Far and Away: The Search for Unusual Historical Fiction

CARRIE LOFTY histaical xouelt. sharcsherjomnE futo the rcaln qf nnasnal settirtE.f.or

In tlte abrcnrcsof' a deunt tixte ntarhin4 frlion rcntain.rtlsentoil ttttrd-\' rcLridt .for diting olhcrems.- Tom Nolan, actor and writer

articic. I receirrcd a side arrar of respon-\es.Some authors delined "unusrral" br rhe setdng alone, rvhile others cited ficdonalizing the live:s of obscure historical figr"ues, <;r the promineoce of atvpical professions or plotlines. "unusual" Self-iclcntifi-ing as seemeci tcl hoid a great deal of clour among the historical ircdon authors s'ho respondcd to mrsurre], and this iack of consensus did nnthing to l-relp me gather a conr-incing pottrait of s'hat the tetm means to the gcnr-e I decided to investi.gatear'rddefine thc state of the genre for myself' Wlrat makes iristorical liction unusual? Wirat matket fbrces are at w'otk? Is thete aal conseosus about rvhat is npicai? I askerl mi' respondetts url'tatconsdrutcs the status quo in historical fiction. Ilanr cited the ciominance of Cir-il \\'ar aod Tudor England as settings.but this assumprion does not holcl true amonll bestsellers, Accorcling to Pzbli:Lrcri Il: rtkly,r since 2tl(Xl, onlv nvo nor-elscontaining historical elements h:rr-eranked among the top terr bestsellersin the e: Uniteci States: r-oung adult author Gernlcl Nlorris's Tltt l-iane'r.r Her 'I'he Histoilan and Elizebcth liostova's Knryht (medieval Englantl) (multiple lcicales throushout the 20'r' centuq). On an international scale, Carkrs Fi:clz Zat(tn's The Sladnn' o./ the Wind (post Spanish Civii \\iar Barcelona) has sold roughh' ten million copies s'r:rldwide. making it one of the bestsellingnovels of all time

\\'iren I sat dos.n to \\idte this article. I first necded to dir.est rnlseif of preconceptions that developed after srudf ing uousual settings in leistorical romallce. The rcrrrance genre is proscribed bv narure, clefined by the Romance Wtitcrs of America (RWA) as har,-ing a) a cenffal story about "two indrviduals fallhg in love and sttuggling tcr make the relarion-ship rvork," ancl b) an encling s'herebv the lovers s'ith emotionai jusdce and unconditional lote." "are re.u'narded Be1-ond drese rrvo basic pnnciples, there exist no other restrictions and no t.ritten prohibition aqainst stories set .in unusual tinre-t or places, and in fact manr.' such romances hase been publi-sherl or-er the last thirF vears.Readerexpectarionsregardinu emotionai content bieed into a preference fbr and familiat plot structr.rresdo, leo',,vever, recognizable settings. Although some roffrance readers are as concerned u'lth historical accuracy as any reader of historical 6crion, nranr place gteater value cin the abilri' to relate to characters and their dereloping rofilance. Because of rhis, the genre of histotical romance cr-cles thrcugtr proionged fixatiot.rs on parricular periods, be it American Old \\'est settings pc;pular in the late 1980s and earh'1990s, or Regencr"r:ra setdngs that have been the staple of tomantic fiction for the last ten lears. "The Regency has thc 'to;z1ry' of the nobiliq' rhat lends itself to the Cinderella stor\;" saYsromance author B\'tl-rc Giftotd, Unuuled is set in medieval Flanclers. "The Scottish whose Innocence f{rghlands and the American West immediately bring to rnind certain archetypes: warrior, lonet, oudaw, man of honor," she saYs."N{ote to unusual settinqsmar'leave a readerguessinga-s t'hat kind of storr(and hero) to expect." s-ho har-echosen Those historical romance authors. such as mt'self-, tried-and-rrue sertilgs can tind the road tr rockr' to reflmre outside of one, and the understanding drac one s.'rites "unusual historicals" is fhirlr cleat-cut. Settings outside of England crrthe United States mark the first dir.ergence from "usual." Any no'r'el set after 1900 is also an outl.ier, as are novels with non-Christiaa protagr:nists. Sornetirnes the difference can be as subtle as a rorflaflc€ set in the Jtearsbef.re the American Revolution. The r\merican setting is nothing bizarte, but rhe choice of tirne period is distinctir-out-of-step s'ith dre maior:in'of romances that linger in the OId \\'est. Conr-erseli'.urban-set \\'esterns with San Francisco as the iocale - also challenseconvctrr'ion. - sar-, In the realm of historicai fiction publishing. tl-redefinition of s'hat consdrutesan unusual setting or eta is lessundetstood. \\'hen I cailed questions tbt this on Hi.storical Novel Sociew mcmbets to ansrr"'er

