By PJ Parrish
My post today is going to sound a bit crabby, and for that I apologize. Okay, here goes: . I am not a big fan of historical fiction. I know there are many many truly great historicals out there, and a few remain among my favorites — Shogan, Beloved, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Underground Railroad, Perfume.
I’ve got my favorites from the historical mystery shelf as well — The Name of the Rose, The Alienist, Child 44, The Eye of the Needle, among others. I’m not a total philistine.
But most historicals I’ve tried leave me cold. And for the life of me, I can’t quite figure out why. I think it is because too many just try too hard to impress with…details.
Research is, as all writers know, very seductive. And sometimes, it shows.
To my mind, the best historical novels, first and foremost, explore the great themes of what we like to call popular fiction―crime, family, passion, betrayal― set against well rendered backdrops. The not-so-best of these, on the other hand, let the historical details overwhelm the story, choking the characters in layers of crinoline, stiff collar stays and stilted dialogue.
I’m crabby about this, I think, because the contest I am judging right now for a writers conference is coughing up a lot of historicals this week. I’m drowning in miladies, malingering lords, and gagging on the “sulphuric aroma” of gunpowder and the “foul hint” of stale tobacco. These manuscripts are far from bad; they are well crafted. But they are also boring because nothing is happening. And it’s not happening in numbing historically accurate detail.
I am also reading two historicals right now, and both are somewhat disappointing. I got Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale for Christmas because the gifter knew how much I loved the TV series A French Village, a superb soaper set in a Nazi-occupied village. Hannah’s book is mildly diverting so far, but the 1939 France setting comes off a little post-cardy and I feel like I’ve met these characters somewhere before.
The second book I’m reading is Jess Walter’s The Cold Millions. I love anything this man writes, truly. Two poor brothers struggle to survive in 1909 Spokane. Exquisitely detailed in its research and setting with a carnival parade of quirky characters. The writing is dazzling. Yet the book is very put-downable. I’m almost half-through and the story itself just isn’t gelling as a whole. It’s more picaresque than well-plotted.
So all this has me wondering why some historicals captivate while others capsize. I don’t have the answer, folks. I actually have written two historicals — fat family sagas with love and sex, one set in post-earthquake San Francisco, and another set in Belle Epoque Paris. You can find them both on Amazon for about a buck a piece. Heck, let me know and I will give you a copy. I have lots left.
My late friend Jerry Healy once quipped that I still write historicals because my Louis Kincaid mystery series is set in the Eighties. And yes, I had to be careful with my research as to when cell phones and DNA arrived, little stuff like that. But research never got in my way.
Maybe that’s all it comes down to — not letting the grinding machinery of research gunk up your plot or drown out what your characters are saying.
In 2003, Dennis Lehane was red hot. His Kenzie-Gennaro series had established his mystery cred. His blockbuster stand alone Mystic River was coming out as a movie. He had just published Shutter Island. Where does a guy go from there?
He took a couple years off and in 2008 came out with The Given Day. It was a magnum opus historical set in post-war Boston. It clocked in at 720 pages. The New York Times called it “intensely researched” and I don’t know if that was a compliment. I found The Given Day hard going. It’s ambitious, sprawling and almost promiscuously sensual in its style, as in this sentence:
Lying together in the smell of flowers and the constant threat of a rain that never fell, as the ships left for Europe, as the patriots rallied in the streets, as a new world seemed to sprout between them even quicker than the blooming flowers, Danny knew the relationship was doomed.
I didn’t finish the book. After The Given Day, Lehane decided to go back to his Kenzie-Gennaro series with Mooonlight Mile. He told a British interviewer, about returning to genre fiction: “It’s ten years later, and it scares me. Do I still have that looseness? [The genre books] had an ignorance about them, and I wonder if I can recapture that now that I’ve flirted with self-importance.”
Two years later, Lehane came out Live By Night. It’s a slimmed-down sequel to The Given Day, with the spotlight lazer-trained on one character Joe Coughlin. It has the same beautiful Lehane writing, but the ease is back. Here’s the opening paragraph.
Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watch the water turn white at the stern. And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had happened in his life — good and bad — had been set in motion the morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.
The history is there in this gritty gangster yarn. The research is there, but now it’s background music for Joe Coughlin’s solo. Lehane finally won the Edgar that he should have gotten for Mystic River. I loved this book. Couldn’t put it down. It broke my heart in the end.
