Historical fiction is a small but growing genre and represents one of the most important ways modern audiences connect with history. David Von Drohle wrote an excellent biography of Lincoln that was purchased by over 2 million readers. Spielberg’s Lincoln grossed over 275 million dollars and was viewed by audiences all around the world. Oscar Schindler helped saved over a 1,000 Jews from the Holocaust but lived in obscurity for most of the 20th century. Not until he became the subject of an Oscar-winning film did he become a household name. Gettysburg has inspired countless academic texts but one of the most popular books ever written on the subject remains Shaara’s Killer Angels. All this begs the question: why?
After all, it’s not like historical fiction authors hold up their writing as the authoritative take on a subject. Flip to the back of any historical novel and you will almost always find some sort of note from the author that mentions the pains they went through to create an accurate story, followed by some sort of addendum regarding the creative licenses they employed. Authors like Hillary Mantel and James Alexander Thom are known for the exhaustive research they incorporate into their stories so it’s worth noting they don’t often turn to other historical novels when conducting research. Instead, they consult primary sources and secondary sources, even traveling to historic locations when possible.
There’s probably a myriad of reasons readers are quicker to pick up a historical novel than a history textbook but one reason stands out: historical fiction is fun. Plenty has been written about Lee and Longstreet but getting to imagine their mental state in the midst of battle or how they might have conversed in private brings them to life in a way that an academic biography cannot. A historical novel should never be used as the be-all-end-all take on a specific era or event, but it has undeniable value when it comes to nurturing an interest in history. After all, emotion is an important part of how we remember events and historical fiction is nothing if not an exploration of the emotions and actions of people from previous centuries.
Works like Gone With the Wind and Braveheart have given historical fiction a bad name when it comes to accuracy, but it’s difficult to argue that modern authors like Andrew Rowen don’t place a premium on research. Historical fiction does not lack for detractors and critics, but fans and authors have done a great job of elevating this genre to new heights. I hope the genre continues to grow and the plethora of great works in historical fiction should be a comfort to anyone interested in studying the past.