Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Historical Fiction "They" Say Nobody Wants to Read

I think the title of this post says it all, but you know I'm going to expound on another of my pet peeves, don't you? Of course you do!
I've read historical fiction and historical romance for as long as I can remember. My memory has always been questionable, and now that I've turned forty, (or is it having a child?), whatever memory I had is definitely gone but I think the first historical I ever read was in middle school. I can't recall the title, (my lamentable memory, don't you know.), but I know that it was about William the Conqueror and his wife, Matilda of Flanders. That book started my love affair with all things English. I love historicals set in England and my favorite time period is Regency. There isn't a Georgette Heyer I haven't read and my goal is to own them all!
But, though I love English historicals, I am always excited to see an historical set in an unusual time period, make it to publication.
It irritates me to read articles by New York publishing people that say non-English historicals don't sell so it must mean the public doesn't want to read them. I think it is more likely that readers can't find anything but English/Scots historicals so that is what they read by default.
The market is overrun with regency and celtic romances. What about Italy? Are you telling me an author can't find a great story from the history of the Roman Emporers? Not enough conflict surrounding Nero or Caligula? Please.
How about China? My daughter and I went to the High Museum in Atlanta a few years ago and toured the Terracotta Warriors exhibit. Oh. My. God. That was one of the highlights of my life. Seriously. The warriors are amazing. The detail is incredible. Did you know that each face is different? There were something like ten thousand warriors and associated statues unearthed and the facial expressions, hair, clothing-- none are exactly alike. They were made by hand!! Amazing.
Did you also know that the first Emporer wanted to live forever? He had people search all over China for the elixir of life. He drank tonics that contained mercury and jade; needless to say he died young! He also had a temple built filled with things for his enjoyment in the afterlife, much like the Egyptian pharoahs--similarities in religion with no mass communication; that's fascinating all by itself. But, I'm going off on one of my tangents :), I really do love history and I'll talk about it for hours if no one hollers for me to shut up!
I refuse to believe I'm the only reader on this planet that feels this way about the history and culture of other countries. So why are non-British Isles historicals so hard to get published? Probably because publishing is a business and they want to make a profit; it's easier and safer to just go with the sure thing.
If you look for historicals on Amazon, Smashwords, etc. you'll find an amazing array of unusual setting/time period historicals; Thank God for the internet and small print presses. These small houses are willing to take the risk and many authors are even taking advantage of Amazon, et al. and going the self published route. Yay! More great books for all of us historical fiction readers!
When I joined a critique group last year, I met an author with a great series of time travel historicals set during the Civil War. Now, that's not such an unusual time period but the premise is. The Civil War Brides series by Tracey Jane Jackson follows the lives of a group of friends as one by one they get transported back in time to 1860's Pennsylvania. Each book chronicles the love story of one of the friends and continues to show the reasons why this particular group has been sent back.
I'm not going to say too much about these books because I'll give the secrets away. They are really good books though, the circumstances surrounding the time travel and other aspects about why they are time traveling are almost sci/fi but the main story is one of love and history. The history and culture of the time is woven seamlessly through the stories. Finish one of the books and see if you don't blink, surprised that you aren't dressed in a hoop skirt and taking tea in the parlor!
Tracey will be stopping by tomorrow and she is going to tell us how she started her writing journey and why she decided to go the self-publishing route. She also has a contest ... :)
I am currently reading the first book in another historical series. Nicole Hadaway's, Release, is set in Poland during World War II. I love the 1940's, it was a romantic time, movie stars were glamourous, heck, even everyday women on the street were glamourous with their line down the back stockings, hats, and gloves. I grew up watching old movies and still love them so I had to pick up Nicole's book. I'm so glad I did! Release would not be considered your typical historical, regardless of its setting. Why? Because the main character is a vampire and she has a twin brother. She also has friends; demon and werewolf friends.
At first glance, you might think Release is just another paranormal. You'd be so very wrong! There is an elegance to Nicole's writing: it reminds me of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayres. The book is told in multiple points of view, which usually bothers me but Nicole handles it so effortlessly and with such grace ... nothing is intrusive with this book. The story sucks you in and you have to keep reading; even when your eyes are crossing from lack of sleep!
I'm enjoying Release. It's unique, in characters, setting, and writing style. What I particularly like is the way Nicole shows the inner torment of the characters. They stuggle with their natures even while they embrace them. They also assist the Polish resistance in their fight against the Nazi SS. I told you this was an entirely different kind of book!
Nicole will be here on Friday and I hope you'll stop in. She has an incredible depth of knowledge on ancient myths and various religions and she uses it in her books, to great advantage. I have read several of her blog posts at other authors' sites and she never fails to enthrall me; she is a fascinating person and her personality shines through in her writing. I guess you'd say that's her 'voice' :). Whatever you want to call it, Release is a great read. It is something out of the ordinary and well worth reading.

