categories (fifteenth century England, adult fiction) to the mix this month. So here are some of my takeaways from the genre.

1. Don’t bog readers down with details. In my research of Inca history and culture, I came across a lot of neat things that I really wanted to put into my book. But my earlier drafts wound up having a lot of unnecessary jargon and references to events or rituals that weren’t relevant to the story I was trying to tell. Once I got rid of the references and swapped some of the Quechua words out for their English counterparts (I didn’t really need to call guinea pig cuy or way stations tampus to immerse readers in the setting), I had a much stronger (and less confusing) book.

2. That being said, don’t assume your readers know about historic events, even if they are huge within the scope of your research. My knowledge of fifteenth-century English history is shamefully narrow, and when I picked up a book that takes place during the War of the Roses, I got a little lost trying to keep loyalties and lineages straight. Famous battles were mentioned casually, and I wasn’t always familiar with all of them. There was a handy chart showing the different families at the front of the book, which I probably should have consulted more often than I did, but the downside to eBooks is it’s much harder to flip back and refer to charts or maps on earlier pages. It also didn’t help that everyone was named after their parents and grandparents, so the same names kept coming up over and over again. (Not the author’s fault, and she did a great job differentiating between all the Edwards, Richards, Georges, Annes, and Elizabeths.)

3. As exciting as the historical and cultural setting is, make sure you have a story, complete with satisfying plot and character arcs. I loved the setting and voice of one of these books, but struggled to remain engaged when the story seemed to flounder. The protagonist’s goal had been laid out at the beginning of the book, and as far as I could tell, she’d achieved that goal about two-thirds of the way through. It didn’t take long for her to be presented with a new goal, but I would have appreciated the book more if I’d had one overarching goal to follow. The story was so closely tied to the actual historical events that I was surprised when it ended — I wasn’t sure why the author chose to end there and not at an earlier or later point in history. It didn’t feel like the main character’s story was over, nor did it feel like she’d achieved any of her newer (last third of the book) goals.

Those are the main lessons I learned from studying historical fiction. What would you add to this list? Are there any books you’d recommend for someone looking to study the genre more?


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