Genre: Historical Fiction

Literary, Sagas, Christian and Biographical

“I learned that this genre provides an interesting lens to examine the hopes and fears of our past and present.” Jessica Atherton

1 Setting/Frame : Genuine if not completely accurate; escape into another time and place; learning about a different occupation/role than one’s own; relevance
2 Character: Authentic characters carry the story even with good world-building especially if characters are based on a real person. Experiencing a life that one would never have; through multiple viewpoints we learn of others experiences and other cultures
3 Writing Style/Language: More descriptive and lyrical than other genres; story telling ability is key
4 Tone or Mood: Sense of stepping into the past—strength of novel’s frame and storyline makes it an immersive experience. Readers want to feel the pull not just the dry details.
5 Storyline: Include the story of that time in the background of the character’s story; Good story brings history alive

Pace does not seem to be a great factor in determining choice for real Historical readers.

Approachable way to learn about history; can peak interest in nonfiction subject areas
Wide variety so determining what reader wants is paramount in this genre.

Thank you to Jessica Atherton; Stefanie Aucoin; Eileen Barrett; Michelle Deschene; Diane Giarusso; Nanci Milone Hill; Jan Resnick; Rebecca Rowlands; Christine Sharbrough; Sandra Woodbury

Benchmark Title: William Martin’s’ Back Bay

In the first Peter Fallon novel, when the Golden Eagle tea set given to George Washington mysteriously disappears in 1814, there is reason to suspect Horace Taylor Pratt, the founding father of a family cursed with a legacy of unaccountable deaths and outright murders that continues for eight generations. 1979

Sarah Johnson’s blog Reading the Past is a wealth of information on this genre.

Historical Fiction Minutes 9/28/10 Submitted by Michelle

Back Bay Discussion:

  • Character –

Consensus among the group seemed to be that the characters (who were not universally liked) took a back seat to other aspects of the novel. The Fallon family – Peter, especially – were sympathetic as they represented a “true Irish family”; the others – both historical and contemporary – demonstrated “strong New England characteristics” that local readers may find themselves drawn to.

Peter Fallon: made questionable connections; redeemed himself enough for the reader to wish him to find happiness at the end; his character grew over the course of the novel. His family provided an “outsider’s perspective.”

The (historical) Pratt Family made for a good contrast to “golden characters” of the time period.

Also: Too many character deaths; likable characters, in particular, were killed.

  • Setting –

Setting was a definite appeal; the development of the Back Bay was intriguing; the setting was a character in its own right.

Additional Notes –

  • Family saga is typical of historical fiction
  • The parallel narrative added tension (and was an aspect enjoyed by all)
  • Historical piece drove contemporary piece
  • Drawn to mystery more than character
  • Description good, Dialogue felt fabricated
  • Did not feel manipulated by historical suspense
  • Equally good for male and female readers
  • Enjoyed scope
  • Hokey – no attachment to characters – no surprises
  • Discovered plot as the characters did

Questions asked –

  • Would you suggest Back Bay to readers who enjoyed The Da Vinci Code?

Group’s thoughts: Yes. The strong setting and puzzle-like plot should appeal.

  • Did Martin do his homework?

Group’s thoughts: Again, yes. The setting was well drawn, the details felt accurate, and were interesting.

Additional titles mentioned – Mr Mike (by…?); McCullough’s work; Possession by A.S. Byatt; The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown; The Help by Kathryn Stockett

[Leane’s note: Concept – “Faction” (Quoted from Interview with actress Rachel Weiss in The Boston Globe. Called “Rachel Getting Varies” July 18, 2010–my notes were mixed up–it was not Kathryn Stockton) She is talking about playing real people in movies. I think it still is a good term for historical characters and what authors do with their research. “It’s “faction’’ — it’s historically accurate, but there’s conjecture.”]

Elective Title Discussion:

Nanci – Hitler’s Niece by Ron Hansen

Hitler is present at Geli’s christening; he’s awkward, “geeky,” and eventually gets boosted from the event. Years later, Hitler takes over caring for Geli and becomes infatuated with her, betraying his baser, sadistic nature.

