In 1986, Random House New York published Through A Glass Darkly, netting its first-time author, Karleen Koen, a hardcover rights record for a new author, $350,000. Random House picked a winner when the paperback rights later netted an additional $755,000. Not long after that, it was chosen by the Book of the Month Club (Los Angeles Times). When asked about her book set in the 18th century, Koen remarked, “It was the age of Defoe, Pope, Swift and Addison,” she said, “and I lost myself in their time.”
Koen, a former magazine editor for Houston Home and Garden Magazine and housewife, created a novel that the Los Angeles Times felt was “. . . something like a bodice-ripper crossed with a text of the French Annales school, which finds history secreted in everyday life. . .”
Whatever may be said about Through A Glass Darkly, it was and remains a hugely popular historical fiction novel. I recently re-read Koen’s book, then re-read her follow up, Now Face to Face, which was published in 1995, nine years after her debut. Now Face to Face is as chockfull of historical information as its predecessor and enjoyed as much success.
Revisiting Koen’s writing came after a yearlong binge of reading historical fiction. And reading back-to-back century-sweeping historical fiction created lots of questions. Most could be answered by GOOGLE, then GOOLING more, and yet again. But I still found, even after all that reading and GOOLING, there were unanswered basic questions about the writing guidelines and necessary steps to create successful historical fiction.
To me, historical fiction was a somewhat odd genre between unalterable truth and fictional twists. Thoughts of just how much research was needed for a well-grounded novel was equal to going back to school for a specialist degree—I could easily see 4, 6, 10 years stretching out before writing the first line. All writing is a commitment, but writing about the ancient world, sl
slogging through translations of lost languages (if you can even find them), lost cultures, horrific wars, the peeling back layers of history and people– that takes commitment.
Back to Basics–What is Historical Fiction.
Jessica Dukes’ article “What is Historical Fiction?” offers an answer:
“The idea is to take readers out of the events of their lifetime. Most book lovers agree that Historical Fiction is the closest we’ll get to actual time travel.”
Historical Fiction is set in a real place, during a culturally recognizable time.
The details . . . can be a mix of actual events and ones from the author’s imagination as they fill in the gaps. Characters can be pure fiction or based on real people . . . But everything about them —their attitudes and look, the way they speak, and problems they face — should match the era. . .” (Emphasis added)
“How far back in time does an author have to go for their work to be considered Historical Fiction? A good rule of thumb is a minimum of 50 years.”
But . . . Just because a timeline is set back “50 years,” does not make it historical fiction. Many other critical facets must be met and several hard and fast criteria. To get there, we need to consider the history of the genre, what makes historical fiction what it is, and the elements that make it part of this popular genre.
Historical Fiction has been around a long, long time…
The father of the historical fiction novel is Sir Walter Scott, and Scottish history is the bedrock of his novels. Waverly, Scott’s first novel, was published in 1814; “over two dozen novels” followed, “noted for the characterizations of ordinary people and their regional Scottish dialect” (Britannica).
Scott’s writing was unique and went on to influence, Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace), George Eliot (Middlemarch), as well as Charles Dickens and Honoré de Balzac and many others (The Victorian Web). Scott died in 1832, at 61 years of age .
R. Haggis provides the extent of Scott’s influence:
“. . .The reading of Scott’s novels led historians to envisage their task in a new way; it encouraged dramatists and novelists to turn to national history for new sources of material; it gave a vast reading public an interest in, and a curiosity about, the past . . .
“. . .The greatness of Scott is now seen to lie in the insight and understanding he shows in the interpretation of historical conflicts, in his ability to penetrate to the human reality underlying those conflicts and the opposition of historical forces, and in the way he contrives to fuse, in the creation of his fictional characters, their personal characteristics with features and qualities that make them figures representative of their times. All this is displayed more finely—through certainly not exclusively—in his novels dealing with Scotland . . .”
So . . .What Makes Historical Fiction, Historical Fiction?