Trends rou'ard non-Tudot and non-Cir-il \'irr setdngs are also borne oi out s-ith an exarninaiic.rn rhe Hi-storicalNorcl Socienrspublicarion Hi.rtoint/ Norc/.rRetitn'(HNR). Anrons the editors' top picks for 2008-()9,numerous time periods anci locales hare beerr tepresented best llction offer-ings,rnclucling one Biblical setting, nvo in the 1'ear'.s Egvpti:rn, tr.r.'oGreeli, fcrur Roman, four medieval European, and three colonial Latin.\merican. as well as uumerous novels set in eatlv n:odern Eulope ancl 19'r'-centun Englancl and Uniteci States. The most plentit'ul cateqor\- among the IINR edrtors' picks pror-ed 20"'' to be books set betq'een t90L| and i945. In recent tears, earL.t' ceflturr historical ficdon inr-ariablr- dealt widr \\brict \\ar II, and s'Luie these t\\-enr\-six ncnels did inclucle rzrieci examinarions of n:artime and Holocaust tilemes, thcir taden' extends rvell be,rond those catastrophic periocls. Brazil, Spain, Canada, icelnncl, Russia, Indja, and Armenia, not to mention vatjous locations u'ithin the burueoning pou.'er of the tlnited Statcs, are all representcd, as ate thcmes flom quiet seltlcliscor-ert' to genocide, making this era ripe s'idr varien-. Perhaps that r-arien-is s'hat makes the pcriod-ler/undcrrepresented. :\ novel set in i920s Russia has [tde in cornn:tori \\'ith on€ set ln 1930s Canada, 'trfiereas novel,t dea[ng u'ith Tudor colrrf intrisue mil\statt t() blend into onc another, no nrxtter their indiviciual srengths or differences. With the ead,v20'h centur)', the sariery of topics allotws



;1 great deal of leewal' to authors, rvhile - as another genemtion iuccumbs to old age - readers ate prepared to take this period seriousl\.as a Iegitimate serting for historical nor-els.This process s-.i11 continue as uorks set aftet \\\\TI begrn to be classedas histcirical, er-idencedb-v dre six post-1945 nor"els drat rnade the HNR editors' 1008-09lists. r'hr rre rtre So ii varietr, is s.ell representedamong nerr teleases, discussing unusual historicals at ali? Karen Nlercu4-, auth(x of the Madagascar-set adventute Jtrarrye/yVnderfzil, suggests that the eristence of such rarieh- does not guarantee siunificant salcs or reader appror-al. "In the '70s and '80s, Ilr Thont Bird.;, both book and miniseries, was huge," saysA{ercurt', "but 1'oudidn't seea sudden was lruge in print and on TV, surge in novels set in Australia. Shagan rvorks." For casualreaders let rou didn't seea spate of Japanese-set oi h.istorical 6ction, perhaps the "best of " lists made b1' edrtors are less rclling than the books that capturc the t'ider irnagination and tap into existins preferences, creating a communitl' of readersrvho might not othenvise dip into the genre. In parricular, one book that has corne to dominate nuch of popular histotical 6ction, and serl'ed as .r definition of "starus quo" among manv of ml '[be :espcrndents, ts Other Bo/e1'n Girl bv Philippa adapred Gregorr-, ptrbiisbed in 2001. Subsecluend'r' lnro tlvo films, one of which grossed more tban S-5 million rvoddu,ide, and follot'ed bv five sequels, Ti;e Other Boleln Cirl has been creditecl wirh reviving :istorical 6cdon in dre United Statcs, panicularlr.1moog women. Historical fiction uansFornred fronr flichael Shaara's 'l-beKiller Anglr - heawi\' centered , ,n male protagonists ancl rvartime e\-ents- to norels ,,: court intrigue, personal betrarals, sex, and the .rrama of [.t-c. interpersorral interpretations as offered up in E. L. Doctorow's 2005 PEN /Faulkner rvinnins TbeA:latrh ancl Charles tlrzzier's 1999 debut Cold )Iaanttin, t,hich l'as also adapted into arr Academv .trr'ards'inrring film oi dre same name. This apparent feminization of iristorv dicl not so unnoticcd by m1'r:espondents,suggesting that the flervcst de finition of rvhat makes an "unusual" historical mav be that ir fearuresprimarih- mnlc protagonists.



