I recently took part in a discussion by several readers and a few writers about why people do or do not like reading historic fiction. What I found most interesting was how many of the comments I’ve found myself thinking of other genres—that it really is a matter of personal preference. But some of the points did make me question elements of my own writing.
1. Too Much Detail. “Do we really need to know how many different food dishes were served, or exactly what is on every shelf of the dry-goods store?” This seemed to be one of the major complaints about the genre. They felt that the stories move too slowly, that they as readers have to commit too much attention/brainpower to read a historical—and pointed out how most historicals are longer or are broken into multi-book series. Most felt the pacing is too slow and the story takes too long to develop. Some of the writers felt that they don’t find the same deep POV that the contemporaries they enjoy have.
But, we lovers of historical fiction argue, we love the slower pace; we revel in the details—we want to see it all in our imaginations.
The questions this raised for me in my own WIP are, “Is every detail, description, historic tidbit important to the story? Or is it in there because it’s interesting to me?”
(In defense of historic fiction—ours is not the only genre with the too much detail problem. Have you ever read Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton? Do we really need to know how many rivets are in the hull-plate of the Red October submarine?)
2. Characters. “The women in historicals are too good, too soft, and are always victims waiting to be rescued by the strong alpha male,” OR, “The characters act too modern—heroines break every rule of society and are not censured; heroes are too in touch with their feminine side or have invented some kind of amazing device that is too modern for the setting to make things easier.” I actually agree with both sides of this argument—which are the stereotypes of the genre perpetuated by old genre norms and poorly written examples. A balance must be struck in creating compelling characters modern readers can identify with while also keeping them true to the era.
I picked up a book by a mainstream author because it is set during the Napoleonic war (my time period) and sounded like a fun premise. I don’t have a problem with light, humorous historical fiction—it’s what I write, after all. Unfortunately, the heroine turned out to be Bridget Jones in a costume—from her attitude toward others to snarky remarks to the language and cadence of her internal monologues. The hero is a James-Bond-meets-Tom-Cruise-as-Maverick type of guy—seducing every woman who crosses his path, angering matrons and aristocrats, and breaking every rule of gentlemanly behavior while still being loved and adored by the ton. I threw it across the room after about five chapters.
So, I must ask myself, “Are my characters compelling and realistic? Are they accurate for the time in which they live? Are they too modern? Are they complex enough to not be seen as the stereotypical damsel in distress and alpha-male warrior?”
3. Inaccuracies in Research. I don’t think I need to go into great detail on this one, as we’ve all experienced it. The best thing we can do is to not only commit to our research, but to find readers and critiquers who know the era well to read our WIPs to make sure we haven’t overlooked anything.
Like me, most of you could easily apply these issues to any other genre as reasons why we don’t enjoy reading them. And we would be correct—just like these readers were spot-on in their observations about historical fiction. Will these detractors ever be converted to lovers of historic fiction? Probably not. Can we overcome these sweeping generalities and stereotypes of the genre? Yes, by paying attention to the criticism and through its fire, refining our writing to the best it can be.
Kaye Dacus is an author, professional copyeditor, and freelancer who has been writing fiction for more than twenty years. She is a long-time member and former Vice President of American Christian Fiction Writers and currently serves as the ACFW Online Courses Coordinator. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and writes contemporary and historical romances.