  • Appeal: Well-written, strong characters, other side of Hitler (re: family life,) suspense; character driven; Hansen did a good job developing Hitler’s character, showing the progression from geeky to controlling; Leane added that, within the tableau of the book, Hitler might be a sympathetic character.

Tricia – Juliet by Anne Fortier

Julie Jacobs travels to Siena, Italy, where she learns that she is a descendant of Giulietta, the model for Shakespeare’s Juliet. A key found in a safe deposit book sets her on a treasure hunt of sorts that will reveal the “real” story of Romeo and Juliet.

  • Appeal: Thriller element, strong characterization (including secondary characters,) storyline, setting, and a nice romantic subplot; parallel narrative.

Michelle – What Alice Knew by Paula Marantz Cohen

Stymied by the Jack the Ripper case, Scotland Yard calls in William James, a psychologist known for his emerging theories on behavior, to assist. Not to be left out, William’s siblings, writer Henry James, and bed-ridden sister Alice, insist on helping with the investigation. As the crimes escalate, the James siblings race to discover who the Ripper is and if he might be someone they know all too well.

  • Appeal: Rich historical detail and setting, Interesting and varied characterization that relies on real life individuals, story weaves many threads together coherently and cohesively. Good for fans of: historical fiction, mystery, true crime, and even, perhaps, biography.

Sarah – Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

After years in the Soviet Union, Nonagenarian former ballerina Nina Revskaya is intent on selling her jewelry at auction in Boston. A reporter and a member of the auction house staff determine to discover the story behind the pieces in her collection.

  • Appeal: Character driven, well-drawn, mystery angle, well-researched, paced “well”; Soviet Union setting is important and the story allows reader to learn about the S.U.; Leane added that the story is compelling, in part, because the reader needs to weave together the various strands of the plot.

Diane – Heresy by S.J. Parris

Focuses on fugitive monk Giordano Bruno during the late 1500s. Bruno is hired to spy on Catholic Oxford scholars who are believed to be committing heretic, treasonous acts.

  • Appeal: Learned about time and place, Bruno was a complex character, lot of action, reasonable details weigh in favor of historical accuracy; mystery/thriller readers would enjoy; read for character, plot, and puzzle aspect; beware: lots of gruesome details (torture.)

Robert – The Boy Who Dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

16-year-old Helmuth Hubner has been sentenced to death for treason. In the novel he looks back at his life during the Nazi regime.

  • Appeal: Boy book, war/detective/friendship, strong male protagonist, character driven; not The Book Thief or The Boy in the Striped Pajama, but could be used as a possible readalike.

Tatjana – The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

Set in Ancient Rome, the first in a series about Private Investigator Marcus Didius Falco.

  • Appeal: Short chapters/fast Paced, main character grows, setting; contemporary feel of novel is jarring, but might make characters more accessible; progress from Davis to Steven Saylor’s Novels of Ancient Rome.

[Leane’s note: Tatjana was also reading The King Must Die by Mary Renault at the same time–a much more literary look at the same Roman time period and did find that Davis’s writing suffered in comparison–made Falco a little too modern, perhaps.

I think this is an excellent exercise–comparing different approaches and writing styles to the same time period.]

Eileen – Ines of My Soul by Isabel Allende

Recounts the life of Doña Inés Suárez, a Spanish conquistadora during the sixteenth century.

  • Appeal: Strong female character, literary writing, bibliographic notes included, based on life of real person, nice pacing and details, well researched.

Jan – Pompeii by Robert Harris

Takes place over the course of the three to four days prior to Mount Vesuvius’ eruption.

  • Appeal: Thriller aspect, Learn about engineering at the time (aqueduct,) good pacing; could sell to readers of Lindsey Davis.

Leane – Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

  • Appeal: Romance, intrigue, great characters, makes real people (Churchill, Gertrude Bell) accessible, strong setting, good tone, lovely 1st person narration, intriguing twist, Well-done.

[Leane’s note: From PW, 5/30/10, “Mysteries of History: Sleuthing Through the Past” pg.17. “The best writers ground their captivating story lines firmly in what is known about the period they write about. Many sate the reader’s curiosity about where they have and have not diverted from the historical record in informative postscripts. However, as author Andrew Pepper correctly points out, “There is no such thing as a pure and untainted historical record. All history is narrative, and all histories are shaped according to to contemporary issues and agendas. Verisimilitude, not accuracy, should be the benchmark for the historical writer.” Along the same lines. Priscilla Royal, who has written six medieval mysteries..notes, “Even if we rely on primary sources, we must remember that document survival is accidental, alternative points of view often did not survive, and thus are left with a skewed view of the period.”

