Otterly Amazing Reads: What Makes Historical Fiction?

A slightly different Otterly Amazing reads coming at you today. Throughout May I am celebrating all things historical fiction. I’m a huge fan of the genre, but this has not always been the case. It’s only in the last 8 years or so that I have become interested in the books set in the past; before that I would rarely read anything which was considered historical. 

Before launching into an impassioned speech on the wonders of the genre I thought it would be good to actually explore what historical fiction is and what sets it apart from other genres (ok the latter might seem obvious but bear with me). 

Historical fiction is not always Tudor courts and sweeping romances. Some of the best historical fictions out there have been genre blending, from fantasy in The Binding, to murder mystery in the underloved The Murder of Harriet Monkton, to gothic horror and suspense (Laura Purcell is the queen of this). 

Of course to be historical fiction a novel or short story could be set in any time which is not our own. For me I tend to think of anything from the 60s backwards as being historical, I’m not sure why but anything before that feels very different to the world in which we currently exist. So many novels can be described as historical but for me one of the distinguishing features is an immersive and beautifully delicate rendering of the details of the era. 

The beauty of good historical fiction is that, when it is well researched and written, it can transport you instantly to the era it depicts. More than that the characters have to feel real, identifiably human and relatable. For instance the joy of Phillipa Gregory’s stories of Tudor courts is seeing Henry VIII as a fallible human being; or with Alision Weir’s accounts of the lives of his wives, they become real characters rather than a nursery rhythm you learnt as a child. 

Fantasy blends perfectly with historical fiction like the wonderful The Historian by Elizabeth Kostov which combines the genres beautifully. Perhaps a more recent example might be the phenomenal The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, or The Binding. Somehow these more magical elements seem more plausible when they are set in a world which is different from our own but which seems real. It’s another example of what is great about the genre, it really is pure escapism! Don’t get me wrong I love a gritty, real account of the modern world or a deep delve into a character’s psyche, but sometimes you want your reading to offer you pure joy! 

A good historical fiction should be a totally immersive experience, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be hugely detailed or a weighty tome, but the writer needs to paint for you the sights, sounds and even smells (history seems to be slightly on the smelly side) of the time. For me the pure joy of reading small details of what life would have been like for someone 500, 100 or even 70 years ago is one of the charms of historical fiction. 

So I haven’t really answered the question of what makes a historical fiction have I? I suppose really as with all genres the definition is a little slippery and moveable. 

Keep your eyes peeled for more posts about historical fiction over the next few weeks. 

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