Novel history—looking for the juicy stuff

Patricia O’Reilly considers the challenges and pitfalls of writing historical fiction


The delight of historical fiction is that it allows us to step imaginatively into a past era and inhabit the minds of long-dead characters. In the process the writers of the genre are free to interpret situations, muse on the private lives of their characters and make judgements. Defining the literary genre of historical fiction is a challenging business, and there are varying opinions.

The Historical Novel Society (HNS) admits that ‘Historical fiction is a genre of controversy and contradiction’. On its website it explains, ‘To us, a “historical novel” is a novel which is set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience’. Some people consider that a novel should only be called ‘historical’ if the plot reflects its historical period so well that the story could not have occurred at any other time in history; others dispute this. And so the discussion goes on.

It can be challenging for a writer of historical fiction to create and maintain dramatic tension if their readers already know how their characters end up. Others maintain that it can shift focus in a way that allows for a more intricate exploration of character. A case in point is Hilary Mantel, two-time winner of the Man Booker Prize with Wolf Hall, a fictitious account of Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power during the reign of King Henry VIII, and Bring up the Bodies, featuring Anne Boleyn. We don’t read Mantel to find out Boleyn’s fate—the pleasure is discovering a fresh interpretation of how what happens and why. Some historians and academics criticized Mantel’s interpretation of Cromwell. […]

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May/June2019 (issue no.385)

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