Readers aren’t drawn to historical novels simply because they’re historical. Someone who likes the Middle Ages, World War II, or Colonial America, may not be interested in a racial drama set in the American south in the 1940s. This makes for a smaller pool of potential readers than say romance, mystery, horror or suspense novels. So when historical novelists keep us reading a story set in an era we didn’t think would interest us, it’s special.
Those writers have done plenty of research, but their research disappears into the story like salt in a stew. While you can’t see it, you know when it’s missing. Sometimes, a writer is tempted to pour everything they have learned into their story. But like the salt in the stew, too much is as bad as too little.
Sprinkling phrases and dialect from a story’s era can also season the work, but one needs a light hand. Too much can overpower the story, making it difficult to read.
Stirring in details, such as period clothing, food preparation, and social interaction, also helps to transport us to the world of the author’s story, but care must be taken because the reader will know if the story has been bent just to use a cool detail the author learned from his research.
Instead of following trends and mimicking whatever books are hot right now, skilled historical novelists draw us in and keep us turning pages by writing about episodes in history that interest them. Their passion becomes infectious and we find ourselves pleasantly surprised to be enjoying a story and learning about life in some bygone era which we had previously avoided.
Here are a few gripping novels that have recently taken me happily through events and eras beyond my usual interests:
Jeff Shaara’s To The Last Man puts us in the trenches of World War I with soldiers whose progress is measured in yards not miles. He introduces us to Black Jack Pershing who refuses to let politics sway him from his mission to end the stalemate and win the war. And he allows us to fly with the skillful Manfred von Rictoffen, taking us beyond the legend of Germany’s Red Baron, the most feared and deadly pilot of the war.
Lizzie Page’s The War Nurses brings us to the battlefront with women whose exemplary courage and achievements become the foundation upon which all future battlefield nursing is built, forever changing women’s roles in times of war.
Soraya Lane’s The Girls of Pearl Harbor. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder existed long before we had a term for it. We hear of soldiers who have suffered PTSD, but we often forget about the nurses who lived through the sickening horrors of trying to save broken and mutilated men.
Through James Alexander Thom’s novel Follow the River, we journey a thousand miles with Mary Ingles, through hostile territory that no white man has ever seen. From the moment she is abducted and others in her settlement are massacred, Mary vows to remember landmarks knowing that someday, somehow there will come a time when they won’t be watching her and she will make her escape.
An historical novelist’s job is to write about historical eras and events in a way that makes the reader feel as though they were right there walking beside the characters on their journey.