Parallel Narratives

This was taken from Reader’s Advisor Online Blog. Under the Radar: Parallel Narratives, 9/5/10 by Sarah Nagle.

By Parallel Narratives, we mean historical fiction titles that tell parallel stories in the both the past and the present (like Martin’s Back Bay). Let’s add our own titles to this list.

  • A.S. Byatt Possession
  • Debra Dean The Madonnas of Leningrad
  • Frank Deford Bliss, Remembered
  • Tatiana DeRosnay Sarah’s Key
  • Marina Fiorato The Glassblower of Murano
  • Anne Fortier Juliet
  • Katherine Howe The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
  • Elizabeth Kostova The Swan Thieves
  • William Martin Back Bay
  • Kate Mosse Labyrinth
  • Maggie O’Farrell The Hand that First Held Mine
  • Christi Phillips The Rosetti Letter
  • Anya Seton Green Darkness
  • Isabel Wolff A Vintage Affair

Second Titles

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell
Mostly taking place right after WWI, Agnes finds herself with enough money to travel after the tragedies of loosing her family to the war and the 1919 Influenza epidemic. She leaves the US and her subservient role as daughter and sister and goes to the Middle East in 1921 where her now deceased sister once was a missionary. While there she finds romance and intrigue, while interacting with real-life characters T.E. Lawrence, Winston Churchill and Getrude Bell–all architects of what is now considered the Middle East. There is a twist at the end that may not come as a shock if you pay attention to the beginning of this 1st person narrative. APPEAL: Character/Setting/Tone–great Faction!

This is both a romantic and realistic look at a time in the world’s history that is still haunting us on so many political & sociological levels. The streets of Cairo and the desert tents of the Saudis come alive in Russell’s detail and benefits from both her research and imagination.

Great companion: Desert Queen by Janet Wallach–the bio of Gertrude Lawrence.

Blindspot: By a Gentleman in Exile and a Lady in Disguise ~ Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore
When Scottish exile, Stewart Jamison, finds himself in pre-Revolutionary War Boston, he is full of talent but strapped for cash. A smooth talking portrait painter, Jamison manages to set himself up in business but he needs an apprentice. Enter Francis Weston, or as the reader knows him/her, Fanny Easton. Weston/Easton is a daughter of a local merchant and judge, who flees her father’s family when he tries to force her to marry her painting teacher. Fanny has done many unsavory things to survive on her own and finds her apprenticeship to Jamison as not only a ticket out of the workhouse she’s been at for the last two years, but as a way to fulfill her dreams of becoming a painter. She doesn’t anticipate the effect she will have on her master, who finds her irresistible even disguised as a young man. Soon, the two find themselves caught up in the political upheaval in Boston and scurrying to solve the murder of a prominent revolutionary leader and abolitionist.

Appeal: CHARACTER, TONE/ROMANCE, MYSTERY One can’t help but fall in love with Stewart Jamison and his Scottish brogue as he addresses the reader directly. Fanny’s story unfolds a little more circumspectly, first through letters to a long-lost friend and then in her diary. It is wonderful to watch their stories unfold as they hide and reveal secrets. The relationship between the two took me off guard, because it was far more central to the plot of the story than I had imagined and rather more steamy! I also enjoyed the mystery and Jamison’s friend Ignatius Alexander makes a wonderful 18th century Sherlock Holmes.

The Book of Fires ~ Jane BorodaleThe life changing events in Agnes Trussel’s life seem to occur by chance. She has a knack for either being in the right place at the right time or vice versa. When she accidentally comes upon some money, she flees to London to avoid facing the consequences of her unwanted pregnancy. Soaking wet and bedraggled, she knocks on the door of one Mr. Blacklock a purveyor of pyrotechnics.Seeing something familiar in Agnes, Blacklock agrees to take her in and make her his apprentice. Though Blacklock may be gruff and his staff is less than welcoming, Agnes comes to enjoy learning her new trade. Pleased with her work, Blacklock gives her more and more responsibilities. This allows him to work on his quest to create colored fireworks. But, for Agnes, time is running out before her employer discovers her secret.

