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Far & Away: The Search for Unusual Historical Fiction

Far & Away: The Search for Unusual Historical Fiction

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Published by carrielofty
Article by Carrie Lofty for the May 2009 issue of SOLANDER, the Magazine of the Historical Novel Society. www.carrielofty.com
Article by Carrie Lofty for the May 2009 issue of SOLANDER, the Magazine of the Historical Novel Society. www.carrielofty.com

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Published by: carrielofty on Jan 19, 2010
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09/29/2010

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FarandAway:TheSearchforUnusualHistoricalFiction
CARRIELOFTY sharcsherjomnE futothercalnqfnnasnalsettirtE.f.orhistaicalxouelt.In tlteabrcnrcsof' a deunttixte ntarhin4frlionrcntain.rlsentoil ttttrd-\' rcLridt.forditingolhcrems. TomNolan, actorand writer\\'irenI sat dos.nto \\idte this article.firstnecded to dir.estnlseifofpreconceptionsthatdeveloped after srudfng uousualsettingsin leistoricalromallce. Thercrrrancegenreis proscribedbvnarure,clefinedby the RomanceWtitcrsofAmerica(RWA)as har,-inga)acenffalstory about"twoindrvidualsfallhgin love and sttugglingtcrmake therelarion-shiprvork," ancl b)an enclings'herebv thelovers"are re.u'narded'ithemotionaijusdceand unconditionallote."Be1-onddrese rrvo basicpnnciples,there existno otherrestrictionsandno t.rittenprohibitionaqainst storiesset.in unusualtinre-t orplaces,and in fact manr.'suchromanceshase been publi-sherlor-erthelast thirFvears.Readerexpectarionsegardinuemotionai contentandfamiliatplotstructr.rresdo,leo',,vever, ieed intoa preferencefbrrecognizablesettings.Although someroffrancereaders are asconcerned u'lthhistoricalaccuracyas any reader ofhistorical 6crion,nranrplacegteatervaluecinthe abilri'to relatetocharactersand their derelopingrofilance.Becauseof rhis,the genreof histoticalromancecr-clesthrcugtrproiongedfixatiot.rsonparricularperiods,be it AmericanOld\\'estsettingspc;pularn the late1980s andearh'1990s,or Regencr"r:rasetdngsthat have beenthe staple oftomanticfiction forthelasttenlears."The Regencyhas thc 'to;z1ry'ofthe nobiliq'rhat lendsitself to theCinderellastor\;" saYsomanceauthorB\'tl-rc Giftotd,whoseInnocence nuuleds se in medievalFlanclers."The Scottishf{rghlandsand theAmerican Westimmediatelybring tornind certainarchetypes:warrior,lonet,oudaw, man ofhonor," shesaYs.N{oteunusualsettinqsmar'leavea readerguessinga-so t'hat kindof storr-(andhero)to expect."Thosehistoricalromance authors.suchas mt'self-,-ho har-echosentoreflmre outside oftried-and-rruesertilgscantind theroadtrrockr'one,and the understandingdrac ones.'rites"unusualhistoricals"isfhirlr cleat-cut.Settingsoutsideof Englandcrr he UnitedStatesmarkthefirst dir.ergencefrom"usual." Any no'r'el setafter1900 is alsoanoutl.ier,asare novelswith non-Christiaaprotagr:nists.Sornetirnesthedifferencecanbe as subtleas arorflaflc€setin theJtearsbef.retheAmericanRevolution.Ther\mericansettingis nothingbizarte,butrhe choiceoftirne period isdistinctir-out-of-steps'ith