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Why Read Historical Novels? by Paul Dowswell

When I go into schools to talk about my books I’m sometimes asked “Why should we read historical fiction? What’s the point of it?”

I say:

a) Read it because it’s a cracking good story and entertaining – exactly the same reason you’d read any other novel.

b) Read it if you’re interested in history and want to get more of a feel for your subject or a specific era. The best historical fiction helps you understand the human significance of great events.

So today’s blog is about books which serve both those purposes brilliantly.

I’ve just written a novel about life in Stalin’s Russia, due out next year (Red Shadow). I make a special point of not reading fiction when I research and write my own books. It’s intimidating if the writer is especially good at their job, and you also end up feeling you might accidentally borrow ideas. But when I finished my book I dived straight into William Ryan’s The Bloody Meadow.

Ryan writes about a Moscow police detective, Korolev, rubbing up against the Russian underworld at the height of Stalin’s purges. This is a world of smoke and mirrors where friends and foes can be every bit as ruthless and evil as each other. Ryan conjures up this era with sensitivity and subtlety and leaves you in no doubt that Stalin’s Bolsheviks created one of the most oppressive societies on Earth. Here, a slip of the tongue could lead to 10 years in a hellish prison camp, or execution as an enemy of the people. Even when talking to those close to them Korolev and his colleagues have to be careful not to say anything that could lead them to be denounced as a class enemy:

Here’s a conversation about the attractions of Odessa with his assistant Slivka. She tells him:

‘From the air you can see what a well-planned city Odessa is.’

‘Our Soviet planners are the envy of the world,’ Korolev said automatically.

‘They are, although in this case the planning was done long before the Revolution.’

‘Of course,’ she added, her words coming out faster than previously, ‘Soviet power has transformed the city for the better, in every way.’

Travis Holland’s novel The Archivist’s Story is another magnificent read, set during the same era. The book puts you right at the heart of the nightmare absurd world of the NKVD and lets you feel the cold pit-of-stomach fear of a police clerical worker and former academic about to fall victim to Beria’s secret police thugs.

Historical Fiction can also introduce you to a world you didn’t even know you might be interested in. I read James Clavell’s Shogun in my teens, after finding it lying around in a student house. It’s easy to dismiss this kind of fiction as airport-bookshop-potboiler, but it introduced me to the beauty and cruelty of 16th Century Japan, and anyone who can keep their reader turning those pages in a book as thick as this has my whole-hearted respect and appreciation.

Robert Harris is another favourite historical fiction writer. He brings the Roman world alive in his gripping thriller Pompeii, which also allows the reader to learn about the importance of patronage in that society, and weaves in the most fascinating glimpses of their sophisticated technology.

Teen historical fiction does this just as well. If you want to know about what it was like to be a teenage girl in Viking Scandinavia, Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Bracelet of Bones will show you.

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Paul Dowswell’s author website: www.pauldowswell.co.uk

Paul Dowswel’s bio page

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I think your reasons are spot on. I’ve written both historical fiction and non-fiction history. The reason I usually choose fiction is because I want to delve more into human element of the story or if the idea I got for a story is fictional. Sometimes it’s a toss up, though. I once wrote a non-fiction book that I nearly wrote as fiction because I was having a hard time finding the primary sources I needed to write it as non-fiction.

    October 31, 2013
  2. Historical fiction is easily my favorite genre and, done right, it is both exciting and entertaining as well as educational. Robert Harris is a favorite of mine too. I loved his book Imperium, about Cicero. Colleen Mac Cullough, Sharon Kay Penman and Mary Reyolds are favorites of mine as well as some newer writers like David Blixt and Christopher Gortner. If you want one that’s really hilarious read Caesar’s Ambassador by Alex Johnston.
    The caveat is that not all of historical fiction is accurate historically. If you don’t question what you read you may end up believing that Gaius Tarentius Varro was Quintus Fabius Maximus’ Master of Horse, that Scipio Aemilianus was married to Claudia Pulchra, or that the Egyptians of the 13th century B.C. used gold coins.

    October 31, 2013
  3. Paul Dowswell #

    Hi both – thanks for your comments and suggestions… I try to keep as close as possible to the known facts but sometimes you err for the sake of clarity. I always have a little piece at the end of my books saying what’s proper history and what’s taking liberties!

    November 1, 2013

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