Historical Fiction: Where Do I Begin?

Firstly I write this as a historical fiction enthusiast rather than an expert, just as I did my last post all about exactly what makes historical fiction. I know from talking to people on bookstagram that there is a sort of aura around the genre which makes people think that it isn’t for them or that somehow they don’t know where they would begin. So as someone who only converted to all things historical fiction about six or seven years ago I thought some tips on how to get into the genre might be appreciated!

Hopefully my last blog post will do a little bit to dispel the misunderstandings around the genre, because really anything set in the past could be considered historical fiction and frequently it is combined with other genres. 

Wait a moment I am tumbling into my first tip before I’d intended. 

Stick with a genre you know you love which just happens to be set in the past: Like literary fiction? Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet could be for you, and the likes of Anne Patchett and Kate Atkinson have written some stunning novels set in the not so distant past. If you’re a fan of dark gothic books then the likes of Stacey Halls (The Familiars and The Foundling), Laura Purcell (Silent Companions) and Sarah Perry (the glorious Essex Serpent) have you covered. For those who like fantasy the books already mentioned would be good but what about The Night Circus or Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. 

Take a look at the bestsellers list: Either generally or perhaps looking at the best selling historical fiction books. Whilst there are hoards of historical fiction fans there simply can’t be so many of them that they are all it takes to get a book into the bestseller lists. Chances are that it appeals to a large readership and might be more accessible. 

Read something by one of the giants on the genre: This tip will rely a little on you having a sense of what kind of historical fiction you think you might be interested in, for example if you adored learning about the courts of ye olde England at school then maybe the likes of Phillipa Gregory, Alision Weir or Hilary Mantel might be for you. Like a feisty female lead? Historian Kate Williams might have something for you. Want to go further back? Why not try one of Madeline Miller’s books (you can read my reviews here and here). 

I started my own journey into the genre by chance. I’d read a few bits of historical fiction but it was picking up The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory when I chanced upon a copy (working in a warehouse for a charity shop) that I found myself amongst the fanatics

Keep it real: For me some of the best historical fiction is written by historians who have the knowledge and have done the research to paint for you a realistic depiction of what life would have been like for the characters, even better if they are real people from the past as all the material is there! Maybe try with a book which is firmly based in reality. 

Keep going: I was once guilty of saying “I don’t like fantasy” with the most confident of broad brush strokes claiming that a whole multifaceted genre was not for me. Foolish I know. So if you’ve read a few books set in the past and thought they weren’t for you then that doesn’t mean the whole genre isn’t. 

Just give it a go – if you don’t try you’ll never know: Don’t be put off by thinking that historical fiction is just one thing or another. There is so much variety that there is bound to be something for you. 

Let me know if you have some tips I have missed.   

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