Late to the Historical Fiction Party: Six Ways to Get Started

Old drawing of Edinburgh
Category: Reading


I know what you may be thinking: a lot of dust-dry facts and endless dates. And you’re right, it can be like that. But (if you’ll pardon the cliché), in the hands of a skilled author, it can become so much more. History, woven into a fascinating story, populated by characters who are people, not just names in a textbook, is fascinating, filthy, vibrant, brutal, beautiful.

Now you might be thinking: OK, sure, but I’ve got a genre of choice and historical fiction isn’t it. I say: oh, but it is. Historical fiction is incredibly broad, and chances are even the most reluctant explorer of the past will find something to love here.

Ready to dip your toe into these historical waters?

If You Love: Thrillers

Read: Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Gillespie and I is a book that takes you by surprise. It starts off as the story of a prim Victorian spinster’s friendship with a Glaswegian artist and his family. While that might not sound terribly exciting, it manages to be a total page-turner, immersing the reader in the rich details of 1880s Glasgow, and the fraught relationship between the artist, the narrator, and the artist’s family. And then, about halfway through, the book becomes something quite different. Sinister, exciting, horrifying, and completely addictive: I dare you to put this one down.

If You Love: Romance

Read: The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory is the current undisputed queen of romantic fiction about real-life royalty. You could check out any of her books, but I really like this one for its depiction of a period that tends to be very male-centric (the Wars of the Roses), its sensitive portrayal of a woman sometimes vilified as a gold-digger, and its celebration of female power.

If You Love: Nature Writing

Read: Witch Light by Susan Fletcher

The story seems simple: a young woman, witness to the horrifying Glencoe Massacre, is thrown in prison on trumped-up charges of witchcraft and tells her life story to an initially sceptical clergyman. What elevates this novel are the extraordinary, gorgeous descriptions of the Scottish Highlands, in all their beauty and harshness. It’s nearly impossible to read this absorbing book without wanting to visit and see it all for yourself.

If You Love: Humour

Read: Lamb by Christopher Moore

Moore’s hilarious tale of the early years of Jesus Christ (as related by his lifelong best friend, Biff) may be irreverent and the speech highly anachronistic, but it’s peppered throughout with some interesting glimpses into the everyday lives of ancient Middle Easterners. Plus, it’s hysterically funny and touching in equal measure, which is tough to do.

If You Love: Crime and/or Mysteries

Read: A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters

This, the first instalment in the Brother Cadfael mysteries series set in 12th-century England, was named one of the top 100 crime novels of all time by the Crime Writers Association in the UK. It’s a fascinating read as we see the crusader-turned-Benedictine-monk become a sort of medieval Sherlock Holmes in order to solve a brutal murder, relying only on his wits and extensive knowledge of herbalism. It’s a great start to a series that went on to span more than 20 novels and a short story collection, following Cadfael through numerous bloody crimes and an even bloodier (and politically hazardous) civil war.

If You Love: Sci-Fi

Read: The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

Welcome to Victorian London, circa 1855, where the Industrial Revolution is well underway, but with a crucial, um, difference: it’s being driven by computers. This novel, part murder mystery, part thriller, all alternate history, helped establish the steampunk genre when it was published more than 20 years ago and remains a much-loved classic. It’s got all the hallmarks of Victoriana: flickering gaslight, men in top hats, but with intriguing twists that make it an absorbing read.

Are you already a fan of historical fiction? Which books would you recommend? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and check out our lists of books set in different time periods.

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