In an C)ctober 2008 study conciucted br Hall and Partners for Break \[edia,3 lifn-ir:ur percent oi rnen betu.een eishteen antl thirq-four reported that {.,il,,,, C,ft,,,r/, thev do not read books. By contrast, -.,i/, :# accordrng to The Xav \'ork 'fines,i ' n'o*.n arL' eslirlated rr> makc up S betw'ecn sc'\fenf)' to eightl' percent of the book-buving puhlic. Reading clubs, g,herc ngr"els gain popularifi through intense rvord of mouth. garned populariq, 1r".uu." of Opraht Book Ciub and the l!{crther and Daughter Book Club. Acccrrdingto an AP/Ipsos sur\€\- conducted -n 2007,u \\:omen rrake up nearh all rhe mernbership of these discussion groups. Tirc emergencc of these groups has prompted publishcrr:sto change horv they market histcrricai fiction. )?ar oi'llibndert bl Getaldine Brooks and 'l-lteBirili oJ I 'enrcbv Sarah Dunnant, as examples, both conrain hisror:icaland hterarl questions intended to facilitrte book-club discussions.

Bi R D S

But docs this uull poinr to changcs.in the content of irisrorical hction? Yes, q{ren u'e examine sutistics accumulated in that -sameAP/Ipsos sun'er'. First, wnmen zccount for etghry percent of all liction sales,an<{thev read books of all kinds in a ratio of nine il'leile estimares susgest tirat Gregon-t books number more than to lir-e or-err:ren. Secoud,the onh-categoriesu,here nten read rrrore :irree rnillion print copies in the United States alone, the shock than s'omen are specificallv bioetaphl and histotr-. To apptoach ..i'er-eof her success ensured that other nor.els of Tudor Englan,J the examination fiom the other side, according to the Cbiu,goSNn :olloted. HBO'.s series "The Tudors," ."r'hich rarher salaciouslJ' 'I-irte.t,'rontance sits arnong science fiction and fantast' as rhe onh' ietails the fictional espk:its of a loung Henn- \'-III, brought this seg.lrrelrts publisiring to increase salesin 2008 Thus if the prirnan' of :cpular theme into lir-inq rooms, as did muluple big-buciget mories booli-bur ing popuiation, namel\ s'<;men,has demonstrateda lack oi :rbouf the life of Queen Elizabeth L Tudor Engiand has becrtme interest in non-fiction historical accourts and an increasedinterest in ror historical fiction u'hat the Regenct era is for histodcai toralance. romance. ir mi.qht e:cplainu'hi' historicai fiction published in the last n \ot onlr is dre Regencr poised benr.ee the free-s'heeLingGeor.4an decade has skervedtoq,ard personal drama and ftmale protagonists. reriod and the strict moralin- of the \rictorians, but unspoiled, preIndustrial landscapes and conveniences such as indoor plumbing It is, cluite simpl1',what's seiling;. :'Lndtoothbrushes make it an icleal tomantic setring. The Tudors, br coritrast, offer a high dcgree of political mcchanizarions, su'eepinu \'et er-en ()n this subject. nr) eas\-consensus e.sists. \\'hen asked and colrrts packecl n-hat perccir-ed rules exist in historical {icuon publjshing, Donald cists of complicatedlvjnrerconnectetlcharaclers, '.i-ith minor plai'ers rvhose varied perspecrives malie for endless Miclrtrel Platt, author of &ocurttoru, novei of 17o-century Spain a i-ersions of familiar events. There is a certain srittiness, too, both and Amsterdam, cited an irrdusttv preference fbr female authors rnetaphodcallr' (grasping ambitions) and literallr- (personal hlqicne) witlr fema.le prota.qonists. calied For" ...a revilal of the so-called He :har seems to compliment historical fiction readers' demand for Golelen Age of historicals u-irhout gender preftrence br- agents ';nflinching accuac)', as opposed to the nearlr sanjtjzed r.ersion of and publishing l'rouses." But author Zo€ Archer, rvhose fbur-part i'ristory presented in historical romance. "tslades of the Rose" series rvill begin publication with Kensington The Arnerican Cir-il \\hr remains a popular seftlng as l'ell, but the :-,rcusha-sshified from cletails about battles and gcnerals to rrrore in 2010. insists rhis pcrceir-ed gender shift has to do rvidr reader conclitioninq.She sars,'A male readerdoesn'tlearn the samekind ol fexibiliw rvith his identilication process, since l-risneeds ate met by



