When I thought of writing an ode of appreciation to my favorite historical fiction authors, I assumed I’d start with one of my favorites–Bernard Cornwell, or maybe Judith Merkle Riley. But thinking further, I’ll start with someone less well-known, and for a very simple reason: she got me hooked on historical fiction in the first place. Meet Sally Watson.
Sally Watson isn’t the best known of writers. She wrote a number of young adult historical fiction novels that ranged widely over English and American history, and most of them are today out of print. I first came across her novel Lark at about age eleven, and it remains my favorite.
Lark is the story of a thirteen-year-old girl caught in the English Civil War, stuck among staid and disapproving Puritan relatives when her own Royalist family is forced into exile. Lark runs away, trying to rejoin her family, and instead ends up joining a young Cavalier spy named James who is on a mission for King Charles II. What makes this book one that I keep revisiting, even though I am no longer eleven?
1. Just the right touch of historical detail. Watson has a feel for her period and its politics, but she doesn’t drown you in facts. I’ve read a huge number of historicals that feel compelled to educate you, and I don’t read fiction to be educated. If all I want is information, I go to Wikipedia. I read novels to be entertained, and Watson knows just how to give the historical details that are needed before stepping back to let her characters take center stage.
2. Characters. The character development in this simple young-adult book is surprisingly sophisticated. Lark grows from a headstrong girl determined to have her way at all costs, into a dignified young woman perceptive enough to know when to stand back and bite her tongue. James’s crisis of conscience over his duties as a loyal subject is serious and well handled. These characters may be young, but they are allowed to struggle with adult problems intelligently. How many adult characters struggle with adult problems intelligently in today’s fiction?
3. Humor. When did historical fiction get so serious? Lark’s inner monologues as she observes her grim and stolid Puritan relatives (named variously Honor, Repent, Temperence, Patience, Submit, and Will-of-God) is a comic gem. James’s exasperated efforts to rid himself of the persistent and resourceful Lark are no less wonderful.
4. Intelligence. Since this is a young-adult book, there is very little gore. But Watson turns this into an advantage by having her hero and heroine rely on their wits to extricate themselves from trouble, rather than bashing their way to safety. There is a priceless scene where Lark, to avoid being taken up by Puritan soldiers, pretends to be insane and James falls promptly into line pretending to be her physician. He spouts made-up medical gibberish while Lark crosses her eyes and chews on her braid; the Puritans let them go; and they continue on their way with mutual congratulations to each other’s acting ability. It’s fun watching people be smart in fiction.
5. Romance. There is a surprisingly effective romance in this book, for all that there is not so much as a kiss in it. The age difference between Lark and James is only five years, but five years is insurmountable if the ages covered are between thirteen and eighteen. Yet romance grows anyway: Lark’s adoration for the lanky, charming James is understandable from the start, and James’s big-brotherly affection deepens to something more without once crossing into the ick factor. There is no hint of anything physical between them, but their shared intelligence, courage, and zest for adventure creates a love that will have room for passion too as they get older. How nice to see a romance that is based on shared emotions and experiences, not just lust.
Lark is not Watson’s only good book by any means–a later book follows a girl who gets caught up with the pirate Anne Bonney, and yet another tells the story of an Elizabethan girl who attempts to foil a plot against the Queen and instead gets caught up in a London thieves’ den. But Lark is my favorite–it and Sally Watson brought me to historical fiction in the first place, and for that I am eternally grateful.
I enjoy fantasy, but I always approach it warily. So much of it is a retread: a band of heroes trekking across a vaguely medieval landscape in search of some magical McGuffin that will save the world. Swords, magic, quests; valiant heroes, scheming wizards, lovely ladies. The best fantasy novels exemplify the genre–and there is one writer out there who is reinventing it. That would be George R.R. Martin: his massive fantasy series “The Song of Fire and Ice” is breaking the bounds of the novel in general and fantasy in particular. Even if you are not a fan of fantasy, here are five reasons why this series is worth your time:
1. Realism. His novels might take place in a fantasy land, but they are solidly grounded in the sometimes-squalid realities of fourteenth-century medieval history. Magic, so often over-used in fantasy until it becomes a deus ex machina to get the hero out of trouble, is laid on with a light hand here. There is magic in his world but it is unreliable, unpredictable, and rare. The book’s plot and characters are solidly based in the struggles of the powerful to acquire a throne, their rivals who try to stop them, and the little people who want only to avoid getting hurt. And there are a lot of historical parallels: Martin creates deliberate echoes of the War of the Roses, the reign of Edward IV and his scheming queen, the Stuart Kings across the water, and many other real-life events.
