Looking over a local library’s event schedule yesterday, I came across the name of an author I hadn’t thought about for years—make that decades. He must be ancient, and if he’s still out there promoting, he’s earned an audience. I might just go and thank him for the memories. As a teenager, I read the tacky kind of historical fiction: lusty pirates, helpless women, and a rush from one perilous situation to another. I even read a few bodice rippers, though I quickly tired of skipping through the sex scenes to get back to whatever story there was. As bad as they were, those books did two things for me: they kept me reading, which I later learned is the best way to become a good reader. Practice makes perfect in reading, just like in everything else, so I got better at grasping nuances and analyzing style. And they introduced me to the “story” in “history,” the idea that people in the past were people, with zits, sore feet, and body odor. It was quite a revelation.
As time went on, I moved away from the “cheapie” historicals and read better stuff, but I never lost my love of historical novels. I discovered James Michener, Ken Follett, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Taylor Caldwell, Rosemary Jarman, Jean Plaidy, James Clavell, and Edward Rutherfurd, to name a few. Along with tons of historical fiction, I found authors who make nonfiction read like a story, like Thomas Costain and Robert Massie. I loved fictionalized biographies such as those of Margaret George. I found myself rooting for Richard III, Berengaria, Boadicea, and, most of all, Elizabeth Tudor and her tragic mother, Anne Boleyn. That interest eventually turned into my Simon & Elizabeth mystery series (Her Highness’ First Murder and Poison, Your Grace), which led me to understand that it isn’t easy to write historical fiction.
My estimation of most authors I’d read rose as I struggled to balance history with plot, character with truth, and detail with myth. As a teacher, I used the books I’d read as a reading list for my students. While some complained about the fact that I’d read all the books and could quiz them about the details, others learned that history is more enjoyable in novels than it is in textbooks. There were humorous moments, such as when a girl reported that a character in her book about ancient Athens met a really smart guy called “Sew Crates,” or when a young man told the class that Poland once had a really good piano-player named “Choppin.” Still, many students asked for more books about the era they’d explored in the novels, and I even read books students suggested be added to the list. (I didn’t think I was interested in WWII submarines, but I found after reading the book one young man loaned me that I was.)
I still read historical fiction, though writing squeezes my reading time most days. The swashbucklers of my youth don’t appeal anymore. I tried to read a favorite author’s work again recently and was appalled by the bad writing, terrible dialogue, and historical inaccuracies. Sadly, there are still bad historicals being published. Some authors don’t care about portraying an era accurately; they just want to write down the fantasy that’s in their heads. Others are so enamored with the era they’re writing about that they become pedantic. I started one just last evening that has six pages on why the author chose to write about the period, then a map of the area, then a list of important people from the time, then notes on terminology used in the book. I have a feeling the author might be a little too caught up in history, but the first chapter was good, so I’m willing to give him a little more time now that we’re past the preliminaries. I’m not a teenager anymore, but I still want a good story. It’s just that these days I know a little more, so that “story” has to fit the “history” that surrounds it.
Peg Herring, October 18, 2012