are cofldiri{)ned earit to ldcnnn onirprorasoilsts, withrrhire or F-uropean so drat, s'hen a protagonistof co.lor is represented, ther. might feel a sense drsconnect." of of This nerverst1.le historical 6ction, one aimed at a f-emale:rudrcncc,is no lcss accurate.After all. I tdte histodcal ronance. t-hich is geared rcn- much to\\ ard the female reader, and I pride mr-self on tire ebilin to b[errd accuracv lnd narrlt.ir-e. Accuracr. n{) mattet the storJ-, remains tbe bedrock oi historical
fiction. Christine Ttenq author of dre f<>tthcoming 'I-/:t OneenJ Dollwcker. said, "I think what is so attractivc about historic:rl lictron tbr readers is that it rs escapism taken to the next level. Not onlv can l-ou forqet abr>ut the pressures of the rr',rrid around rou f<rt a q'htle, \-ou can completeh- lear-e r-our o\-n time period. Thai atmosphere is important iirr qetring the reaclcr transportecl backxzrd in thc tlrst fespages.",-\ thirst tbr demrl and transportrl-c accurac\- fuels rl.rcgcnre. Respecteil scholars -"uch zrsAlison \\'eir. rrl-ro made irer fictional debut in 2001 ttith Itruoctnt' Tnilor: ,1 Xolz/ oi Lrrdl .lanc Gtz.;', sr-rcccssfulh: venfure into the t'orld of imagination 'ancl clialngue becausc their academic credentials give them the clout tho'nced markeqplace. Readers of historica] ficdon to compcte in the expect good storJtellirrg,

in usr.raisertinqs - sucir ;rs $-ere$-oir-es 19-1-lGeimanr.. rir ar'l alternrlts \rictonan era as presenred in her l'.rxlk -\larder c:.-,\[t4qirk; - insists that rh.isconnection ro the modern dar'.is essendal to good historical fiction, no matter the setf,rg 'i\i.y ston' thath u,ell researched, tightlv plotted, and sonrehol incorporates todal''s probiems $Tithout

sacrificing historical accurac,v is a glood stotl'." Thus, although I beqan rr'riting this article rvith the certainry 1u'oulcl be ablc to identit\' a dcmarcarion bcnveen n''hat consritutes the usu^l ancl the unusual in historical trction. rhat has not happened. Instead, I discotered that despite perceir-ed - ancl. on occasion, actual - readers' prefcrences lbr particr-rlar eras and locale s. the genrc itseli is alive with difierence and the espectation drat bourrdaries can and n-ill be pushed. Ser-elal rcspondents trrenuoned r\'Iichelle }Ioran'.s Nellrrtil as a prime e rarnple r:f horv assumed para,ligms can shift ruth the success of a single book. All readets ash for .in r{:turfl is an unparalle}ed devot-ion to accuracv becausc, much like the cxpectation of a happy ending .in romance or a q'ho-done-it solvecl nt the conclusion of a mvst€tv. ilstorical fiction requires no other characterisdc.

