Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Defining Historical Fiction: The Epics

One, there's a new layout on the blog--I was getting bored with the old one. So, tags first, then everything else as you scroll downwards. I think the page looks cleaner and I love the background image.

Now, a couple of posts ago, I mentioned that the project previously known as the romance novel was taking more of a historical fiction lite sort of direction. I'm trying to identify the differences between the different degrees of historical fiction for myself. Of course, all of them have to take place in the past, usually incorporating some sort of major historical event or perhaps even historical people as characters. Sometimes the characters take part in the historical events (wars, usually), sometimes the particular parameters of that time (religion, socioeconomic factors, culture) are integral to the storyline or the characters and sometimes the "real stuff" is merely background to a clever story.

The Epics
I think that "epic" can be highly subjective. But I suppose I really mean gigantic books like Gone With The Wind or The Pillars of the Earth or World Without End or An Infamous Army. All of these cover many decades. They all chronicle a time of war; in the case of World Without End, it also chronicles the Black Death. They have huge casts of characters, some real (King Stephen, Maude, Thomas Becket, Wellington). They all at least mention real people (Edward III, Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, Stonewall Jackson, Colonel DeLancey, Napoleon).

The scopes of these books are huge. All of them endeavor to show us the broad-range effects of a major historical period: The Anarchy, the Black Death, the American Civil War, the days leading up to Waterloo. They show us the effects of the time on every strata of society and through the broad sweep of the story, we can see how a war, for instance, or a pandemic springs us onto the next thing, the societal reaction. Yet, despite that, they manage to feel intimate with the characters' particular experiences.

Most epics, I find, are meticulously researched. They feel authentic when read. There's a gravitas to them because they often deal with weighty events and the tone is usually serious.

For me, An Infamous Army is a little lighter in tone than the other three I mentioned. There's a romance that's the focus of the book, but the battle of Waterloo is given a huge amount of space and there are characters that die during the battle sequences. Despite the lightness, it's still meticulously researched and long and the scope and detail is huge.

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