The Allure of Historical Fiction

What draws readers to this popular genre?

The Allure of Historical Fiction

What do The Sisters Brothers” target=“_blank”>The Sisters Brothers, Wolf Hall” target=“_blank”>Wolf Hall have in common? All are relatively recent, award-nominated, bestselling novels. And all are historical fiction.

A recent survey sheds light on why readers choose historical fiction, citing “to bring the past to life,” “because it’s a great story,” and “to understand and learn without reading nonfiction” as their top three reasons.

When asked what factors underpin a favorite historical fiction book or author, readers responded with superb writing and the feeling of being immersed in time and place. They seek characters both heroic and human and a story that is authentic and educational. Most readers prefer stories about fictional characters set against a backdrop of great historical events, which might suggest a desire to see ourselves in that time and place.

Historical fiction has gone mainstream: Only 1.6% of over 2,400 survey participants said they almost never read historical fiction. Of those who read less than 25% historical fiction, a “great story” is the primary factor for choosing a book, which is consistent with subject matter being the driving factor for 90% of fiction choices.

Gender makes a difference, too. For example, men prefer stories with a military or adventure theme, while women look for an element of romance in their reading. Men enjoy ancient and medieval periods in higher proportions, while women have a strong preference for the 13th-16th centuries (followed by the 18th and 19th centuries).

What further insights can we glean from favorite authors? In September, I wrote about the 2012 top 10 historical fiction authors. That analysis tells us that favorite authors “rescue history from the past.” In addition to authenticity, they offer “sufficient drama, history, entertainment, and food for thought to keep the reader busy from beginning to end.”

Often these authors concentrate on a particular time period so readers know what to expect or create series such that readers can dig deep and bond with the characters. Favorite authors create the vicarious thrill of time travel.

What do you think? Does historical fiction appeal to you? Do you believe it has become mainstream? Why do you read (or not read) this genre?

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her debut novel, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.



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