Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Historical Fiction Writ Large

historical novel, the--a novel or short story set in a specific historical era, often involving actual historical events and personalities; ab increasingly popular choice among genre writers and readers for the mixing of genera (for example, historical romance, historical mystery).

The historical novel readily absorbs details of setting, customs, and mores; readers not only want to be transported to a particular time and place--they want to experience it. So the obvious question arises: How much detail? The answer: Enough to move the story along, but not enough to impede it.

The historical novel has a strong enough foundation to stand on its own as pure history. Jean Auel researched the Ice Age people known as Cro-Magnon, then detailed their activities in a series, Earth's Children, dealing with individuals who populated the Danube River Valley some 25,000 years ago. In The Clan of the Cave Bear, she provided a Cro-Magnon orphan who'd been raised by a band of Neanderthal.

Mary Renault took us back respectively to the times of Greece in The King Must Die, using historical background and archaeological research to trace the young years of Theseus, an attractive mythological character. The work was well received, motivating her to a sequel, The Bull from the Sea, in which Theseus's life is expanded to the time of his marriage to another well-known character, Phaedra.

A serious rival to Renault's historical novel output was Mary Stewart, particularly her version of the Arthurian legend, The Crystal Cave. By the time the English language version of Umberto Eco's novel, The Name of the Rose, was published in 1983, the novel had reached best-seller status in Europe. Set in 1327, The Name of the Rose takes us to a monastery where a murder has been committed, thus showing how historical and mystery genera are natural allies. 

 Moving a bit forward in the time of setting, Leonard Tourney moved us to the times when the husband and wife team of Matthew and Joan Stock began a career with the urban and rural backgrounds of Elizabethan England set before us in The Players Boy Is Dead. Tourney used his Shakespearean literary background to set the scene for whodunits. In 1959, James Michener published yet another of his enormous histories, this one a replication of the background of Hawaii. Some forty years later, Thomas Pynchon found enough material to fill 788 pages of his historical postmodernist romp, Mason & Dixon, a celebration of the two iconic surveyors for whom the Mason-Dixon line is named, and an awareness if not understanding of the cultural division that line represents.

While all this was happening, another kind of historian was producing work that still draws new readers as well as re-readers--that sturdy band of men and women who contributed to the dimensions of the American West, thus such names as A.B. Guthrie (The Big Sky), Mari Sandoz (Old Jules), Dorothy M. Johnson(The Hanging Tree), Larry McMurtry(Horsemen Pass by, and Lonesome Dove), and Elmore Leonard (The 3:10 to Yuma). (See the Western novel).

As well as standing firmly on its own, say I, Claudius (Robert Graves)or Hadrian Remembers (Margurite Yourcenar), the historical novel mixes well with mystery, romance, YA, fantasy, science fiction, alternate universe, and political; all it requires is imagination, research, and a willingness to take risks.

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