When you sit down to read a book you generally think that the author knows what he/she is talking about and when it comes to Historical Fiction there is an even more burning need for a wealth of accurate historical detail. Many readers derive a great deal of knowledge about history from Historical Fiction novels because many people, myself included, don’t respond to the often-dry style of history textbooks or biographies. Integrating historical information into the story helps the book flow better and it also keeps the reader interested.
Indu Sundaresan, for example, illustrates the life and times of Empress Nur Jahan, in The Twentieth Wife (2003) and The Feast of Roses (2004) by presenting the politics, personalities, and power struggles of fifteenth and sixteenth-century India. As the reader follows Nur Jahan from her childhood to her reign as a Mughal empress, Sundaresan deftly blends historical events and details of the period into the character’s life experiences, creating a wonderfully complete story.
On the other hand if the author “drops” large sections of history in the midst of the plot it makes the reader feel overwhelmed and it makes the story seem broken and fragmented. If you read a book in which the characters seem almost too good to be true then your book is probably not a historical novel. People who read Historical Fiction expect authenticity in the portrayal of characters, even if they are not real historical figures. Sometimes, historical novels have characters that are more important than the story itself.
Yet, overuse of language, behavior, or facts is distracting and can cause readers to distrust the author. For example, to have a fourteenth-century woman hold twentieth-century views wreaks havoc in the context of a historical novel and results in unintentional humor. All or most of the characters in historical novels must “feel” real and relatable otherwise you fell like your reading something that falls into the Fantasy or Science Fiction genres. If you love “fast-paced” books then DO NOT read Historical Fiction. Pacing is a large part of what makes a historical novel good.
These novels are usually big books because they are rich in social and cultural detail in which readers can immerse themselves, slipping away from the cares of the present. Because of how bulky they are Historical novels are not generally referred to as “fast paced. ” A phrase such as “leisurely unfolding” perhaps better describes most novels in this genre. Margaret George’s journal-based novel The Memoirs of Cleopatra (1998) is roughly 960 pages long and is not particularly fast moving, but it pulls readers quickly into the story and keeps them hooked all the way to the very end.
The reason many readers turn to Historical Fiction is to understand history from the inside, from the perspective of individuals caught up in events from the past. When Historical Fiction readers need to feel like they really understand what the characters are going through while at the same time learning a little something about history. The best Historical Fiction combines all of these elements to help readers understand the past, a key factor in comprehending the present and envisioning the future.