Well-written and well-researched historical fiction gives the reader a two-fer: a good story and a history lesson that you may have slept through during school.
Recently, I’ve been living in the Tudor and Plantagenet eras courtesy of Philippa Gregory. I started with the Boleyn sisters books, made into movies that I haven’t seen but I hope do justice to the books and their subjects. I don’t know how it would be possible to make a bad movie out of the historical material itself and the treatment given the characters by Ms. Gregory.
Next I read the novels about the other characters in the Henry VIII saga: The Constant Princess tells of his
first wife, Katherine of Aragon. The Queen’s Fool tells of his childrens’ reigns, Edward, then Mary and ending with the ascension of Elizabeth. The Other Queen is about Mary Queen of Scots in the later years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. It is the only one that I kind of wanted to end. I knew what happened to her. She ended up “with ‘er ‘ead tucked underneath her arm”. With the interminable plotting and moving about the countryside, I found myself thinking “please somebody, chop her head off and be done with it.”
Then I moved to The White Queen and The Red Queen, books about the predecessors of the Tudors, the Plantagenets and the War of the Roses. There are two more books in this series, telling the stories of the mother of Edward IV’s Queen Elizabeth (The Lady of the Rivers) and the daughters of the Earl of Warwick (The Kingmaker’s Daughter).
History from women’s point of view
You’ll notice a similarity in topic here – these are stories told from the woman’s point of view. Even if you were the most dedicated history student, you may well have not been taught much about the queen consorts or dowager queens of England. Ms. Gregory will fill in those gaps for you as well as bringing to life the monarchs they married or mothered.
Dr. Gregory always appends a bibliography to her books. I read it thoroughly and make a list of the books I want to find. She also writes a note explaining what is historical fact and what is speculation or fiction. After finishing one of her novels, I always spend an evening googling the people and the era. She makes me want to know more about them. What I find matches pretty well with what I’ve read in her books.
A while ago, I listened to a CBC radio interview with a writer about his novel set in the American West (sorry, can’t find the details online). He said he doesn’t worry about historical accuracy because readers want a good story, not to learn about an era. So he just creates his own world. I guess that applies for some readers but not me.
If I’m going to invest my time reading an era-specific book, I want it to accurately tell me about that era. I also want to know where
it deviates from history. Philippa Gregory does that, as does Michael Jecks in his medieval England mysteries. I would think that if you are going to research and travel in order to get the flavour of a historical era and the people living in it, as the writer I heard interviewed said he does, you might as well present your fictional story in a historically accurate setting. As my father always said, if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.