dre maior:in'ofromancesthat lingerin the OId\\'est.Conr-erseli'.urban-set\\'esterns- sar-,ith SanFranciscoas the iocale-also challenseconvctrr'ion.Inthe realmof historicaifiction publishing.tl-redefinitionof s'hatconsdrutesan unusual settingoreta slessundetstood. \\'henIcailedon Hi.storicalNovel Sociewmcmbets toansrr"'eruestionstbt thisarticic. I receirrcda side arrar ofrespon-\es.Someauthors delined"unusrral"br rhesetdngalone,rvhile otherscitedficdonalizingthe live:sof obscurehistoricalfigr"ues, <;r the promineoceofatvpicalprofessions or plotlines.Self-iclcntifi-ing as"unusual"seemeci cl hoidagreatdealofclouramongthehistorical ircdonauthors s'ho respondcd tomr-surre], and this iackof consensusdidnnthing tol-relp me gatheraconr-incingpottrait ofs'hat the tetmmeanstothegcnr-eIdecided to investi.gatear'rddefinethcstate ofthe genrefor myself'Wlratmakes iristorical lictionunusual?Wiratmatketfbrcesare atw'otk? Is thete aal conseosusaboutrvhat isnpicai?I askerl mi' respondettsurl'tatconsdrutcsthestatusquoin historicalfiction.Ilanrcitedthe ciominanceofCir-il\\'araodTudorEnglandas settings.butthisassumpriondoesnot holcl rueamonllbestsellers,Accorclingto Pzbli:Lrcri l:tkly,rsince2tl(Xl, onlvnvo nor-elscontaininghistorical elementsh:rr-eankedamongthe top terr bestsellersn theUniteciStates:-oungadultauthorGernlclNlorris'sTlttl-iane'r.r: HerKnryht(medieval Englantl)and Elizebcthliostova's'I'heHistoilan(multiple lcicalesthroushoutthe 20'r' centuq).Onaninternationalscale, CarkrsFi:clz Zat(tn'sThe Sladnn'o./the Wind(post SpanishCivii\\iarBarcelona)has soldroughh'ten millioncopiess'r:rldwide.makingitoneof the bestsellingnovels of alltimeTrendsrou'ardnon-Tudotandnon-Cir-il\'irr setdngsare alsoborneouts-ith an exarninaiic.rni rheHi-storicalNorclSocienrspublicarionHi.rtoint/Norc/.rRetitn'(HNR).Anronstheeditors'top picksfor2008-()9,numeroustime periods anciocalesharebeerrepresentedin the1'ear'.sest llctionoffer-ings,ncluclingoneBiblical setting,nvoEgvpti:rn,tr.r.'oGreeli,fcrur Roman,four medievalEuropean,andthree colonialLatin.\merican.as well asuumerousnovels setn eatlvn:odern Eulopeancl 19'r'-centunEnglanclandUniteciStates.Themost plentit'ulcateqor\-amongtheIINR edrtors'picks pror-edto be booksset betq'eent90L|and i945.In recenttears, earL.t'0"''ceflturr historicalficdon inr-ariablr-dealt widr \\brict\\ar II, ands'Luiethese t\\-enr\-sixncnelsdidincluclerzrieciexaminarionsofn:artime and Holocausttilemes,thcirtaden'extendsrvell be,rondthose catastrophicperiocls.Brazil, Spain,Canada,icelnncl,Russia,Indja, and Armenia,not tomentionvatjouslocationsu'ithintheburueoningpou.'erof thetlnitedStatcs,are allrepresentcd,as atethcmesflomquietseltlcliscor-ert'togenocide,makingthis eraripes'idr varien-.Perhaps hatr-arien- ss'hat makes thepcriod-ler/undcrrepresented.:\ novel set ini920s Russiahas[tde in cornn:tori\'ith on€setln1930sCanada,trfiereas novel,t dea[ngu'ith Tudorcolrrfintrisuemil\-stattt() blendinto onc another,no nrxttertheirindiviciualsrengthsordifferences.Withtheead,v20'hcentur)',thesarieryof topics allotws
22SOLANDER,HEMAGAZTNEFTHEHISTORTCALOVELSOCIETYVOL3NO 1 MAY2009
 