Okay, thanks for letting me vent today. I feel less crabby now, and am going to give Jess and Kristin more time to win me over. History doesn’t have to be drag.
Would love to hear some of you weigh in who are more learned in historical fiction than I am. What did you read that worked? What fell short and why?
Hello david english here. Really enjoyed your post on historical! How have you been? It’s been so.long. what did you think of LOYALTY by Lisa scottoline? It’s coming on the 28th. I enjoyed it but not as much as ETERNAL. She does a lot of research. Curious what you thought. Great to see you posting. You can email me at Bookllover@aol.com.
Not familiar with Lisa’s recent books. But she’s had a long and richly praised career.
I find one should stick to the iceberg method of research. At least 70% of it should stay below the surface.
Ha! I might have to steal that line Terry for my critique. As others have observed, yes, you can revel in research but don’t let it show on the page. So much research you do is meant, I think, to just get your writer’s mind in the right place. It sort of imbues your brain to put you in a history-zen state. Then you have to work your craft magic on it.
Nobody loves a smarty pants.
So true. Or a showoff.
I love historical fiction but agree with you–the story and the characters have to be what shines in the book, not someone’s historical research. I’m grateful people do their research and want to share pertinent details, but the story still has to sing.
Historical fiction is my favorite but I’m extremely picky (as a friend just reminded me last night. LOL!)–I don’t know the statistical truth, but it feels like 9 of 10 historicals are set in England. My interest is American History. But then the crop of stories further reduces because in my experience, most American history novels are romances that just so happen to be set in the past. Fine if that’s what you’re looking for (and that seems to be what the majority is looking for), but I only want to read romance as part of a bigger story going on with the characters.
My pet peeve is when you give a historical chapter to someone to read/comment and they want you to revise for political correctness–trying to put modern spin on historical life is absurd. That defeats the point of writing historical.
I am, with a co-writer, beginning the revision process for our first historical mystery. Thankfully, we do not overkill with “let me impress you with my research!” but by the same token, there are some places where you don’t feel the historical setting and it could just as easily be modern day. It’s a fine line to walk. And we will have a better sense of the trouble areas when we have our betas read it. I can’t wait to see all the things we are going to learn from this process.
For me a good historical has a gripping plot, great characters, puts me immediately in that time period and keeps me there and the author’s research just hums quietly in the background. Sounds like a great formula for any genre.
That’s a good point, BK, what you said that so many historicals are just romances that happen to be set in another era. I think that is what bothers me about one of manuscripts I am reading this week. The plot is a love story primarily and the historical part is just like a paper backdrop erected on the back of the stage.
Thanks for a very interesting post, Kris. I know nothing on this subject, so I have nothing to contribute. I agree with Terry’s comment – an iceberg – 10% visible, 90% below the water supporting the story but not in the way of the story. And maybe a similar comparison could be made with literary fiction vs. genre fiction. It’s all about story!
Yup…research needn’t be historical to be intrusive. I read a pretty decent thriller recently but the writer allowed their research on climate change to take over. The result was a preachy rather didactic book.
I don’t know who said it on the subject of stories with a message but it was said “Just tell the story. If you want to send a message go to Western Union.”
There is indeed a fine line between being historically accurate and “too much”. As BK said, the characters and the story need to carry themselves. I find a number of stories that get bogged down in trying to recreate Downton Abbey but “right this time.”
I do feel for the research hungry author. For every overly long paragraph on how people cooked in 1874 there is an over eager reader ready to send you 500 words on why your lovebirds could not have danced to Johnny B. Goode in 1955.
I am laughing because I got a fan letter like that once. I had set a scene in the opening of the Mark Hopkins Hotel in 1926 and had researched every detail, down to the prices on the menu. But the reader was upset that I let the heroine, upon leaving the party, ride on the cable car running board. (Women weren’t allowed, said the finger wagger!)
I knew that, of course. The point was that she was a rebel. Oh well.
Great post, Kris. What I want in historical fiction is that feel of being transported back to that world, and being swept along by a compelling story. There has to be a driving story. Anna Castle’s “Murder by Misrule,” set in London in 1586 and featuring Francis Bacon did exactly that. She deftly handled historical details while focusing on the characters and plot. The novel also had humor and lighter moments.
