Digging Deeper: Historical Eras and Novels
Blogger: Etta Wilson
Location: Books & Such Nashville Office
As you could see from the list of ACFW awards for historical fiction in Monday’s blog, an author can approach writing stories set in the past a number of ways. Those awards are based on genre or format. But as I think about how to choose a historical novel to read, one of the things I look for when the story is set. Is it an era in which I’m interested or want to learn more about?
Like many American readers, I love a good Civil War novel (though I’m getting a little tired of novels based loosely on Gone with the Wind) or a World War II novel like James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. One reason the cache of historical novels is increasing is because many that were written as contemporary novels have become historical as time has passed.
For those of us writing historical fiction today, a good place to start is exploring not only the masterpieces of the past (think The Scarlet Letter, 1850), but also the years which they portrayed. Then look for pockets of time and incidents in history that have not been portrayed in detail or maybe not recently.
Often a good approach to finding these unexplored areas is to read current popular nonfiction, especially biographies. A local example comes to mind in John Sieganthaler’s recent biography of President James K. Polk (one Tennessean writing about another). Reading that book yielded several good ideas for novels set in the years around Polk’s administration, 1845-1849, which lie between the War of 1812 and prior to the outburst of tensions leading to the Civil War. The settlement of the West was the big event going on in U.S. history then, and many novels are based around settlement issues. But important issues were happening east of the Mississippi and in the upper Midwest as well.
Thinking about U.S. history prior to 1950, are there periods or events that you think have been “over-exposed” in historical fiction? Is there such a thing as over-exposure of a time period in fiction, or do character and plot weigh more heavily? What do you think creates interest about a historical period?