The Past Is A Foreign Country: Why Historical Fiction Is Surging

The Past Is A Foreign Country: Why Historical Fiction Is Surging

A few short years ago, when the world was gripped by the throat by an ugly global recession, as opposed to just gripped by the goolies as we are now, fantasy fiction took off like a rocket. When times are bad, it seems, people want to go somewhere else in their heads, and that somewhere had vampires and shapeshifters, hellfire, sandals and swords, and, in the case of the Game of Thrones behemoth, an unholy amount of breasts.

When times are good, people like to read crime. Although we pretty much always like to read crime, it seems that nothing delights us more, when we’re spending our evenings rolling in money and pointing at poor people, than to read about dismembered women and the maverick cops who investigate their deaths.

I’m not sure anyone knows where we are at the moment. We seem to be in a state of suspended animation where everyone is very angry, but we’re not entirely sure at what. And I don’t know what it says about the human race as a whole, but the cultural result of this seems to have been a wholesale turn towards Historical Fiction.

I had a feeling, a couple of years ago, that Historical Fiction was due some sort of surge. But after a spate of consumption myself, I realised why. Historical Fiction is fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy or science fiction. The best way to suspend disbelief, and take a reader into another world entirely, is to haul them into the past. And then there’s the matter of pinpoint-accurate social commentary. Nothing can hold a mirror up to the present like a troubled past or a dystopian future.

The Past Is A Foreign Country: Why Historical Fiction Is Surging

And writers can get away with a multitude, when dipping into the past. Some of the best historical fiction novels are painstakingly researched and flawlessly executed: Wolf Hall, The Pillars Of The Earth and The Miniaturist come to mind. More aren’t. Loads of historical fiction novels have a tenuous foot in the realistic past, but are no failure for it.

L.P. Hartley said as a novel opener, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. And therein lies the beauty of the modern novel. A century ago, authors could get away with pages of intolerably boring description of places and journeys and buildings, because they had no visual media. Their readers had never seen Buenos Aires, or Kenya, or a large steamship, and were only dying to know all about them. But nowadays, we’ve seen everything. We watch travelogues from the Galapagos Islands, action movies set in the Antarctic, and space operas set in the black stuff. Where is left for fiction writers to explore, that readers cannot? The past: that’s where.

I’m a big fan of historical fiction. When I’m sad, or angry, or just plain bored, there is nothing better I like to do than to lose myself in a novel set during the Tudor excesses, the Napoleonic wars, or Victorian London. But I’m hungry for more, and I can’t wait to see what’s tearing up the bestseller lists in 2016. There will be 10,000 more World War I novels, sure. But in between, there will also be some gorgeous surprises set in times that nobody’s thinking about, which will go a long way toward explaining the state we’re in right now.

The Past Is A Foreign Country: Why Historical Fiction Is Surging

  83 comments for “The Past Is A Foreign Country: Why Historical Fiction Is Surging

  1. October 17, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    I’m still waiting for that novel set in 1523. So much of the past has been covered, but 1523 seems to have been overlooked.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. October 17, 2015 at 2:06 pm

    When I lived in Ireland I fell in love with the works of Barbara Taylor Bradford.

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 17, 2015 at 4:19 pm

      I hope that doesn’t signal a need to escape while living here, Ann!


  3. October 17, 2015 at 2:19 pm

    Reblogged this on Nothing Gilded, Nothing Gained–Writing Historical Fiction at Middlemay Farm and commented:
    Yeah! Historical fiction rocks!

    Liked by 2 people

    • October 17, 2015 at 4:20 pm

      Thanks for the re-blog, Adrienne. I did think this post might be a bit popular with historical fiction authors 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. October 17, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    I never thought of historical fiction as fantasy for the non-fantasy reader, but you’re so right. It does transport the reader out of “this” world. Great post…now I have to add it to my reading list 🙂 Hmm where to start?

