Unsticking the Label of (Historical) Fiction

Why do you write historical fiction?

I get asked this question all the time and I do my best to answer it by expressing the passion I feel about my characters, my stories and my writing.  Because sometimes, I get the feeling that the question that’s really being asked is why don’t you write something I want to read?

Historical fiction is a tough sell—any one of us who writes it can tell you that (except, perhaps, Philippa Gregory or Bernard Cornwell).  Especially to teenagers.  It all too often reminds us of schoolwork and multiple-choice exams, of that teacher who assigns a chapter in a textbook and then snoozes through the class period.  I unreservedly admit that I would probably react the same way if someone said, “I write statistical fiction.” Or “I write stories about dishwashing.”  There’s something onerous about being forced to do something that makes it that much more difficult to try to find pleasure in anything associated with it.

I visited my old high school last week as part of the Humboldt County Author Festival.  I spoke to two different assemblies and then had a round table discussion with the student-run book club.  I told them outright that I don’t remember my high school history classes at all (except for the fact that the guy who sat in front of me junior year always—always—chewed gum.  That boy had enormous jaw muscles.)  I didn’t take any history classes in college.  (Not one.  I got out of my CSU requirement for US History by taking a multiple-choice exam.)

I didn’t fall in love with history until I got a taste of experiencing it when I lived in England.  At eleven a.m. on November 11, everything in the town I lived in stopped.  I was on my way to the library and when the church bell tolled, all the pedestrians—all the traffic—stood still for a minute of silence to remember the day World War I ended.

It made history feel very real.  People lived and died and starved and suffered and celebrated.  And people remembered.  And this is why I write historical fiction–because it is real and visceral and more than just dates and battles and multiple-choice.

So how do we get readers to come to that same epiphany?  We know that the things that went on in history can be more desperate than a dystopian, more horrific than horror, more romantic than romance, more fantastical than fantasy.

Perhaps part of the problem is the pigeon-holing of genre.  I’m sure authors of vampire novels will tell you that vampires are a tough sell because people are tired of them.  And authors of dystopian novels will say that the market is so flooded that no one wants to see another dystopian.  At the end of the day (or the book) the genre shouldn’t matter.

The story should.

I hope that my stories could be set in any time period and in any setting and still have resonance.  Gilt is about a girl who must extricate herself from a dysfunctional friendship before it’s too late.  Tarnish is about a girl struggling to find her place in a repressive world. It could happen on a space ship, in a modern high school, on the high plains, or between two fallen angels.  I just happened to set it in the Tudor court.  I’ve even riffed on J. Anderson Coats’s idea that history is the ultimate secondary world and detailed how the Tudor court was actually a dystopian society.

Genre shouldn’t matter, but unfortunately too many of us get stuck in the mindset of I only read paranormal or I don’t like sci-fi or Historical fiction is too much like school.  We all need to unstick the labels—authors, readers, publishers, reviewers—and get back down to the reason we fell in love with reading in the first place.


About Katherine Longshore

Katherine Longshore is the author of GILT (Viking/Penguin May 2012), a story of friendship and betrayal set in the court of Henry VIII, and TARNISH (June 2013), the story of a young Anne Boleyn. You can learn more about her www.katherinelongshore.com

7 thoughts on “Unsticking the Label of (Historical) Fiction

  1. melinda says:

    I absolutely LOVE historical fiction, though I haven’t read your boojs-yet! My first experience was with a religious historical fiction when I was in college and was blown away with what historical fiction could do to connect me emotionally to real history. Since then I’ve been slowly seeking out more and more, and even shared with my 8 year old her first historical fiction, “Sophia’s War” by Avi. Even at 8 years old, she feels like she has a grip on the revolutionary war because of that book. I really hope more people will soon fall in love with such an important genre while falling in love with all the many worthwhile stories being written today!

  2. I’ve been around here long enough for you to know that I’m a history buff and historical fiction lover. I think we all need the reminder that people are, and always have been, people, and I wish with all my heart that language arts and history classes were more unified such that fiction (books, films, plays, etc.) was used to help students understand the past (that’s right, understand, not just learn). Huzzah for historical fiction!

  3. So well said, Katy! As usual. : )

  4. […] screams historical.  There are no castles, no obviously Tudor gowns, no props.  And because the historical label can be a hard sell, I hope the covers draw a wider […]

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