Appeal: CHARACTER, SETTING Borodale captures an atmosphere of fear, in The Book of Fires, where hangings are a common occurence. It quickens the pace when the reader realizes Agnes might suffer the same fate, if she can’t come up with a reason to explain her predicament. Agnes was a character that I really empathized with and it was upsetting to see her settling into a life that she might not be able to maintain. Blacklock’s appearances were too few, but he never failed to leave an impression. Borodale’s secondary characters were memorable from the horrible kitchen staff to the flamboyant gun powder dealer. But, it was the fireworks that gave this story a sense of magic. The reader learns alongside Agnes the dangers of making pyrotechnics and gets to feel the wonder of seeing the fruits of her labors in a spectacular fireworks display.

Juliet ~ Anne Fortier

I’m going to select from the following books for my Electives: Philippa Gregory: The Other Boleyn Girl Margaret George: Helen of Troy Mary Renault: The King Must Die (I think–the book’s at home!) Happy Reading! Diane

I chose Russian Winter by ‘Daphne Kalotay’, a parallel narrative that alternates between Stalinist Russia and modern-day Boston. We first meet cranky Nina Revskaya as she is approaching the end of her life and has reached the evidently difficult decision to sell her jewelry at auction in Boston. A former Bolshoi ballerina who has been living in the U.S. for decades, since shortly after World War II, Nina has never revealed the details surrounding her defection to the West. The story takes us back again and again to Russia where Nina lives and struggles with other artists, including the writer who will become her husband. Nina herself becomes an increasingly sympathetic character as we begin to understand the repressive society in which she was forced to live and practice her art. But it is only as the pace picks up and the end of the book approaches that we, along with a modern-day professor and an auction house associate who are determined to find the truth surrounding Nina’s life, loves, and secrets, come to understand that even Nina herself has much to learn about her own past.

Appeal: well-developed characters; intriguing mystery keeps up the pace; Stalinist Russia era well-researched; the story itself – utterly absorbing.

Pompeii by Robert Harris Pompeii is a combination of an historical novel and a thriller. The story begins (and is labeled as) two days before the eruption setting the stage for tension as well as the mystery of what happened to the previous aquarius (engineer) of the Aqua Augusta, the aquaduct bringing water to the southern towns of Campania. The new aquarius Attilius is descended from four generations of engineers who have built and maintained the aquaducts that have increased the prosperity and scope of Rome. Attilius and his belligerent/surly crew of workers try to find the origin of the problems of fish kill in the farm pools of wealthy landowners, the sudden failure of the water to flow, and rumblings in the earth. As the clock ticks down to what we know will happen to Pompeii, Attilius struggles to restore the flow of water and interpret the strange happenings around him. Appeal factors: STORY, SETTING (the complexity of society and the aquaducts never fails to interest the reader), and to some degree CHARACTER.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett This lengthy (over 980 pages) historical novel takes place in 12th century Gt. Britain during the contested reigns of Empress Matilda and King Stephen, and illustrates the impact of that struggle on the daily lives of the people of England. The main story line fleshes out the rebuilding of Kingsbridge Cathedral: the political extremes and machinations, the resources needed, the community structure, and the incredible skills, vision, and dedication such a project entails. The dreamer is Prior Philip. The skilled stonemason is Tom the Builder. His family – second wife Ellen, her son Jack, and the builder’s children Martha, Alfred, baby Jonathan all have their roles to play in the evolution of the cathedral. Earl Bartholomew’s political allegiance dramatically alters the lives of his daughter Lady Aliena and heir Richard and gives William Hamleigh, Lord Percy, a wider sphere of evil influence and affects the resources available to the cathedral. The Church is every bit as political as the affairs of the realm; Bishop Waleran manipulates his own rise and regularly faces off with Prior Philip. The Pillars of the Earth is a fascinating story.

Appeal factors: SETTING in luscious detail, STORY, and CHARACTER.

World Without End takes up the story two centuries later against the backdrop of the Black Death. World Without End was published in 2008.