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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Friday, 3 May 2013

What makes a great historical novel - my views

When I read historical fiction, there are two key things I'm after. I want to learn something as I read (although like any reader, I resent being lectured to when I'm trying to read for pleasure); I also want to be carried away in a good story (just as with any other book).

I've read a couple of good historicals for the YA market recently, and a good (if a little worthy) adult historical too. For YA historicals, you can't beat Mary Hoffman, Mary Hooper and Michelle Lovric.

[does your name have to begin with M to write YA historical fiction? :) Oh wait, I also love Katherine Roberts',  Katherine Langrish's and Gillian Philips' historical fantasies and Catherine Lawrence's Western Mysteries so the answer is no, it doesn't. There are just many M-names in the field - not to mention a disproportionate number of Catherine/Katherines.]

Finally, last week, I read Mary Hoffman's Troubadour, which I'd won in a giveaway on the wonderful History Girls blog, er, quite some time ago. (If you're at all interested in historical fiction - for adults, kids or teens - you should definitely visit the History Girls, by the way). I loved it, and was happy to discover that it featured the Cathars, which I'd learnt something about from Kate Mosse's Labyrinth cycle. It was such a joy to find some familiar names and ideas! And, of course, the writing was superb and I was fully engrossed in the story, even while dipping out occasionally to think about the history in a geeky way.

After that, I read Mary Hooper's latest, The Disgrace of Kitty Grey (out next week! proper review on Monday!), which is set in the English Regency period and also taught me a lot. It's not a period I know a lot about, or have read many books from. I'm not an Austen fan, I'm afraid (please don't hate me - society and manners just aren't my thing).

Both of these lovely books (and, in fact, all of those I've read by the three mistresses of historical writing named above) feature historical notes, explaining where history and fiction converge and part company, and contextualising the stories beautifully. I always look forward to reading these, and have been saddened several times when reading a historical novel (usually written for adults) which has no such notes. That last little bit of reading, where the writer situates their story precisely in the past for you, pointing out the snippets of information that they'd embedded in the narrative, is part of the overall experience to the point where not getting it feels a bit like being short-changed.

Oddly enough, that's not the case with novels which are set in the past (and therefore historical, technically) but also belong to another genre. And of course, if it's High Fantasy or Steampunk, set in a vaguely historical but not actually real time frame, then that's different again. Interestingly, with those blended or hyphenated genres, I do still really enjoy any details which feel (or which I know to be) historically accurate and genuine, but I just don't have those same expectations of being given all the facts at the end. Hmm.

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