    Liked by 2 people

    • October 17, 2015 at 4:21 pm

      Well, you could always start with the prehistoric stuff and work your way up, Diana. Although, if you were stuck for time, might be a good idea to go for the bestsellers first!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. October 17, 2015 at 5:42 pm

    What great news, since my forthcoming book is historical fiction! You just made my day, Tara. 😎

    Liked by 2 people

    • October 17, 2015 at 6:09 pm

      No bother atall, Kevin. I live to serve. Even if I am claiming credit for an opinion-disguised-as-news-piece. 😉


      • October 17, 2015 at 8:04 pm

        In fairness, no worse than the Guardian which just published the same article everyone has been writing about this “resurgence” in Irish fiction

        Of course like the other historical fiction author above, I am going Hurrah! at your article. You really nail it, especially the bit about the oblique commentary on the present.

        Liked by 1 person

        • October 17, 2015 at 9:36 pm

          I hadn’t read that article, Susan, but I have to say I’m a bit delighted at such an almighty spotlight being shone on Irish fiction! And I agree with them. I’ve long been very excited by a lot of those authors mentioned so lovingly in the Guardian.

          However, the historical fiction they mentioned is very different from the sort I’m talking about. I’ve read some of those male cardigan brigade’s mumblemoans set in Ireland the 30’s and 50’s and I wouldn’t even classify their work as historical fiction, to be honest. To me they are more like the thinly-disguised memoirs of a dying elite who think they’re above listening. That sort of fiction commentates on the present only in showing how disconnected they’ve become from it.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. annerallen
    October 17, 2015 at 6:00 pm

    What an insightful piece! There certainly is a surge in historical fiction. And there’s a positive epidemic of Jane Austen fanfic. I think when we read Hilary Mantel et al. we enjoy seeing how much worse things were in earlier times. But we read the Janeite stories to live in what seemed a simpler, safer time. Either way, we’re escaping from the “now”. which is way more complex and confusing.

    I haven’t enjoyed fantasy fiction since I graduated from Oz and Narnia, but I love to immerse myself in historical fiction. I think that may be because I imagine I’m learning important stuff, not just escaping–although of course that’s just what I’m doing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • October 17, 2015 at 6:17 pm

      I am the very same, Anne. It’s been a long while since I’ve been captivated by fantasy myself. The novels which most recently enslaved me, the ones I couldn’t put down and fought to get back to, the ones which took my mind off my troubles, have been historical. I love descriptions of historical food and clothing and domesticity, but I love reading about squalor in particular. It’s the nearest I’ll get to misery porn and it doesn’t make me feel dirty afterwards. At least that’s what I tell myself.


  7. October 17, 2015 at 7:37 pm

    Hey, Tara, since my stories are both historical and fantasy, I take it you’re foreshadowing my certain success in 2016 😉

    You know what? I think you’re right, fantasy allows people to go away, and historical fiction does the same for people who don’t like fantasy.
    But I also think fantasy allows us to see our world in a completely different way. Like in a deforming mirror, we are able to see things we don’t normally register, because we are too much accustomed to them. The deforming mirror gives us the possibility to notice those hidden things and in a way that isn’t scary.
    I’ve always thought this is the power of fantasy, the reason why people has always told fantasy stories to themselves.

    And history? As you said, history is another mirror. It gives us the image of a past problem that was solved. In a way, even when it is shocking and hard to read, historical fiction is also reassuring, because we were there and we made it through it.

    Is this the reson why historica fiction is popular now? I don’t know. I do think that because we are surrounded by so many uncertainies, we feel the nee dto find some certainty in our past, in who we are. Historical fiction is history and story at the same time, maybe that’s the secret.

    So, now, regarding my certain success… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 17, 2015 at 9:40 pm

      I think we’re saying much the same thing, Sarah! I’m glad it bodes well for your exciting endeavours in 2016 and beyond. The very best of luck!


  8. October 17, 2015 at 10:44 pm

    I think there may be another factor in play. Call me old, and prone to future-shock, but it seems difficult to write a story set in the present, because the present won’t hold still! The phone I have today is very different from the one I had three years ago. WiFi. Bluetooth. GPS. Music playlists, email and Twitter. If it takes several years to bring a book to print the traditional way, this poses a problem. An author in my critique group is writing a MG SF novel in which the hero carries a smart phone, circa 2015. Will this wash in two to five years, when it hits the shelves? Will there be shelves?

