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Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Ascent of Historical Fiction

I am in the happy position of writing a genre that is currently on the upswing. I remember going into the bookstore fifteen years ago and combing the shelves, scanning for covers of ancient Egyptians, Victorian ladies with tiny waists and ridiculous hats, and English kings and queens dead these past 500 years. 

The pickings were slim. In fact, during my high school years I had to resort to the romance section. (Now there's nothing wrong with romance novels, but it's a little odd to find a fifteen-year old reading bodice rippers). I picked up a fair bit about medieval Scotland and Regency England during those years--two popular settings in the novels I read. I also managed a few Danielle Steel novels, learning about the fall of the Romanov dynasty from the pages of Zoya.

I devoured Margaret George's early novels--The Autobiography of Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles, and Memoirs of Cleopatra. Then The Red Tent by Anita Diamant and Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden came out, both in 1997. I'm not claiming these two books started a movement, but both were wildly popular bestsellers. And both were historical fiction--set in early Judea and WWII-era Japan--that told lush stories about brave young women. 

I read them, and re-read them. Shortly thereafter, I started to notice that every time I went into the bookstore there was at least one new (and sometimes more) historical novel on the shelves. Now, instead of feeling like I've discovered buried treasure to find a book on Cleopatra or Anne Boleyn, I'm at the opposite end of the spectrum, setting popular characters aside and forced to decide between novels about Roman gladiators and slave girls (like Kate Quinn's Mistress of Rome) and Isabella of Spain (like C.W. Gortner's The Queen's Vow). I recently had to buy a new set of book shelves to accommodate my historical fiction collection. 

This is a good problem to have. A very good problem indeed. And should the historical fiction market suddenly crash, I'm quite certain I have enough unread novels to last me at least a few years.

So tell me: do you write/read a genre on the upswing? Or are your favorite reads getting harder to come by? What would you like to see more of in the book stores?


Amalia T. Dillin said...

I am THRILLED to be living in a time when mythology is definitely coming back into the limelight, as well as Classical and Ancient history. No complaints from me, at all! I'm not sure if that makes my situation as an author better or worse though. ha.

L.G.Smith said...

I probably read more historical fiction than anything else. For me, it's similar to fantasy in the fact that you can get lost in another world. I wish I could write historical literature, but I'm so afraid of the research, scared to get it wrong. It's much easier for me to sit back and read the books of others and appreciate them. :)

And a shout out to Hilary Mantel for winning the Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies!! Most amazing books.

Julie Dao said...

I love it! Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres to read, and I'm so excited that it's on the upswing. Looks like you picked a great time to enter the market :) Can't wait to read your books.

Miranda Hardy said...

I read a little bit of everything, but I do adore historical fiction. The first book I wrote was on Nitokerti. I love learning about the various time periods.

There is an abundance of YA out there, and I'll read most anything, so I'm lucky.

Faith E. Hough said...

I'm a historical fiction writer, too, and I am so excited to be seeing more and more of it. I guess somebody realized that history was often the real dystopia... :)

Stephanie Thornton said...

Amalia- I'm an optimist, but I say better, only because an expanding market means opening up eras and characters that likely wouldn't have been published fifteen years ago.

L.G.- My favorite edit is when I go in and focus on all the historical world-building. And hurray to Hilary Mantel!

Julie- It's definitely a good time to be a historical fiction writer! And reader, too!

Miranda--I love Nitokerty. The poor girl is still languishing half-finished on my hard drive!

Faith--Sad, but often true. Historical fiction can show the best, and worst, of this world, regardless of the era.

Lydia Kang said...

I'm so glad that historical is out there and being well read, and well written! I love historical and have written one (shelved, though). It's a magical thing to go back in time and experience a moment.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Lydia--I had no idea you had a historical hidden away! Makes me wonder which era!

Taryn Tyler said...

It's a good feeling to have those extra, unread books sitting on the shelves, waiting for you :)

Since Fantasy is my first genre I am currently swimming in so many options it can be hard to weed out the good from the mediocre. I consider this a good thing.

But historical fiction is my second genre so I am as happy as you are that these volumes are becoming easier to find :D

Stephanie Thornton said...

Taryn- I do love having shelves of books to choose from at home. It's kind of like having my own library!

Jemi Fraser said...

It must be so exciting to be part of an upswing - awesome! :)

I'm writing contemporary romance right now - and I think the genre is a pretty steady one. I read (& might write) a really wide variety of genres and age categories so I think something's always swinging up and another's always going down! :)

Stephanie Thornton said...

Jemi--I think contemporary romance is a pretty safe bet. I don't know how you manage multiple genres--wearing more than one writing hat is pretty impressive!

vbtremper said...

My tastes swing from year to year. I like some historical fiction, some paranormal YA, some contemp YA, some adventurous MG...a little of everything. It really depends on whether the plot and characters grab me from the jacket flap.


Stephanie Thornton said...

Vicki--I go through spurts like that too, but my constant favorite has always been historical. I wish I had more time to read my TBR pile!

Mark Noce said...

Amen to that! I have similar bookstore recollections, but thankfully there's more historical fiction out there all the time now:)