I-NDUS'I'K
;1 greatdealof leewal' toauthors,rvhile-asanother genemtioniuccumbs to old age-readersatepreparedto take this periodseriousl\.asaIegitimatesertingfor historical nor-els.This processs-.i11continueasuorksset aftet \\\\TI begrntobe classedas histcirical,er-idencedb-v dre six post-1945nor"elsdratrnadethe HNR editors'1008-09 ists.Soiivarietr,s s.ell representedamongnerr teleases,'hrrrertrediscussingunusualhistoricalsatali?Karen Nlercu4-, auth(x oftheMadagascar-setadventute Jtrarrye/yVnderfzil,suggeststhat theeristence ofsuchrarieh-doesnot guaranteesiunificantsalcsorreader appror-al."Inthe'70sand'80s,IlrThontBird.;,both bookandminiseries, washuge,"saysA{ercurt',"but1'oudidn't seea suddensurgein novels setinAustralia. Shaganwas lruge in print and onTV,letroudidn't seea spateofJapanese-setvorks." Forcasualeadersoi h.istorical6ction,perhapsthe "bestof"lists made b1' edrtorsareless rcllingthan the books that capturc the t'ider irnaginationand tapintoexistins preferences, creating a communitl'ofreadersvho might not othenvisedip into thegenre.In parricular,one book thathas corne to dominatenuch ofpopular histotical6ction,and serl'edas.rdefinitionof"starusquo" among manvof ml:espcrndents,ts'[beOtherBo/e1'nGirl bvPhilippaGregorr-,ptrbiisbedn 2001.Subsecluend'r'dapredlnro tlvo films,oneof which grossed more tbanS-5millionrvoddu,ide,andfollot'ed bv five sequels,Ti;eOther Boleln Cirlhas been creditecl wirh reviving:istorical6cdon in dre UnitedStatcs, panicularlr-.1moog women.Historical fiction uansFornred fronrflichaelShaara'sl-beKiller Anglr-heawi\' centered, ,nmale protagonists ancl vartime e\-entsto norels,,: courtintrigue, personal betrarals, sex, and the.rramaof [.t-c.il'leileestimares susgesttiratGregon-t booksnumber more than:irreernillion print copies in theUnitedStates alone,theshock..i'er-efhersuccessensuredthatothernor.els ofTudorEnglan,J:olloted.HBO'.s series"TheTudors,"."r'hichrarhersalaciouslJ'ietailsthe fictional espk:itsofaloungHenn-\'-III,broughtthis:cpulartheme into lir-inqrooms,as did muluple big-bucigetmories:rboufthelifeofQueenElizabeth L Tudor Engiandhasbecrtmerorhistoricalfiction u'hat theRegenctera isforhistodcai toralance.\otonlr isdreRegencrpoisedbenr.eethe free-s'heeLingGeor.4anreriodand the strict moralin- of the\rictorians,butunspoiled, pre-Industriallandscapes and conveniences such asindoorplumbing:'Lndoothbrushesmake it an icleal omantic setring. TheTudors, brcoritrast, offera high dcgreeofpolitical mcchanizarions, su'eepinucistsofcomplicatedlvnrerconnectetlcharaclers, nd colrrts packecl'.i-ithminor plai'ers rvhose varied perspecrivesmalie for endlessi-ersionsoffamiliar events. There is a certainsrittiness,too, bothrnetaphodcallr'(graspingambitions)and literallr- (personal hlqicne):har seemstocomplimenthistorical fictionreaders' demand for';nflinchingaccuac)', asopposed to the nearlrsanjtjzed.ersionofi'ristory presented inhistorical romance.TheArnericanCir-il\\hrremainsapopularseftlngasl'ell, butthe:-,rcusha-sshifiedfromcletailsaboutbattles and gcneralsto rrroreinterpersorralinterpretations as offered upin E. L. Doctorow's2005PEN/Faulknerrvinnins TbeA:latrh ancl Charlestlrzzier's 1999debutCold)Iaanttin,t,hichl'asalso adaptedinto arrAcademv.trr'ard-s'inrring film oi dre same name.Thisapparentfeminization ofiristorvdicl notsounnoticcd by m1'r:espondents,suggestingthat theflervcstde inition of rvhat makes an"unusual"historicalmav be thatirfearures rimarih- mnlc protagonists.
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:#In an C)ctober 2008 studyconciuctedbr Hall andPartnersor Break \[edia,3lifn-ir:ur percentoirnenbetu.eeneishteen antlthirq-four reportedthatthev do notreadbooks.By contrast,accordrngto The Xav \'ork'fines,i'Sn'o*.n arL' eslirlatedrr> makc upbetw'ecnsc'\fenf)' to eightl'percentof the book-buvingpuhlic.Readingclubs,g,hercngr"elsgainpopularifithrough intenservordof mouth.garned populariq, 1r".uu." of OprahtBookCiub andthel!{crtherand DaughterBookClub.Acccrrding o an AP/Ipsossur\€\-conducted-n2007,u\\:omen rrake upnearhallrhe mernbership ofthesediscussion groups. Tirc emergencc ofthese groupshas prompted publishcrr:s ochange horv they markethistcrricaifiction. )?aroi'llibndert bl GetaldineBrooksand'l-lteBirili oJI'enrcbv Sarah Dunnant,as examples,both conrain hisror:icalandhterarlquestionsintended tofacilitrte book-club discussions.But docs this uullpoinrto changcs inthecontent ofirisrorical hction? Yes,q{renu'eexaminesutistics accumulated nthat-sameAP/Ipsos sun'er'.First,wnmenzccount for etghry percentof all lictionsales,an<{ hev readbooks ofall kinds in aratio of ninetolir-eor-er :ren.Secoud, he onh-categoriesu,here nten readrrrorethan s'omenarespecificallvbioetaphland histotr-. Toapptoachthe examination fiom theotherside, accordingto the Cbiu,goSNn'I-irte.t,'rontance sits arnong science fiction andfantast' as rhe onh'seg.lrrelrts f publisiring to increase sales n2008Thusif the prirnan'booli-bur ngpopuiation,namel\ s'<;men, as demonstratedaack oiinterest in non-fiction historicalaccourtsandan increasednterestinromance.ir mi.qht e:cplainu'hi' historicai fictionpublishedinthelastdecade has skerved oq,ardpersonaldrama andftmaleprotagonists.Itis,cluitesimpl1',what's seiling;.\'eter-en()nthis subject.nr) eas\-consensuse.sists. \'henaskedn-hat perccir-ed rules exist in historical{icuon publjshing,DonaldMiclrtrel Platt,author of &ocurttoru,noveiof17o-century SpainandAmsterdam,citedan irrdusttv preferencefbr female authorswitlr fema.le rota.qonists.ecaliedFor ...a revilaloftheso-calledGolelen Ageof historicalsu-irhout gender preftrence br-agentsand publishing l'rouses." But author Zo€Archer, rvhose fbur-part"tsladesoftheRose" series rvill beginpublicationwithKensingtonin 2010. insists rhispcrceir-ed gender shifthas to dorvidr readerconclitioninq.She sars,Amale readerdoesn't earn thesamekind olfexibiliw rvith his identilication process,sincel-risneeds ate met by
SOLANDER, HE MAGAZINEOFTHE HISTORICAL OVELSOCIETYVOL.3NO1MAY 2OO923

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