2. Backstory. How many fantasy novels begin with a lengthy prologue that intones In the dawn of time and drags the reader on an endless history and genealogy lesson, before the story has even begun? Martin’s series boasts an exceptionally complicated backstory–a rebellion against a mad king is still making waves a generation later–but he never puts the reader through a history lesson. Rather, he imparts the information through the often-conflicting memories of his characters, and then leaves you wondering whose version of the past is the truth.
3. Characters. Martin has a lot of them, and they all have their own hopes, their own desires, and their own agenda. They are all the hero of their own story, rather than standing about respectfully watching the larger characters have all the fun. And characters change–heroes become villains, villains become heroes, and every possible variation in between.
4. Scope. Martin’s world is vast, and only getting vaster. He fearlessly introduces new characters, new storylines, new plot twists, and expects you to keep up. Each family has crests, mottoes, backstories, allies, loyalties, and secrets, and you are expected to keep track of it all. So refreshing after books that get shorter, easier, and breezier with every passing year, supposedly to keep up with the public’s short attention spans. Martin isn’t afraid to make demands of his readers–time and attention, and the reward is huge.
5. Length. There are four books in the series, each topping at least five hundred pages. This amounts to thousands of pages of reading, and there are at least three more books to come. The last book could not even be contained in one volume, but had to be published in two. The “Song of Fire and Ice” has grown so enormous that it is breaking the boundaries of the novel itself; stretching it further than it has ever gone before. If Tolkien invented the fantasy genre, Martin is extending it. Who knows when his series will be completed, but the world of fantasy will never be the same.
If you like fantasy, you will love this series. If you dislike fantasy, you will love this series. These aren’t books you read; they are books that devour you whole. Buy the first one, and enjoy being eaten.
Well. I seem to have hit a nerve, because there are a lot of readers out there who gleefully listed off their own pet peeves in historical fiction. Here are some of my favorites, all from readers here on Goodreads. I tried to give credit where it was due, but some comments were sent in by multiple people.
1. Fire metaphors in love scenes. Gary Wedlund brought this one to my attention, citing the frequent overuse of words such as electric, hot, steam, burning, fire, scorching, smoke, and blazing. I’m with Gary: sex might be terrific, but you should not need to keep a fire extinguisher handy.
2. Writers who won’t kill off their characters. (Renee, Canada) Especially common in fantasy novels, where the same band of wanderers goes questing away through myriad dangers, which get steadily less believable the longer all the characters keep sailing through without a scratch. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” packs a punch because he wasn’t afraid to kill off one of the Fellowship. George R.R. Martin took things a step further when he purged about ten characters in one bloody massacre at the end of his Storm of Swords. Bottom line: danger in fiction is not believable unless it periodically takes people down.
3. Plucky heroines (Erin, LA). The plucky post-modern heroine striding intrepidly through historical settings, loved and admired by all. I hate plucky heroines. Brave heroines? Sure. Intrepid, adventurous, brash? Sign me up. But “plucky” calls forth irresistible images of the beautiful girl who rushes headlong into ever danger, refusing all help because by God she is an independent woman who doesn’t need to be rescued by a man, at least until she’s tied to a stake by cannibals. I say let ’em eat her.
4. Unnecessary description (multiple readers). Writers who stop the action to tick off the physical details of every new character, writers who stop the action to describe the sunset, writers who stop the action at all with chunks of unnecessary description. The sun sets every night. No need to comment on the fact.
5. Product placement (Junkfoodmonkey, UK). Call it the “Sex & the City” syndrome–all of a sudden, stilettos weren’t just stilettos but Manolo Blahniks, and bags weren’t just bags but Prada bags. Of course if the heroine’s Jimmy Choo shoes or the hero’s Mont Blanc pen are going to be key parts of the plot, that’s fine. But otherwise I’ll paraphrase Gertrude Stein: a bag is a bag is a bag.