    How does the MC pay for her latte/chai tea/hemp smoothie? Cash? Debit card? ID Jewelry or fingerprint? These things are changing fast. It’s easier to set a novel in a time when things were more stable. There’s a chance that the readers may be turned off if the hero drives a gasoline powered car (or, heaven forfend, a diesel) when they should be driving a hybrid or electric. With collision avoidance and auto-braking. Perhaps, and I hope this isn’t widely the case, some readers are tiring of the pace of change, and feel nostalgia for a day when technology was more fixed.

    Me, I’ll take the future, and wing it!

    Liked by 3 people

    • October 17, 2015 at 11:06 pm

      I know what you mean, Timothy, but this is about what readers are buying, as opposed to what writers are writing. The growing popularity of historical fiction is a trend we’re seeing in the titles hitting the bestseller lists now. I can see the dilemmas inherent in writing fantasy or sci-fi, but as I say above, this is about readers who won’t ever read fantasy or sci-fi often being quite comfortable with historical fiction – it’s a very different genre with entirely different rules!


  9. October 18, 2015 at 9:35 am

    Ah, there we go, I should have known the reason I was reaching into so much historical fiction was purely because I’m such a sheep (seriously, I end up following trends I didn’t know existed-thought I knew this one was circulating)! Just finished A Memory of Violets by Hazel Gaynor, and have had two Kate Morton books burning a hole in my shelf for ages. There is so much good historical fiction out there and it’s much easier to find than contemporary women’s fiction. As a writer too, I think the pull of reading it is just the awe that comes from knowing that someone researched something enough to be able to pull you into the specifics of a specific era and put you in the main character’s shoes (or bare feet depending on what you’re reading). It’s a genre I’d kill to be able to write!

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 18, 2015 at 1:49 pm

      It is a really great genre, isn’t it? Perhaps the feeling that it’s such a mammoth task makes the end products so considered and rich. Who knows? All I know is I love it. You’ve a great shelf stacked up there. Hazel’s book is just gorgeous. Victorian squalor all over it – my favourite!! And I’ve read most of Kate Morton’s, I think. There was one which didn’t really do it for me but I loved all the others.

      Liked by 1 person

      • October 18, 2015 at 5:17 pm

        Could it be the new one? I’ve heard some very mixed reviews about it. I read Mr Shaw’s notes at the end of Memory and it blew me away, because there’s an example of historian fiction with historian FACT added to back it all up.

        Liked by 1 person

        • October 18, 2015 at 5:21 pm

          By the by did I add that a pre-req is that historical fiction must be read in paperback? Those books are just too darn pretty for e-book! There’s a graph for you: e-book vs paperback by genre … or has that been done?

          Liked by 1 person

        • October 18, 2015 at 6:00 pm

          I think the Morton which disappointed me was her last but one. Her latest I haven’t read. But that one – can’t even remember the name, it’s like I blocked it out – just lost me, I couldn’t get into it at all, it was very jumpy back and forth and sideways and fecking who knows where. The flashback mechanism just frustrated me. As for Hazel’s book – what a cracking idea for a book to even start with. Poor flower sellers in London! Genius. And she did it so well. I’m not normally into a sentimental type of historical fiction but she just has this knack of making it flow rather than jar, even to a cynical old crone like me.


  10. October 18, 2015 at 12:30 pm

    It is really interesting to watch how big consumer product companies advertise in the economic cycle. When all is good and people are upbeat, it tends to be self and future focussed. When things are crappy, the Coca-Colas of this world drag out the old ads and evoke fuzzy memories of better times and re-attach those to their brands. We fall for it every time. Now, time for a Coke and a smile….

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 18, 2015 at 1:37 pm

      See? Now that an industry guru agrees with my hypothesis, I’ll be insufferable. If I had a suspicion I might be right before, now I can never be wrong. My family and friends are shaking their heads at you in abject sorrow.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. October 18, 2015 at 12:31 pm

    BTW. We need to get a table for six (your lot and me and Lucy) for Thursday. We will be doing something to go more towards the speakeasy theme. Like you suggested elsewhere, I would not look great in one of those things.

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 18, 2015 at 1:40 pm

      I heard somewhere that it was theatre-style seating, Conor, and heard somewhere else that another blogger had been invited to a sponsor’s “table” – I don’t think anyone knows what’s happening! Definitely have to get a table for 6 if they’re available though. I wasn’t lying about going straight from work but I will be making a nod towards the speakeasy theme myself without going full spangles and headbands. I can tell you now that His Beardiness will not be dressing up. Period!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • October 18, 2015 at 1:56 pm

        He can go as a speakeasy doorman. Theatre style would not suit eating. We need to eat. There are a couple of areas in the Tivoli. I suspect there will be tables. There had better be tables.

