Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What is Historical Fiction? Guest Post: JJ Toner


Today I'm pleased to welcome author JJ Toner. I met JJ through HFAC, Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative. It's a great place to visit if you enjoy all types of historical fiction. Historical fiction is a broad category encompassing fictionalized history, romance set in specific time periods, mysteries, suspense.

Today, JJ poses the question: What exactly is historical fiction? I know he'd love to hear from you, so please leave a comment.

What is Historical Fiction?

I have written 2 historical fiction books and I’m nearly finished editing a third, and yet I’m not at all sure how to define the genre. The book I’m reading at the moment, The Executioner’s Heir by Susanne Alleyn is firmly rooted in French history leading up to the Revolution. At the front of the book Ms Alleyn provides a list of characters, and only a few minor characters — a street urchin and some servants — are fictional; all the others are real historical figures. H/F = 80/20


On the other hand, Mary Louisa Locke’s mysteries set in late 19th century San Fransisco, are populated entirely by fictional characters. Her research of the period and the location are impeccable, of course, giving the reader a fully-rounded historical fiction experience. H/F = 40/60


Clearly, there is a difference between these two books. The first, I would call Fictionalized History, the second, perhaps Mysteries set in a Historical Context.

Phillipa Gregory’s books are all about real life people, kings and queens of history. Her books, though fiction, must be considered perilously close to pure history. I would class these books Fictionalized History. H/F = 90/10


My own book, The Black Orchestra, is set in Berlin during World War 2. I have followed the progress of the war from 1939-1942 with care, weaving the fictional story into the fabric of the historical record, and there are one or two historical characters included in the story, notably, Hans Oster and Reinhard Heydrich. I think the term Historical Fiction fits my book well. H/F = 45/55

Consider Fatherland by Robert Harris. In this book every minute detail of life in Nazi Germany has been meticulously researched, and yet the book is based on an alternative (fictional) version of history, where Germany has won the war. Still it qualifies as Historical Fiction in my view. H/F = 30/70

Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels are set firmly in and around Germany before, during and after the war. The books feature a number of historical characters and yet are fictional through and through. H/F = 25/75

Karen Perkins’ wonderful book, Thores-Cross contains two intertwined stories of the north of England, one a contemporary story, the other a haunting tale of social history from the 18th century. No real life characters are featured. Indisputably Historical Fiction, this one, with strong paranormal elements. H/F = 50/50


My new book, The Wings of the Eagle, is set in 1943 Germany, but I’m not confident that I could call it Historical Fiction. It’s more of an action adventure story with the Second World War as a backdrop. H/F = 10/90

Perhaps we should categorize Historical Fiction on a sliding scale (as above) depending on the historical content versus the fictional.


JJ Toner was discovered under a cabbage patch in Ireland with a pen in his hand. He finally started writing again in 1996, after half a lifetime of procrastination. Not that he was ever short of good excuses. For 35 years he worked with computers as a petroleum geophysicist, with medical and veterinarian scientists, accountants, engineers, and in a variety of industries, from health care through manufacturing to shipping. His work took him all over Europe and USA, and yet he somehow found the time to marry, built a home, father three kids, and get his golf handicap down to a respectable figure. A Maths graduate, he has been a full-time writer since 2007. He lives in Ireland with his wife and his youngest son. So far, JJ has self-published a book of short stories and three thrillers. The latest of these, The Black Orchestra, is set in Germany during the early years of the Second World War.

5 comments:

Rebecca Lochlann said...

That seems like a really good idea, JJ. It might put an end to all the discourse we see around the net: complaints from some that there's not enough history in the historical fiction they bought, and others unhappy about having too much history. Thumb's up!

Bev Myers said...

I admit to a preference for what J.J. describes as fiction set in a historical period--as long as the author has a good grasp of the mindset of the time. With a few exceptions, I'd rather read about ordinary people and their challenges rather than the famous names of history.

Suzanne Tyrpak said...

I'm with you, Bev. There's so much out there about rulers and famous people. I've always been interested in the daily lives of ordinary citizens--also the lives of women. Not much is mentioned about them, not even women who had a lot of power, like the Vestal Virgins, are barely documented.

Susanne Alleyn said...

It's a great idea to describe historical fiction with a simple indicator of proportion--how much fiction, and how much "true" history. (Though I think that the people who dislike "too much history" are actually complaining about the sort of over-researched hf that gives endless info dumps about the historical background--can't see why a reader would complain about the history in a novel simply because it featured real people and was scrupulously true to events.)

But I, like Bev and Suzanne, find the "fictionalized history" about footnote people--rather than history's superstars--to be much more interesting. People just love writing novels about kings and queens--partly, I suspect, because of the glamor, and also (for the serious researchers) because there is so much available documentation about them! (Honestly, what can possibly be said in a novel about Anne Boleyn or her famous daughter that hasn't been said a hundred times already?) For myself, though, I was always a lot less interested in the spoiled and shallow Marie-Antoinette than in the honorable, conflicted, conscience-stricken man who was ordered to cut her head off.

JJ Toner said...

Susanne: I meant to ask you, was it Sanson who invented the guillotine? JJ