6. Mary-Sue heroines (Jayda, Georgia). A variation on the plucky heroine–she’s just as beautiful and innocent, but she never pretends to the slightest amount of spunk, and spends most of the novel clinging doe-eyed to her hero who responds by providing all the nick-of-time rescues and declarations of slavish love required to keep her frail psyche going. Among the examples mentioned was, ahem, a certain vampire-loving teenager with a rather extravagant name and a penchant for tripping over her own feet.
7. Guidebooks thinly disguised as fiction (Malin, Sweden). If I want to read a guidebook, I’ll go check out Fodor’s.
8. The notion that physical appearance reflects inner character. This one’s from me; I forgot to include it last time. But I think I’ll keep on postponing it; this will get its own post in a few days. Stay tuned.
9. Anachronistic language (multiple readers). Modern language from a non-modern mouth makes just about all readers blink. Though too much verisimilitude also seems to rub us the wrong way: I agree with Jenny from Milwaukee, who stated, “Any character says `Forsooth’ in a book, I’m outta there.” The lesson to be learned here: with readers, you just can’t win.
I’d put in a tenth, but I’m out of time. Thanks to everybody who got discussions going on this.
There’s a lot of good historical fiction out there, but there’s also a lot of bad. In no particular order, here’s a list of my top ten peeves in historical fiction.
1. Twenty-first century attitudes in historical characters. Unquestionably first on the list. Nothing makes me toss a book faster than a twenty-first century feminist striding through medieval England, or a sixth-century warrior who has long relationship talks with his wife. Unfortunately this kind of thing is widespread, and I don’t understand why–writers wouldn’t dream of giving their Elizabethan-England heroine a cell phone, but they can’t seem to resist giving her modern thoughts and opinions. The fact is that most pre-modern parents did not think it abusive to marry off their teenage daughters; most pre-modern men did not have relationship talks with their wives; and any pre-modern woman who ran around demanding equal-sex treatment would have been smacked. Them’s the facts. You don’t like it, stick to writing about the modern era.
2. Trendy historical periods. I’ll admit that Tudor England was my favorite historical period as a child. But how many more books about Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII do we really need? Ditto books about Richard III. Let’s find some new historical figures to write about. England had a lot of kings. And there are other countries besides England.
3. Choosing a historical period or country for its accessories. Scotland is the worst victim here. How many bad historical fiction books have been set in Scotland simply so the author could have Scottish accents, men in kilts, and sex scenes in the heather? I like a man in a kilt as much as anybody, but do your homework. Crack a book or two, give us some details besides the obvious ones. Don’t just watch “Braveheart” and call it a day.
4. Sex scenes in the rain. Here’s one that made its way from the movies. Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers did it in “Match Point,” Andie McDowell and Hugh Grant did it in “Four Weddings and A Funeral,” Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron did it in “Sweet November”–and now historical fiction couples are hooking up in the rain too. Be original. A Cossack couple hooks up in the snow during a thrilling novel of the Bolshevik revolution? Not very believable, maybe, but at least I haven’t read it before.
5. Ecstatic sex scenes in general. Half the fun of a good book is a vicarious bonk, but I get a little tired of virginal heroines who have ecstatic first-time sex. How many of us really had that much fun the first time? It doesn’t all need to be pain and blood, but why not give things a little more awkwardness? Might be funny and touching as well as sexy.
6. She hates him, but she loves him. Historical fiction isn’t the only guilty genre here–it seems like most romantic couples in books these days start out fighting like cat and dog, then finally realizing (with a gasp) that they’re in love. I think this one came over from the movies too. Let’s just skip it.
7. Humorless historical fiction. When did historical fiction get so serious? Did nobody pre-21st century ever laugh?
8. She isn’t beautiful, but she is. Heroines described as not being beautiful, but all the men in the book are in love with them and their large eyes and small waists are constantly referred to.
9. The pregnancy issue. No one in historical novels ever seems to think about getting pregnant. Even women who have a lot to lose by getting pregnant–unmarried girls, married women with husbands away from home–never seem to consider the consequences. Admittedly, reliable birth control was non-existent in many historical eras. But you’d think the women in these books would give a thought to the possibility of an oops.
