Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Some People Don't Like Historicals

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.


Erica Vetsch said...

Terrific post. Do you think some people don't try historicals because they "didn't like history in high school"? Maybe they are afraid it will read like their history textbook.

Do you have any tips for making your heroines feisty, but not making them modern? For making your hero sensitive without making him sappy?

And do you have some good historicals to recommend for excellent characterization?

Thanks :)

Kristy Dykes said...

Great post, Kaye! Thought provoking. I, too, have the pet peeve about the "Bridget Jones in a costume" thing. Thanks for sharing.

Becky said...

I love historical fiction precisely because of the attention to detail. Although it should if at all possible be written into the story without drawing too much attention to itself. And it has always been my philosophy that the longer the book the better...

But it all depends on the characters to me. If I care about the characters. If they're "real" to me then I enjoy the story. I enjoy the details. I like the length. You really want it to go on and on and on because it is so good.

'Bad' characters are those that just seem wrong. Too unrealistic. Too superficial. Not human enough to be likeable. And in some way related to characterization--bad dialogue that is stilted or unnatural can also drag a book down.

Kaye Dacus said...

My resource, as in all things with my WIP, for a point of comparison as to whether or not my characters are realistic is to read literature published in the era--which is easy for me, because I'm writing with an Austenian setting. I don't think it's wrong to update our characters as long as we aren't taking them out of the "norm" for their era--for example: my heroine finds politics fascinating (especially as they affect the sugar trade and the Royal Navy), but she would never consider becoming actively involved in the political arena.

And Becky's correct--we do have to make sure that they don't come across as stilted or unnatural by trying to remain too true to the language and cadences of the time period. I'm reading a novel right now set in the 1640s. The author used relatively casual English--contractions and modern speech patterns--so when the words "forsooth" or "prithee" pop up, they actually jolt me out of the story! She's done such a good job of creating the setting and the characters to give it a sense of history using standard American English that the use of such archaic terms didn't work! Which just proves to me that it's not necessarily whether or not our "language" is accurate to the period, but if we've created believable characters, settings, and situations that make the story ring true.

J. M. Hochstetler said...


I absolutely agree with you about loving the details in historicals and loving LONG historicals. And when I get to the end, I want to be left wanting more and hating to leave those characters!

J. M. Hochstetler said...


I really appreciate your discussion of the language issue! That's one I really wrestled with in writing my historicals, and I came to the same conclusion. Depending on how it was handled, I've found that too much accuracy in the language actually made a story hard to read. My feeling is that our first aim should be to communicate.