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The Historical Novel on World Book Day

To celebrate World Book Day, our Librarian Stuart Ivinson takes a brief look at a literary genre close to his heart, the historical novel. 

A collection of books laid out on a table

Historical fiction is a vast and timeless genre; most fiction has some form of historical setting, from the very first epics like the Iliad to the many adventures of Richard Sharpe in the Napoleonic Wars. 

With such a huge topic to contend with, numerous attempts have been made to define what “Historical Fiction” actually is. The Historical Novel Society definition states that: 

“A novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described. Or written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events, and therefore approaches them only by research.” (https://historicalnovelsociety.org/guides/defining-the-genre-2/ 

It is also generally accepted that the historical setting in which the story takes place is an important a feature as the characters themselves, and the author should take care to develop and present a good interpretation of the time period. Some authors will involve their fictional characters (or fictionalised versions of real people) in actual historical events, whilst others use historical events as the backdrop to their stories, but their characters do not directly engage with them(https://www.goodreads.com/genres/historical-fiction)  

We can see then that it is important for the author to do their research and understand their chosen time period before setting pen to paper. This may all seem obvious, but with so many authors out there covering the entire span of human history, there is a very broad range of quality to pick though. I’ve read a few stinkers in my time.  

My own interest in historical fiction is – perhaps unsurprisingly – more tightly defined into ancient, medieval and military history fiction, and here I have an abundance of authors to choose from: Bernard Cornwell (Sharpe, The Last Kingdom), Robert Graves (I, Claudius), Ellis Peters (Brother Cadfael), C.J. Sansum (Matthew Shardlake), Simon Scarrow (Roman Legion series), to name but a few. 

Royal Armouries library

Getting History Right

Working where I do, getting the historical facts reasonably correct is important to my enjoyment of the story, and that the historical setting feels right. It’s not actually that hard – there are plenty of good history books these days, and places like the Royal Armouries where authors can go to get information on arms and armourso there’s really no excuse for bad research. Indeed, being a museum with a library, the Armouries is a great place to come to research your novel, and I am happy to say that in the past I and my curatorial colleagues have dealt with numerous authors seeking historical information and particulars on arms and armour. If it’s a book you go in to read, it’s a nice feeling to read a section and think, “That was me…”  

Some of our objects have also starred on the covers of works by some of my favourite authors: Simon Scarrow’s Revolution series about Wellington and Napoleon featured our swords in the cover designs, as did Tim Willock’s novel The Religion, set during the Siege of Malta in 1565.  

At its worst, it is nothing more than throw-away pulp-fiction, but at its best, the historical novel can be a gateway to our interest, inspiring us to want to learn more. It was actually reading the novels (or having them read to me by my mother) of Rosemary Sutcliffe (Eagle of the Ninth) and Henry Treece (Viking Saga) as a child that made me want to be a historian from a very young age. So that’s at least partially why I’m here now, doing this job. Talk about impact… 

A dispaly of a novel, a sword and nepolionic era het

So this World Book Day, why not grab a work of historical fiction? Sit back and travel in time, you might like it there and decide you want to learn more. If you’re a budding author of historical fiction, once the pandemic is over we’ll be open again, and happy to help with your research and questions. 

Happy reading! 

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