10. List-making. Female writers are prone to make long lists of their heroine’s clothes and accessories. Male writers go on long technical riffs about their hero’s weapons. But unless the heroine’s shoe collection or the hero’s rifle-barreled pistols are going to feature importantly in the plot, spare me the details.
This list is by no means inclusive. Any other thoughts?
There is a belief, held by physionomists, new novelists, and novelists who aren’t as new as they should be, that outward appearance corresponds with inward traits of characters. I will be the first to admit: In my early works, I was as guilty of this as any. The heroine was slender (largely because I wasn’t), the redhead had a fiery temper, the brave hero had a physique to match, and no one with a receding chin was ever up to any good. I like to think I’ve evolved since then, but I notice in published novel after published novel that other authors don’t agree with me. Perhaps, then, I’m in the wrong and you can identify the villains and heroes in your life by their chins.
So after casting an eye through historical fiction new and old, I have come up with the Appearance Cliche Scale, or the ACS: a guide that will help you assess the people who cross your path.
Snub nose=cute, funny
Hook nose=evil, possibly English
Receding chin=indecisive, meek
Thin lips=hard, prim, stingy
Large feet (for women)=endearingly clumsy
Large feet (for men)=…..huh
Large eyes=sensitive, compassionate
Small eyes=mean, piggish, evil
Body type (women):
Curvy=The Slut/The Mother
Fat=The Best Friend/Old Person
Tall and lanky=The Tomboy
Body type (men):
Tall and lean=The Hero
Tall and muscular=The Hero Type II
Plump=Hero’s Best Friend/Greasy Corrupt Secondary Villain
Gaunt=fierce and uncompromising
Tall and lanky=awkward, shy, clumsy
Short and fat=funny and bouncy
Long fingers=sensitive, skillful
Now admittedly, it’s sometimes hard to duck appearance cliches. If your hero is a 6th century Danish warrior, logically speaking he will probably be fit and muscular. If he wasn’t, he’d have stayed home in Denmark breeding sheep instead of strapping a sword on his back and setting off to conquer England, discover America, and rape the native female population of both. Likewise, you may end up with a heroine who had a lean childhood on the streets of 18th century London and can’t help being slender because she didn’t have too many square meals in her formative years. And sometimes, a character just comes to life out of nowhere and dictates their own appearance. I had a heroine who insisted on having blue eyes when I was determined to make them brown. We had a number of dialogues on the subject:
Me: Blue eyes on a blonde are cliched! Brown eyes are better.
Her: My eyes are blue.
Me: Who’s the author here? I’m God to you, toots, and if I say your eyes are brown, they’re brown.
Her: I’ll make you type blue. You’ll have to backspace and curse every time. Is this worth it?
Me: @($&#(*@!)#* (Gives up and gives heroine blue eyes)
The occasional struggle with a stubborn character aside, I do try to consult the ACS before figuring out how my characters look. Maybe you could have a short Viking warrior. Look at Lois McMaster Bujold, who wrote a space-opera series around a military genius of a soldier who barely topped 4’10.
If anyone else has any additions to the Appearance Cliche Scale, I’m all ears. This is a work in progress.
Philippa Gregory made it big with The Other Boleyn Girl and followed it with The Virgin’s Lover, The Queen’s Fool, and The Boleyn Inheritance. Now there are approximately 2,500 books about Anne Boleyn, Cate Blanchett garnered an Oscar nomination or two playing Elizabeth I, a major television show called “The Tudors” is racking up viewers, and don’t even get started on the existing Masterpiece Theatre specials, novels, and historical biographies already written in the past century.
I admit to being fascinated by the Tudors myself. I spent a good deal of my childhood pretending to be Elizabeth I sitting on the steps outside the Tower of London, just as I’d seen Glenda Jackson do in Masterpiece Theatre’s “Elizabeth R.” There were other queens–Catherine the Great of Russia, Maria-Therese of Austria–but it was Elizabeth who filled my childhood fantasies. So my question for today is: Why are the Tudors so trendy?
