Why Read Historical Fiction?


I read two kinds of historical fiction, and I’m thinking you do, too. There’s …

Old-Timey Historicals

These novels are historical because they were written way back in, well, history. Those would include Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen writing about 1800s England) and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe writing about 1860s America). And then there’s …

Researched Historicals

That’s where our blog writers come in: The writer researches some period in the past and sets her story there.

So why bother reading about times gone by when there’s so much going on right here and now? Here are my Top Three reasons:

Reason #3 They’re (Ugh) Educational

It sounds like a tedious, teachery reason, but actually, it isn’t. I read to be transported to somewhere completely different from my own experience. What could be more different than another time? I can never go to medieval England. The only way to capture that past is through someone else’s eyes. When I read about a character’s life, I taste the eel pasty, I feel the corset’s pinch, I smell the musket’s powder. It’s visceral. Suddenly I’m there, somewhere I would otherwise never get to go.

Reason #2 They Add Depth to My Experience

I live in the suburbs of Kansas City, a medium-size city in the American Midwest. Ho-hum. During my growing-up years, my home seemed so generic and vanilla that I escaped to New York City when I was twenty-two just to get a little more life into my life.

But a funny thing happened. While I was there, I read Pam Conrad’s novel Prairie Songs. Her descriptions of the quiet beauty of the prairie made me homesick. This place has history! My house sits on what was once a grassland prairie. One of the streets I drive down every day was part of the Santa Fe Trail. I’m spitting distance from a Civil War battlefield. Kansas City was once the home to gangsters and jazz greats. Reading about those people, or even characters who could’ve lived next door to them, makes me appreciate my roots. It’s the same reason that people named O’Malley who were born in New Jersey go to Ireland and kiss the Blarney Stone. Roots matter.

Reason #1 They’re Fantastic Stories

The past is a treasure trove for writers, and we readers reap the benefits. Imagine having a front-row seat to the Salem witch trials or being a chamber maid in the court of Henry VIII or eavesdropping as Elvis records “That’s All Right.” Every situation, every character, is so heavy with possibility because we know that what they do, what they did, created the world we live in today. That’s irresistible fiction.




Claire M. Caterer is the author of The Key & the Flame, a fantasy set in an alternate version of medieval England. Look for it in April 2013 from Margaret K. McElderry Books / Simon & Schuster. Connect with Claire on her blog, Twitter, or Facebook page.


9 thoughts on “Why Read Historical Fiction?

  1. For a second there, you made me think of Mr. Collins and his “reasons for marrying…” 😀 I read historical fiction for all of those reasons too, and also to gain a better understanding of WHY things happened. So much of history is presented to us as just “this…then this…then this…” as though countries were paper dolls and armies were just chess pieces. Kings, queens, parliaments, mobs: they were all people with motivations. That’s also why I return to the same stories again and again. How does this author explain those same facts? What does s/he think went on behind the scenes? Understanding people is the only way we can understand history, and thereby understand our world today.

  2. catwinters says:

    “…when I read about a character’s life, I taste the eel pasty, I feel the corset’s pinch, I smell the musket’s powder. It’s visceral.”

    I love this part, Claire! A great post.

  3. I wonder how much research the old-timey authors did.

  4. Jaime Morrow says:

    I love historicals of all kinds–old-timeys and researched alike. Some favourites are JANE EYRE, LITTLE WOMEN, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and PERSUASION for old-timey and THE CAT ROYAL series, THE AGENCY books, among others. There is just so much to learn and love about the past. 🙂

  5. Such a great post, Claire!

  6. […] new blog launched this month, Corsets, Cutlasses, and Candlesticks. Their focus? History, fiction, and, of course, that blending of the two—historical fiction (one […]

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