N otes tml t h np :, . txl:publisherss'eekh'.com ;' rrtic le':C.1,6 -i.1396-l-lt 2 lrrtp:,',, 6lcs7'onlineadrertising.pdt-. blog.s-ired.comT'business/ 3 lrtrp:1;'n-ns',nrtirncs.ctim/199i /03/1 ,/brst1'tess,,'somen-bu\-fiction-inbulk -and-publshets-takc-notice.irtrnl?sec= & spon= &pagc$?fi ted=all. 4. [rnp: / / u'wsrmsnbc.msn.com / 1d/ 203816] 8/ / 5 htqr:,//smrrrthestarphoenix-com/opinion/op-ed/Bodicc+rippets*enio *Publishcr/ 1448868/ storr--htnrl vinq* rccession'1-busting*salcs

ves, but u'ith the highest possible degree o[ rescarch precision. Hos'er-er-, the deliberate dccrsion to \\-rite zrltcrnate historics or to infuse hisrrxical Iiction s'ith paranormal clenrents is a leqitimate pursuit - to r point For c\irmple, an alternntc histort that postulates r-icron- fbr the Confederarc Stares of America u'ould still require accul?cv ri.ith regar.d to armanrents, unifcrrnrs, armr protocol, and troop molernerlts, po[tical dccisions, and other events preceding the break u.ith kr'rorvn historl,. ()r, rvith tegard to paranormal elctnents, the historical customs, dress, rnechanizations, and technolagy r.vould need to be accutate except for an author's intentional "hveaks." One example of this is T'fu Dark Qreen by Susan Carroll, in rvhicir arts. Thc s,-rrrld of 16*^cenrul' Catherinc cle \ledici is portrn'ed as an acnral proficient in the dark Florence rs rneticulou-.ll recre:tted, aod the facts ot the time ate not negatecl ot made ant'less tmPortant bl the inclusicin of nragical elL'tncnts.Readers cnn get on board t'ith one or t\\i.) dcliberate alterarions - that susperrsion of disbelief - as long as thct''rc not asked to forgive sloppt tescarch loo. Some arithors find their idcas best expressed w-ith die addition of a litde alternatir,-e history but others are keen ro tlemonstrare parallels to modern-claY e\reflts, socinl changes, and poiicv decisir>ns. While Tudor England and the Civil \{ar are prime csamples of thc historical Fction mirinstream, the process of demonsttating these parellels can be easicr s'hen s'orking in lcsscr-knos-n settinqs Broos Carnpbell. rr.hose]Iattv Grar-es serics is sct in the Caribbe:rn in 1800. purpose iulh in Iocated rhe st<>ries that era to drarv polirical parallels. "I chose that time and place borh becalrsc it u'as obscure and because American tbreign pol.icl seems to har.e rernarned remarkabh'consisteut bctrr'een

n'itl: a tJusi.rou Old CtiriiL l-rt'1lt enfikti l.nr /)/d!t(r'.; de.gvtia Ltislrtt-i L['i'.tlrtriltn't tnd il-,t iatPortunrcaj legurdto po-;i-[ie|lm rrtvt4'. \\hat a Scoundrel \\hnts. /.rr,!trLl,adr,enturotr.t ol'Il:'ili -l*trll and ltis tah rlau.qrtna;h$ lot e. yte d Dt'ceniter 2008 Zabra DelnL md Scoundrel's a Cd.rti/irtil nnrit,r nrtnk 'tild an apiun mldid, n,'i//Jal/ott in otn n I anti ary 2 A | 0. 5 tr cari ilrtJ\- co f u usuaI lt i $ on ta k. bk2qsp rt tt. Iiss..liatutittg



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