I'm curious, (yes, you know I have a problem with that!), do you like historical fiction? What time period would you like to see offered? What is it about your non-traditional setting preference that draws you?


  1. Oh I love historicals. I have a confession... I didn't know there were such books as romances until I started writing. I can't believe I have lived this long and not read a romance until the age fifty. The sad part is, I have spent all this time reading non-fiction because ever fiction book I picked up (non-romance) made me cry. Only romances have happy endings. *sigh*

    Of course I read historical books because they didn't make me cry, but historical romances are the epitome of literary perfection. And westerns for me are at the top of that heap.

    That is all. Love the post Rachel.

  2. Hi Jeannene! I've never read a lot of western set books but I'm starting to love them ;)
    I'm a Western movie fan so I don't know why I've never picked up books set in that era.
    I'm like you on the romances. I didn't read them routinely until my 20's. Through highschool I read scifi/fantasy a bit, mystery, and historicals. Have you ever read Patricia Veryian? Love her historicals and Georgette Heyer wrote some wonderful historicals along side of her Regency works.

  3. If you want to talk pure historical fiction, without insisting on a romance component, there's quite a bit out there, although it may not be recent. I remember enjoying Taylor Caldwell's historical set in the ancient world - Greece, Rome, and the biblical lands.

    I think it would be fun to see something set in India. China and Japan are fun too.

    I wonder if part of the reason non-British or Celtic historicals don't seem as popular is that the average reader is completely unfamiliar with the setting, and thus has to work a little harder to make sense of things? Most of us get some familiarity with British history going through school along with US history, but nothing about anywhere else. Also we have a little bit more cultural identification with Britain in the US because of starting off as a British colony, so those books are about "us" in ways that the other settings aren't, even if individually we may be Polish or French or Black or you get the idea.

  4. Hi Kathryn!
    I think you may be on to something there. I love English historicals but I still think the publishing houses should be more willing to put other locations out there; if the writing is tight and the marketing is there I think people would read it. I actually got an idea for an historical after touring the Terracotta Warrior exhibit; I may write it some day, Ancient China is fascinating!

  5. Thank you so much for the praise and the plug, Rachel!

    I know you like mysteries -- have you checked out Laura Joh Rowland's Sano series? It's set in 17th century Japan -- very interesting time period and place to set murder mysteries.

    Cadfael, Sister Fidelma (7th Century Ireland -- very pro-women culture!), and more recently, Tasha Alexander's Lady Emily Ashton series (set in Victorian London) are all very good, but then again -- they're Celtic/British. And murder mysteries ;-) Sorry -- just not really a romance girl! But give me murder in a different time period, and I'm there! It's like you get to learn about the time period AND be entertained through a clever mystery -- best of both worlds!

    Maybe because writers study English lit so much in college, and they learn the history through it, that it's easier for them to write in a British/Celtic setting? Hmmm, makes me think that the market needs a French female detective.... ;-)

  6. Have you heard? NORWAY is the NEW Scotland!

    Kris :)