The Trouble With Historical Fiction

When I was in school, my two favorite subjects were history and English. I love learning about people and societies, both real or imagined. When I discovered historical fiction, it was like Christmas every day.

Little House on the Prairie was my gateway drug. Once I discovered Laura Ingalls and her family, I was hooked. I read all of the books, then the spinoff series about her husband, then the books about her daughter. I forced my younger brother and neighbors to play pioneers in the back yard, in which we pretended to hunt and forage for food in my parents’ garden.

Then I discovered the American Girl series and was astounded to find books about girls in so many other time periods. Each girl was an introduction to a different historical period that held new and exciting cultures and experiences, but my love was for Molly McIntire, the feisty WWII era girl who grew a Victory Garden and went to summer camp — which, at ten, was pretty much the dream of my life. Molly’s books opened me up to the world of WWII historical fiction, which led to the ultimate coming of age experience of discovering the Holocaust and the stories that lie within that terrible time in history.

As I got older, I ventured into other genres, but historical fiction always remained near and dear to my heart.

Which leads me to the trouble with historical fiction: the research.

Some authors, I have noticed, have a terrible problem with research — particularly when the plot of the book starts to resemble an introductory history lecture. Historical fiction is like a dance, a lovely waltz when it’s done right and an offbeat two step when it’s not.

Case in point: Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. She sucked me in with the first book, I’ll give that to her. It had everything I love about historical fiction — well-developed characters, lushly described landscapes, interesting historical period, intriguing plot lines (not to mention a nice hunk of man in the character of Jamie Fraser). However, as the series went on, Gabaldon became more bogged down with the research.

Unnecessary intricacies were described in detail — making clothes, making a meal, farming, preparing for war, fighting a battle, cleaning and caring for wounds and ailments. The result is a plot that moves at a snail’s pace, plodding along among the murky waters of historical accuracy and research.

The first book in the series was 640 pages, which in itself is daunting. The largest of the currently eight book series is a ridiculous 1008 pages. That is some 400 extra pages of History 101 fodder. Not every day of life in colonial America needs to be drawn out in detail — this is a book, not the recreation of historic Jamestown.

When it comes to historical fiction, the fiction is sometimes better than the history.

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