At the Edges of Historical Fiction by Autumn Barlow

Feb 15th, 2017 | By | Category: Articles

autumn-barlowIt’s easy to define “historical fiction” – it has a setting in the past. That might be eighty years ago, or eight hundred, or more.

Within that, there are subdivisions. Stirring military fiction – they have covers in red and black, with muscular men gripping swords, their square jaws set firm. Or tender Regency romances, in paler tones, usually with a small blonde woman swooning against a man in a dashing uniform. There are the Tudor-themed imitators of Philippa Gregory with their “headless woman” covers, spawning endless re-examinations of Anne Boleyn. Often these books are written in series, and fans can gobble up endless tales of derring-do and simmering passion. There are also one-off literary works, often with illustrative or photo-manipulated covers. The surface of the book might purport to be about bookbinding in nineteenth century London, perhaps, but the themes underneath will deal with The Human Condition and universal feelings and tragedies.

Let’s move away from subdivisions. Let’s move to the edges – where historical fiction becomes something else, perhaps. These categories are harder to draw defined borders around.

Top Hat Books actively encourages the more unusual historical fiction, although we necessarily acknowledge that it’s harder to sell an ill-defined genre, so it’s important to be able to pinpoint what the book is.

Alternate History (in the UK, the tendency is still to use the US convention of “alternate” not “alternative”). Usually, these stories take a pivotal moment in history, and ask the question “what if…” Sometimes, this then explores all the technological and societal differences that subsequently emerge according to the author’s imagination. In David Haworth’s book, The Hidden Crown, however, although the author has used his archaeological training to create a compelling view of how the British Isles would have looked if the Norman Conquest had not happened, but instead the Vikings had colonised the northern half more completely, the story itself is about the characters of Thurstan and the young queen Adelise.

Historical Fantasy. This does not tend to be elves and wizards, the usual tropes of High Fantasy. Instead, Historical Fantasy – like Charles de Lint’s Urban Fantasy – takes a recognisable world, albeit one of the past, and adds in the subtle sense of Other Worlds. The best stories do this with great skill so that the reader is left with the impression of other realities nestling in amongst our every-day life, so close one could touch them. Silver Hands by Elizabeth Hopkinson is a prime example of this kind of magical storytelling. It’s set in the days of the Dutch East India company, and a young woman travels the seas, ending up in Japan – all so plausible – but you just know, as you read it, worlds unseen are colouring the edges of the narrative.

Steampunk. Fans of this genre can spend a lot of time trying to define it; I think that must be half of the appeal! And in a sense it’s very much an individual’s choice to make of it whatever they will. There’s a strong DIY ethos, and a love of craftsmanship. There’s also a lot of humour; Steampunk fans delight in being different but without any snide, sidelong glances at someone who is not “getting it right”. After all, if no one can define Steampunk, who can judge if you’re getting it “wrong?” That said, there are certain themes – alongside humour, there’s a tendency to enjoy the colours brown and beige, and clock-work, and the best bits of Old Empire without the bad bits, and a general feeling that if we all have a cup of tea, everything will be better. Preferably with biscuits, though perhaps not a Penance Biscuit, which feature heavily in Nimue Brown’s steampunk comedy, Intelligent Designing For Amateurs. I’d recommend that book as a good introduction to Steampunk.

So if you’re bored of reading or writing run-of-the-mill historical fiction, and simply can’t take one more sword-and-sandal epic, have a look at the exciting and mould-breaking books on the edges of the genre.

Silver Hands:

Intelligent Designing for Amateurs:

The Hidden Crown:

This article was first published in Writer’s Wheel Magazine Issue 2

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