Discussion Topic: History Before or After Reading Historical Fiction

With historical fiction, do you prefer to know the actual history before or after you have read the novel? Or does the history matter to you at all? You don’t care as long as it’s a good story?

16 thoughts on “Discussion Topic: History Before or After Reading Historical Fiction”

  1. Interesting question! I suppose I prefer to know the history, since I usually choose historical fiction based on a period and/or person I’ve become interested in. And I’m one of those vile people who peeks at the ends of books before I read them.

  2. Unless it’s a person I’ve read about before, I usually don’t know the history before I read historical fiction. But after I’m finished, I’m usually intrigued enough to then go and find out what the actual history was and I often follow up a fiction book with a non-fiction one covering the same person/era.

  3. Knowing too much of the history before reading a book means being able to spot all the errors. It can be VERY annoying since it gives the impression the author failed to do the research.

    But knowing at least some of the outlines of the period help to put events in context. When the author is very good and has done the homework, there will be little details added that make reading the story feel educational. That enhances the story.

    So my conclusion is that you should not be completely ignorant of the period but you should also not be an expert. Just ignorant enough to enjoy it, seems about the ideal.

  4. I must confess that until I read Sharon Kay Penman’s book on Richard III, not only didn’t I concern myself with history–hated it as a student–but I pretty much didn’t read that genre. But because of her skill as a writer to tell a brilliant story and because of her ability to do and interpret the research, that I not only became interested in history but also became a writer.

    So based on my experience, I probably want to enter a historical novel as an innocent and will delve into the history later.

  5. I sit on both sides of the fence on this one. Sometimes, I enjoy knowing the details and context, and sometimes I enjoy going into it blind. When I read Bernard Cornwell’s saxon series, I didn’t know anything about the Danish invasions of England and King Alfred the Great, but it definitely made me want to go and research it afterward. Irv, you make a good point about knowing the history in full. If the author hasn’t done a perfect job with his/her research, it detracts from the characters and story — which might be really well done — but all you can concentrate on is that he/she missed an important point.

  6. The history does matter to me, otherwise why call it ‘historical’ fiction? But before or after doesn’t bother me; I enjoy reading novels where I know the history beforehand, and novels where I don’t.

  7. I like to know at least the context–the politics, the culture, etc. Otherwise I feel like I’m only getting half the picture. I like to know what the author got right and what the author changed. I guess I want to know how accurate it is because I’ll be annoyed if I get historical fiction and think it’s good, but the history turns out to be inaccurate!

  8. Carla – I agree. The history is important. Still, I have enjoyed “historical” fiction even when the facts may not be entirely correct. Should I bring up the example of Pillars of the Earth, or save that for another thread? I know there are split camps over that book: some people loved it and some absolutely hated it. Those who hated it claim there are many inaccuracies throughout.

    Clare – I’m with you on that. I will definitely read the historical note at the end to see what liberties the author might have taken with the story. I usually read it after I’ve finished the novel but maybe I should start reading it before. If the author has changed things drastically, maybe I should skip the book altogether.

  9. Stevent

    I’ve done it both ways. I’ve read books about historical events I know nothing about, and have enjoyed them. I’ve also read books which take place in historical periods or places that I know more about. This is kind of a “mixed bag”, because among other things, the first thing I notice is if they get the names right. If t the author doesn’t get the names of people, right for the period, then my guess is, they haqven’t done the necessary resarch. That’s one of the things that prompted me to start wirting my own books.
    Anne G

  10. Steven:

    Partly I know this because naming practices have a way of changing over time. But a lot or writers just don’t know this. I first noticed this, not in historical fiction, but in the difficulty people who don’t know certain languages, can’t seem to get the names of people right! This is particularly obvious when people try to come up with Russian names. Russians have a given name, a patronymic, and a family name(although last names are of fairly recent origin among Russians). The names — in Russian — go something like this: A man’s name might be Ivan, his father’s name might be Mikhail(Michael in English), and his last name might be Kuznetsov. So this would be written Ivan Mikhailovich Kuznetsov. A woman might be Tatiana Mikhailovna Kuznetsova. But English speakers invariably confuse the patronymic form with the last name. To anybody who knows Russian, this looks incredibly silly and ignorant.

    Then I went through a period where I read a lot of romances, mostly the historical kind. I began to notice that, no matter what period the people were in, they all had names that sounded like the kind of 20th and 21s5 century names parents would choose out of some baby names book! And, because I read a fair amount of nonfiction historical material, I also knew that people just didn’t name their kids or weren’t themselves, named that way. The farther back you go, historicall, and the more “nonwestern” the culture being written about, the more glaring these discrepancies tend to get. I mean, I’ve seen examples in novels, of women and men living in Anglo-Saxon times, being given names that are very obviously “modern” ones from the author’s own little imaginary stock. You just get a “feel” for this after a while.
    Anne G

  11. That makes sense. I need to pay more attention to my names going forward when writing a historical piece, maybe search old documents in the medieval sourcebook to confirm those names were used during the period. Thanks, Anne.

  12. One not e of caution, though. Many of the names you find will be recognizable “modern” names of some people, but they are often spelled rather oddly, or have a somewhat different form than they do in modern times. Especially when you’re dealing with well-known historical people, therefore, it’s probably best to stick with the “modern” name that refers to them. This is less likely to confuse the reader. Also, in my own book, I’ve used Anglo-Saxon names of the period, but (a) I’ve been careful to use ones that either don’t need a lot of “revision” in order to render them pronounceable, opr else I’ve (slightly) revised them in order to do so. You don’t want to go too far off a lcliff here.
    Anne G

  13. In my Great Mecieval Science Fiction Masterpiece, II actually found a fair variety of names I could use. For men: Brand,Godric, Guthlac, Edmund, Dunning, Wistan, Gyric, among others. For women, Wulfwynn, Hild, Werburga, Madselin, Bebba, Milda, Elfgiva. All these characters, BTW, are imaginary. The real people had their own names. If you’re interested at all, you might want to consult Prosopography of Angl-Saxon Names, which is at:

    http://www.pase.ac.uk/pase/apps/index.jsp

    There is quite a variety of names, btw. Some of the names have been “modified” so as not to confuse modern readers too much. Otherwise, I stuck as closely to the originals as possible.
    Anne G

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