Also, now I’m doubly looking forward to reading your Louis Kincaid novels, since my own cozy mystery series is set in the 1980s. Keeping track of what was available then has been a fun challenge 🙂
We’re often asked why we chose to set it in the 80s and we did it on purpose because we wanted an “old fashioned” detective vibe rather than having Louis and other reliance on technology. Then we got to the cusp of DNA and had to begin dealing with it. But that itself became in integral “historic” plot element.
The hardest thing was phones. Wasn’t easy tracing the true beginnings of portable phones. Had to go back and watch old Miami Vice episodes. 🙂
I had fun with a character with a car phone, whose Mercedes Coupe had tinted windows. That led to me trying to find out about laws regarding how tinted windows could get. In 1985, they weren’t as regulated as they later became, from what I learned, at at any rate.
“Would love to hear some of you weigh in who are more learned in historical fiction than I am.” I’m afraid that lets me out of this conversation, but I’ll contribute my opinion anyway. 🙂
Although I agree the “let me show you all the great research I’ve done” approach is hard to take, there’s another thing about historical fiction that bothers me more. I’ve read a couple of books that dealt with well-known people and events, and I couldn’t figure out what was historical and what was fiction. In one nicely-written book, the author clearly misrepresented a historical figure, and that turned me off of an otherwise wonderful read.
On the other hand, I recently read West With Giraffes, a delightful book based on a true story. It restored my faith in HF and gave me a whole new appreciation of giraffes.
Yeah, I’m with you on real people showing up in fiction. It feels vaguely creepy to me and I find myself always questioning the veracity of the presentation.
. . . but now it’s background music . . .
I picked up an historical romance novel set in the American 1800s. I was able to read one to about page 50, maybe. Just too much detail about her dress, her carriage wheels, her everything. I probably shouldn’t say too much, because I don’t even read romance novels, but I gave it Strike Three when there was an entire paragraph about how Cook prepared a chicken.
Always liked history, love research, but, as you say, there’s a fine line the author should walk. And I say that as a reader, not as any kind of writing expert.
I’m with you on Eye of the Needle, and anything else Ken Follett wrote. I love stories set in that era, and I love lots of action and intrigue. In his writing, the historical details are truly unobtrusive background music.
Thanks for your rant, Kris! 🙂
I read fantasy, not historical per se, but they have a lot of overlap.
For me, what makes a book like this stilted is less the research and more the assumptions that the writer leans on. Women don’t have the “freedom” they do today, so they are little animals caged in the kitchen. If you read Little House on the Prairie, you will very quickly that is absolutely not true (and I just used two adverbs to emphasize my point!). When considering a different time period, or a different culture, they don’t take the time to actually immerse themselves, consider all the possibilities and variations that could and would have existed back then, so we as readers don’t get immersed. I like to point out that we only get the barest scrapes of what the upper class thought when looking at history. All the writings are from the lords and court.
Just for an exercise, try writing out what our current situation would look like in a history book a hundred years from now. It doesn’t matter what side of the political system you are, what comes out will be guaranteed to be skewed and unfair.
That’s a god point that historical fiction often leans too heavily on stereotypes and our limited notions. The Jess Walter book I am reading, set in turn of century, does a terrific job in making many of the women characters vital, full-volume funny, wicked smart, independent, even randy. (to coin an old word). Walters obviously know the truths of the era but he also knows that women weren’t to be pigeonholed.
The 700+ page count would’ve prevented me from buying the book. Historical fiction isn’t my favorite genre, though if written by a trusted author, I’ll buy it. Have you read The Curse She Wore by our own Jordan Dane? She did a phenomenal job of breathing life into the setting while the research simmered in the background.
No, haven’t read it! What era?
Half the book is set in the time of Jack the Ripper. It’s a time-travel plus historical. One of my favorite books of hers.
I finished an historical paranormal mystery last night. Late Victorian England. A really good mystery, but the author was so focused on the psychic channelers of the period and the murder mystery that the every day elements were mainly forgotten. The grit, grossness, and bustles of the London weren’t there. In other words, you can go too far in both directions.
I don’t expect a ridiculous amount of details, but I do want to be there with the visual and sensual elements. If the only way the reader knows the character is in the late Victorian period is the horse carriage instead of a car, then you’ve failed as a writer.
Yeah, that’s true. You can go too far on skimping on “telling details.” I think that’s what’s bugging me about the Kristin Hannah book. The 1939 French setting just doesn’t feel authentic. (I love French and British history, so I’m a tough customer there).
