Apr 23, 2012
Martin Kelly - See all 164 of my articles
This installment of discussions about types of writing and using examples from successful writers will focus on Historical Fiction. Fiction alone is far too broad of a topic and must be broken into several parts. Earlier, in the discussion of series, the focus was on fantasy fiction. Some of the works of historical fiction are also available in the series format.
Historical fiction is specifically stories built around historic epochs. This is different from period fiction, which occurs in but is also written by authors of that period. Examples of this would be Tolstoy with War and Peace or any of the Jane Austen novels. A better example of historical fiction would be Shogun by James Clavell. Published in the 1970’s, the story is about a pilot of a tall ship and his adventures in 19th century Japan. Obviously Clavell was not alive in the time period of his work, he used the historic evidence to build a framework around his story. The historic structure provided both unique opportunities and restrictions on his characters and plot.
He followed up with several more books that marched through time, not quite getting to the present. These works could be considered a series, as Clavell was comfortable in the epoch he chose to use, but the story is not continuous between the books. Tai-Pan and King Rat followed. Together with Shogun, they became television miniseries. In this way, Cavell’s works are similar to an even more famous book turned to mini-series, Roots by Alex Haley. [Editor’s note: here are links to the videos for Shogun, Tai-Pan, and King Rat.]
Roots is fascinating no just because of the story, but also because of the genre that it covers. It is biographical, autobiographical, historic, period, fiction and non-fiction all rolled into one. Haley moves easily between the genre as his story progresses. It is a simple story of a man searching for his roots to help define himself. The story progresses through each of his ancestors, until he get to himself searching for that beginning. [Editor’s note: video link for Roots.]
One of the best historical fiction works comes from a man who spent most of his life studying the historical period in question, then filling in details that give you the feeling that you are actually there. This book, actually two books, are I Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves. It is the story of the Emperor Tiberius Claudius (know as Claudius to differentiate him from his uncle the Emperor Tiberius). Claudius grew up under Augustus, his step grandfather, and survived the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula (his nephew) to become the emperor himself. He was lame, stammered and was considered an idiot by most historians, but he survived, became emperor and wrote more documents, histories, and books than any other roman emperor. It is written in the first person, and although all of the dialog and action are conjecture, all of the story fits within the known historical context.
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