There are other historical figures who rack up a lot of fictional space: Richard III, for example. But his fascination can be explained by the hatchet-job his reputation received at the hands of Shakespeare, which has led to a counter-balancing determination by later novelists and historians to see his better side explored. But the Tudors are different. They were a dynasty of red-haired charmers who happened to rule England during a period of historical and cultural richness, and four hundred years later we are still fascinated by them.
The Tudors had that compelling combination of charisma, good looks, and turbulent personal lives that makes for such appealing tabloid fodder today. Henry VIII certainly wasn’t the greatest king England ever had; in fact, he squandered an enormous national treasury on personal entertainment. But the man had staggering personal charm–even those who knew better, like his daughters who were both denounced as bastards and their mothers either murdered or hounded to death, forgave his misdeeds. And he was the ideal of the Renaissance man so popular in the era, a handsome prince who excelled at warfare and physical sports yet also wrote poetry, played musical instruments, read widely, and appreciated the arts. So Henry is remembered today, that fat old bastard with VD who went through wives like tissue paper. Elizabeth had every bit of his charm, and the added gift of intelligence and diligence; she is more worthy of the adulation she continues to this day to receive. Her sister Mary was less attractive, but at least she was a religious fanatic and those always give good value fictionally. Their brother Edward died too young to be of much interest, but Lady Jane Grey as a more obscure Tudor came along to spice things up with her nine-day-reign, her tragic death, and her Helena Bonham-Carter movie. Even Mary, Queen of Scots, can be included in the aura of Tudor radiance: she had Tudor blood, after all, and the red hair, tempestuous personal life, and personal charisma that went with it. To the end, Mary’s charm persuaded people to help her against their better judgment, at least until Elizabeth took her down like the stupid, conniving fool she really was.
What I find amusing is that Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty, had none of the attributes that would make his descendants so famous. He was a dour, tight-fisted king who won his throne by treachery and kept it by tight-lipped suspicion, a man notoriously lacking in generosity, charm, or good looks. He even failed the family mold by having only one wife and being relatively faithful to her. He can be remembered as a good King, one who gave England some sorely needed peace and built up a prosperous and thriving economy. But no one writes books today about him.
In an era before television, celebrities, and tabloid journalism, people looked to royalty for entertainment. Kings who got the job done, like Henry VII, might be appreciated but not remembered. Kings who swung the other way and provided entirely too much entertainment in the form of war, rebellion, and blatant favoritism (Edward II, Richard II, Henry VI) might be remembered but certainly not appreciated. The Tudors, however, managed to keep things interesting without going overboard. Henry VIII’s revolving wives, Elizabeth I’s will-she-or-won’t-she marital status, Mary Queen of Scots’s endless plotting–the Tudors kept their subjects entertained while simultaneously providing peace, stability, and a cultural renaissance. No wonder they’re so celebrated today.
That being said, I do wish writers would give them a rest for a while. How many books about Elizabeth I, Henry VIII and various wives, and Mary, Queen of Scots does the world need? I love Elizabeth I, but I don’t think I could ever write a book about her. They’ve all been written. I think all the Tudor books have been written by now. Perhaps a brilliant writer out there can find an unlit angle for a totally new novel, but I’m skeptical.
Bottom line: The Tudors are great. Let’s appreciate them–and move on.
Hello everyone, and welcome to my blog. “Everyone” currently consists of a devoted fiance, a loving mother, and a few online friends, but I hope to find others soon. My name is Kate Quinn, and I’m the author of the forthcoming historical novel “Mistress of Rome.” My book is set to be published in April 2010, and I’m looking forward to connecting with all the readers of historical fiction out there. I’d always associated blogs with people who have violent opinions and no spelling ability, but to my considerable surprise, the web is full of the intelligent and the well read. Who knew?
“Ave Historia” is Latin for “Hail, history.” I love historical fiction. I read it, I write it, and now I blog about it. I hope you’ll enjoy my views, and I hope you’ll enjoy my book too once it comes out. I can’t promise to post every day, but I’ll write as often as I can: reviews of my favorite historical fiction books, updates on the latest trends in historical fiction, and the occasional rant about the Red Sox (I’m an incorrigible baseball fan). Enjoy.