        Liked by 1 person

        • October 18, 2015 at 2:05 pm

          Agreed. We’ll do a recce the minute we’re in and go in pincer formation to find tables. Just as long as we’re prepared to pay for the food, too – did you spot that, by the way? ‘Street-style food from a number of vendors‘ doesn’t bode well for the pocket.

          Liked by 1 person

  12. Todd Duffey Writes on Things
    October 18, 2015 at 4:35 pm

    I truly appreciate this article – and I would like to add that there are very REAL moments in history which have been glossed over, or rewritten or forgotten altogether. And dismal though it may seem, from time to time, the juggernaut that is film making makes an attempt to remind us of these obscure moments through reenactments (incorrect as they may be for entertainment’s sake) of these stories. Here’s to unearthing the gems we’ve already seen in past times!


    • October 18, 2015 at 11:05 pm

      I suppose the point of historical fiction, though, is that it’s fiction. It doesn’t have to be true to life. I know what you mean but this post is very much focused on books! Film is a very different animal, as it tends in a macro sense to take a far more economical approach to the truth.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Todd Duffey Writes on Things
        October 19, 2015 at 5:36 pm

        Aha! You are correct. And that makes all the difference! Thank you!


  13. October 18, 2015 at 4:50 pm

    Shared this on my Facebook Page and on Twitter. Definitely explains why I love to write (and read) historical fiction. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  14. October 18, 2015 at 9:14 pm

    All this trend has done is to convince me that I like the past no better than the doomed future. Wolf Hall was stunning, but every time I reach out for Bring up the Bodies, my hand does a volte face as I think of better ways to spend my life than among the cruelties of Tudor life. For our reading group we read a book in a series by a very popular historical fiction author… I still gag when I remember trudging through this crude, salacious nonsense. Having said that, I will confess that I still read Georgette Heyer to go to sleep; you get excellent research, a lighthearted plot, a lot of laughs and no bad dreams.

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 18, 2015 at 10:56 pm

      Haha! As bleak an outlook as my own, Hilary. We’ll have to stop supping from the same stew. But I suppose historical fiction is one of those categories that could be split in 20 different ways. Some we like, some we don’t. Some is comforting, some should be classified as horror. Or musical comedy. I can’t take that sort at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Ali Isaac
    October 19, 2015 at 12:04 pm

    I have always loved historical fiction and fantasy, and always felt they overlapped, so your post is no surprise to me. I’ve yet to write one though, although a series based on the early High Kings of Ireland (not the band) has long been playing in my mind. I’d best get a mve on, before the fickle buying public move on to literary fiction or some such… like that’s ever gonna happen lol!

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 19, 2015 at 2:52 pm

      I reckon there’s fashion in books as much as clothing. Look at all the noir at the moment, along with historical; misery memoirs were huge in the boom, but not at all now. I’d love to do some sort of economic study in relation to book trends – like the skirt or hemline theory first posited a century ago (boom times/bull markets = miniskirts, recession/bear markets = maxi skirts!)

      Oooh! I think I just talked myself into another post about this.

      While we’re at it, you should totally write a book about the High Kings – the band. It’d be a hoot!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ali Isaac
        October 20, 2015 at 9:36 am

        You should defo write a post about that, Tara! Would make for fascinating reading! Although after what I just saw on Saturday night, we must be mega-booming! Hot pants with arses hanging out and micro-micro-minis which gave away too much information were the uniform of the young, whatever their size, even though in Virginia they have to frequent the same pubs that that their mams and dads and grandads are hanging out in! Lol! And dont forget the shoes when you write your post; they all had ugly clumsy skyhigh platforms, and no matter how long and lovely the legs, if you cant walk in your clumsy skyhigh platforms, and lets face it who can?- well then its just not sexy! (Am I showing my age with this comment? Maybe just a little bit? A smidge?)