The most important element is the setting. The setting must be factual—a time and event certain in history. It must include supportable facts related to any real-life participants mentioned, or who are part of the storyline. An author may add a “fictional” story, what they cannot do is to “invent history.” (Rutherfurd).
What Are the Necessary Elements of Historical Fiction?
According to Ohio State University, there are “Seven Elements of Historical Fiction.”
“. . .in general writers of fiction must address seven crucial elements: character, dialogue, setting, theme, plot, conflict, and world building. The characters could be based on real or imaginary individuals (Ohio State).
How To Create Believable and Successful Historical Fiction?
Research. Research. Research.
“. . .the key to an author getting all of this right is research. Authors are always allowed artistic license, but the most satisfying works of Historical Fiction have been researched down to every scent, button, turn of phrase, and cloud in the sky.” (Dukes)
How Popular is Historical Fiction Today?
If Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, Wolf Hall, and C.J. Sanson’s highly successful Matthew Shardlake Series, are any indication, historical fiction is both popular and lucrative. Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, have evolved into popular television series. Gabaldon’s ninth book of the series was released November 2021—it would seem there is no end in sight to the popularity of Scottish history.
Another successful current historical fiction novelist, Edward Rutherfurd, is known for his long and complex novels of diverse places that span thousands of years. Rutherfurd’s Sarum, his first novel, a family saga tracing five families across 1000 years, starting during the Ice Age and ending with the present. Set in Stonehenge and Salisbury, England, Sarum was eagerly received by the public and quickly became a best seller.
Rutherfurd followed Sarum with other successful sagas: Russka, 800 years of Russian history, London, 2000-year long history of London; The Forest—a sequel to Sarum, a history of the forest lying “south-east of Sarum on England’s southern coast” ranging “from the Norman Conquest to the present day.” The Princes of Ireland, 1100 years of Irish history, and The Rebels of Ireland, starting before Cromwell to the Easter Rising and into the Irish Free State. Followed by New York, Paris, and the 2021, China, (the shortest timeframe covered so far—a mere seventy-five years).
Rutherfurd has frequently been compared to the historical fiction author James A. Michener. Michener’s popularity began in the late ’40s and his long sagas continue to draw readers even today—most are still available.
In 1948, Michener won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, with his Tales of the South Pacific; in 1949, it was adapted into the Broadway musical, South Pacific. Two movie versions were produced in, 1958 and in 2001.
During his long career, Michener authored more than 40 books, including Hawaii, Centennial, Poland, The Source (story of Israel), Caravans, and Texas, to name only a few.
Michener passed away in 1997 at 90 years of age. His manuscripts and galleys for his book Texas were bequeathed to the University of Texas at Austin.
An Afterthought or Two. . .
When I began researching the nuts and bolts—the actual mechanics—behind writing historical fiction, I was quickly convinced that, even before writing the first sentence, writing historical fiction is a long-term commitment. You need staying power to find historical truth, and that isn’t always an easy task.
The reality is . . . history changes every day. Technology and advanced archeological techniques find new information hourly across the globe. Yet, in the final analysis, and in spite of rapidly advancing changes within all fields, historical fiction is here to stay (Sparkpress).
Readers are drawn to history, particularly their own. People are curious about their roots, their beginnings, their past, their culture; they want to get lost, be transported to another place and time, and what better way to do that than literary time travel?
Afterward EXTRA, or just another thing insightful and interesting . . .
Edward Rutherfurd provided an opinion piece on his website detailing his “seven guidelines” for writing historical fiction. If you are the curious type, you can access the opinion there under the website menu bar, “Opinion,” then, “Ethics: Rules for Writing Historical Novels” .
Images of book covers courtesy of Amazon.
Koen, Karleen. Through A Glass Darkly. Random House. (1986).
Koen, Karleen. Now Face to Face. Random House. (1995).
Images of book covers courtesy of Amazon.
Image of Sir Walter Scott by Charles Herbert Sylvester, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.
Other images courtesy of Pixabay.
A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice, and is currently dedicated to retirement. Among her interests are reading, writing, research, and animal advocacy. She fosters both dogs and cats and works with various rescue groups to find them homes.