I got interested in this novel-writing thing from reading Historical Fiction. Michener, Follett, et al. (You know that Ken Follett wanted to start in HF but his agent convinced him to start with Thrillers instead, right?) And from reading that agent’s book (Al Zuckerman: Writing the Blockbuster Novel), I figured out pretty quickly that it’s really about Story, not historical detail, although that needs to be accurate, of course. My challenge in writing New York 1609 was that there was little research from the Native American side about this time and place. And the fact that no other human had ever written a historical about the beginnings of NYC was also a bit daunting. But I did it and am glad I did. I still read Follett, but I’m favoring reading—and writing—more in Suspense/Thriller these days.
What a cool idea — 1600s New York. How did you get around the fact you had little research to rely on for Native Amers?
And yeah, I also read every Michener (talk about detail!). Also enjoyed Susan’s Howath’s Starbridge series set in England (lots of cathedrals) and ditto Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. Am also a sucker for Arthurian fare — loved Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon.
“…How did you get around the fact you had little research to rely on for Native Amers?”
I read everything I could by somewhat-later and also contemporary NAs about the time period.
I get that. For one of my books, involving the underground railroad that ran thru lower Michigan, I read and read and read. Some really esoteric stuff. But the best thing I found was a diary of a man, fleeing from Georgia who made it to Michigan. It was priceless research. Though I used very little of it, except that it gave me a deeper understanding that no academic account could ever do.
Where did you find that diary? I’d love to read it.
🕰 Historical is not my fave, tho I’ve read Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost and, more recently, The Goldfinch, by Tartt. They’re both quite long, but Pears’ book didn’t seem so, possibly because he switches narrators twice. The Goldfinch could have been at least as good if 20% shorter, with a better MC.
🕰 But what bothers me most about historicals is dragging in a parade of famous people whose connection to the plot is minimal, often caricatures of themselves.
🕰 I’ve written a few historical pieces. In the Mouth of the Lion, a WWII thriller, required a lot of study. I’d already plotted it out as a stage play when my research revealed a 1931 locked room mystery. I was unable to leave that out, nor the psychology beneath the Holocaust, nor the identity of Hitler’s grandfather. These threads made me tell the story of OSS Agent 488 in movie format and then as a novel.
JN: Well, I am in awe that you finished The Goldfinch. I stayed with it for about 70 pages then gave up. So needed a good editing, as you said. Ditto the parade of the famous. But that worked pretty well for Doctorow….
Fun topic. Mostly I shop the Mystery/Thriller/SF/Fantasy aisles. I don’t read much historical fiction, but if the story is good, I’ll read anything. Here are some HF series I’ve enjoyed:
Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series did it for me. I got a good sense of Egypt in the late 1800s-early 1900s, and also the culture and the character of the archeologists working the digs without getting bogged down in too much detail. The mysteries were great, as was the humor.
On a more serious note, I greatly enjoyed C J Sansom’s Shardlake series. The books follow a hunchbacked lawyer as he navigates the perils of Henry VIII’s court and solves mysteries. The stories move forward with plenty of tension while still bringing the setting to life.
I’ve been following the C S Harris Sebastian St. Cyr series set in England 1815-1820ish. The characters feel like old friends, and the mysteries are pretty good. There is a bit of over description, especially when it comes to clothes, but it isn’t so bad it throws me out of the stories.
Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series is another favorite. It’s set in England right after WW II. The main character is an 11 year old girl. The stories feature strong characters, a good mystery, and forward momentum that takes off from the first page, while still making use of the historical setting.
Harris and Sansom both include famous historical figures because of the circles their characters move in. They both include author notes at the end that clarify which things were real and which were fictional. I’m thinking one or both of them point to their historical resources as well.
Thanks for weighing in. Haven’t heard of anyone you mentioned except Peters. Read one of hers years ago but it wasn’t my cup of tea. I’m a tad Euro-centric, alas.
I am not sure that someone who starts off saying “I am not a big fan of historical fiction” is the best person to give advice on writing HF. And since you do not like them, why do you write them?
However, putting that aside, you then blame “nothing happening” on the authors having done research. Doing research does not keep one from telling a story – and for there to be a story something has to happen. I also wonder how one would have ‘well-rendered backdrop” without research that you complain about (in my opinion very mistakenly).
Anyway, good luck with writing a genre you do not like and we can hopefully agree to disagree on the importance of research.