The One Thing Historical Fiction Writers Ought to Know

The Gender-Genre Wars

In a recent issue of Writer’s Digest, literary agent Irene Goodman offered her advice on “16 Things All Historical Fiction Writers Need to Know.” Among them was the caution (?) that

“This kind of fiction requires high quality writing. It’s not like genre writing and it’s not something you can just dash off. It requires education, thought, and skill.”

Oh, dear. What “genre writing” could one be referring to where education, thought, and skill are not required?

Ms. Goodman further tells us that “In the last several years, historical fiction has focused mainly on women. That is starting to change. You still need that hook, though.”


The fact is that many writers and readers of historical fiction are women. And women have written fiction ‘focused mainly on women’ for a very looooong time. They wrote women back into history in the ‘genre writing’ we today call romance. And it is romances in the broadest sense that serve as the foundation on which rests our current concepts of historical fiction.


Georgette and Me

Georgette and Me @ Osher

Since I have just finished my own little tirade on the subject of “Lesser Lady Novelists,” (those scribbling women who write for women), the statements perfectly illustrated my points: the old gender-genre war is alive and well.


And that is not an accident.

There is already a complex relationship between history as a subject and as literature, and that relationship is further ‘complicated’ by historical fiction often written by women for a female audience focusing principally on female characters.

What continues to surprise—ok, irks me—is that the many writers and the ‘literary world’ which ought to know something about the development of historical fiction readily jump on the bandwagon of rejecting the description of a story set in the past as ‘historical fiction’ lest that oeuvre be confused with, perish the thought, ‘romance.’

That type of literature is dismissed euphemistically as ‘genre,’ and more routinely as ‘Mills & Boon, escapist, tosh, trashy, encouraging dangerous fantasies, middle class and middlebrow, chick-lit-in-corsets, bodice rippers, or as one reviewer on Goodreads put it, ‘lady novels.’


The dreaded specter of being mistaken for a ‘historical romance’ leads both male and female writers to declare that they are not writing historical fiction, they are writing fiction. That of course does not prevent them from saying something silly about what the history in their story is, isn’t, or ought to be which is then reported as a profound insight by ‘literary’ reviewers.


No wonder that Evan S. Connell hastened to assure the reader of his novel Deus lo Volt , Chronicle of the Crusades—

I think of this as a book about the Crusades, not an ‘historical novel’—a term that suggests imaginary experiences and unlikely conversations. Monologues and dialogues in the book are paraphrased or condensed from those in medieval documents. Every meeting, every conversation, every triumph or defeat, no matter how small, was recorded centuries ago. Most—indeed, nearly all—have been forgotten, removed from our sight, as Princess Anna notes in the epigraph.

Well, we could check to see what Princess Anna really said, but never mind. Obviously, McConnell protests too much, as do others, keen to separate themselves from ‘those novels.’
SlammerkinWhen The Washington Post Book World reviewed Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin, its praise came with a condemnation of the other ‘genre’ on the novel’s cover page.

What a great read this book is: Think Forever Amber skewed with an elegant noir twist and informed by a high literary intelligence. Slammerkin is pulpy at heart, but …Donoghue ….elevated her racy story …close to art. This absorbing, bawdy novel gives new meaning to the term costume drama.

The Reading Group Guide at the back asks, “Should novels like Slammerkin be put in the category of historical fiction, or does that make them sound formulaic?”


Pass the smelling salts, Miss Scarlett

SetonSimilarly, in 2004, Philippa Gregory wrote an introduction to the re-issue of Anya Seton’s Katherine, first published in 1954. Gregory writes that reading Seton is ‘an escapist experience, but not in a derogatory sense,” and distinguishes between ‘high quality historical fiction and one that draws “…on long frocks and big hats, horse drawn carriages, and high jeopardy….”


Salts, please!
Are there degrees of escapism one can embrace as oppose to deplore? Isn’t what one considers ‘high quality historical fiction’ ultimately in the eyes of the reader?

Given the social context of this women-centered genre, according to an informative article about Seton, it is not surprising that Seton herself has called her works “biographical novels” and distinguished them from what she called a “standard costume piece or historical romance”—because her novels involved research into facts, dates, and places.

Ironically, despite her efforts, her novels remain shelved “among heaving bosoms and lantern-jawed rogues,” and therefore they “rarely received literary respect” even while they have influenced a number of contemporary writers.

The quotes, questions, and statements reveal a lot about the persistent efforts to distinguish ‘historical fiction’ from the Forever Amber types (remembers that one?), the pulpy, racy, and bawdy costume dramas, and formulaic women’s fiction.

That is unfortunate.

In one of the and earliest studies of popular culture, John G. Cawelti argues that ‘formulaic’ is a descriptive term which is not to be understood in the usual ‘derogatory sense’ that classifies literature on a snobby scales of approbation.

Cooper &Short

Similarly, current scholarship in popular culture and women and gender studies revealed those ‘romances’ to be a lot more complex than mere escapism and formulaic costume dramas of “… long frocks and big hats, horse drawn carriages, and high jeopardy.”


If that is so, does that mean that in ‘historical fiction’ everyone goes about the world naked, on foot, and faces absolutely no jeopardy whatsoever?

In 1992, Jayne Ann Krentz (aka Amanda Quick and Jayne Castle) in a preface to Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women puts it succinctly—

…society has always felt free to sit in judgment not only on the [romance] literature but on the reader herself….It labels the books as trash and the readers as unintelligent, uneducated, unsophisticated or neurotic. The fact that so many women persist in reading and enjoying romance novels in the face of generations of relentless hostility says something profound not only about women’s courage but about the appeal of the books.
These deal with moral and ethical issues surrounding women’s lives that remain very much at issue today; the sovereignty over one’s own body, legal and political personhood, economic and legal inequalities based on class structure and gender.

Isn’t that what historical fiction does? It remains a story of men and/or women shaped and surrounded by all those ‘facts, dates, and places’ we educated, skilled and thoughtful folks add to make our stories ‘authentic.’ And often, the clue to that is in the cover–or not.

So can we, at least as writers, be less snooty about our ‘genre’? After all, there are historians who consider what we write tosh and tripe for the middleblows—despite all those facts, dates, and places.

About Hana Samek Norton

I am a historian who writes 'history with a story' in off-duty hours.
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