        Liked by 1 person

        • October 20, 2015 at 11:44 am

          A particle, maybe, Ali. A nano-particle. A nano-particle in a parallel universe, perhaps. That’s all. But I agree with you completely. Somebody needs to take teenagers aside and bate it into them that if they can’t walk in their shoes they look like complete idiots.

          Now, I’m not sure I’ll be taking Irish teenagers into account for my incredibly scientific and incontrovertible study (given their inability to accessorise bodies with clothing) but I believe a full inventory of Penney’s current collection will be in order…


          • Ali Isaac
            October 20, 2015 at 11:47 am

            Wow! Well that will take you a looooooooooong time! 😁

            Liked by 1 person

            • October 20, 2015 at 11:49 am

              True. But economically, I’m not going anywhere, it seems.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Ali Isaac
                October 20, 2015 at 11:51 am

                I think you need toask Tark amd Mara for some advice, in that case. Where are they these days? I fear something may have gone dreadfully wrong, as they seem to be keeping to themselves pretty much.

                Liked by 1 person

                • October 20, 2015 at 11:55 am

                  Yes. I confess they’ve been under house arrest during an extended period during which their creator made lots of sweeping generalisations about stuff. When last I heard, they were using child labour to manufacture their way out of their ivory tower with sheepskin and tweed accessories. Once the rams-horn hats are perfectly paired with Prince of Wales check space moccasins, they’ve promised me another post.

                  Liked by 1 person

                  • Ali Isaac
                    October 20, 2015 at 12:00 pm

                    I’ll look forward to that then. Poor things, they lead such a hard life.

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • October 20, 2015 at 12:01 pm

                      I know. And people feel sorry for politicians!

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Ali Isaac
                      October 20, 2015 at 12:44 pm

                      Haha! Not me, I dont! 😁

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • October 20, 2015 at 1:39 pm

                      No! You feel sorry for Tark and Mara, which is much worse! 😉


          • Ali Isaac
            October 20, 2015 at 11:49 am

            Besides, living in rural farmland, its perfectly acceptable to wear green wellies with every outfit. At least they can walk in those. I mean, what is their problem?


            • October 20, 2015 at 11:51 am

              I know. It’s just this thing where they’re trying to be different all the time. You know, by dressing the same as all their friends.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Ali Isaac
                October 20, 2015 at 11:52 am

                LMAO!!! Yes, so true! Hehe!

                Liked by 1 person

      • October 23, 2015 at 5:56 pm

        I would love to read that! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  16. October 20, 2015 at 8:43 am

    Tara, you have me all in a muddle now (not that that’s terribly unusual.) It’s just that I love escapism but I can’t stand historical fiction or fantasy. I might as well add my dislike of trying to read broken-English dialogue while I’m at it.
    But I think you’re more than right about patterns of reading and economic ups and downs.
    Looks like we need some crackingly good economics books pronto!

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 20, 2015 at 11:39 am

      No need to worry, Jean. I checked the constitution and there’s no requirement to like either fantasy or historical fiction, unless it’s about 1916, in which case if you don’t like it you get deported by an angry mob. Which would be escapism in a way, I suppose 🙂


      • October 20, 2015 at 4:51 pm

        I’m headed for deportation so or should I just head off now?

        Liked by 1 person

        • October 20, 2015 at 4:57 pm

          Oh, you should at least pack first, Jean. And take your time. I’m forming an anti-1916 Bore mob which will be descending on Leinster House quite shortly.


          • October 20, 2015 at 6:53 pm

            Problem is I’m starting to hear more and more about it and desperation has taken root. You’d better get a move on!

            Liked by 1 person

            • October 20, 2015 at 10:01 pm

              Oh, I’m on it. I have a limited window before I implode with 1916 fatigue.


  17. October 20, 2015 at 11:48 pm

    Reblogged this on theowlladyblog.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. October 23, 2015 at 5:52 pm

    What a wonderful post! It reminded me of a quote I read recently: “Crime novels are not about solving murders. They are about restoring order.”

    I wonder if that’s also true of historical fiction. Or, indeed, any fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 23, 2015 at 10:07 pm

      Great quote, Nicholas. I’m definitely going to be exploring genre trends a bit more. Who knows what’ll come into play once I get to post-apocalyptic romantic comedy?

      Liked by 1 person

  19. October 23, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    Totally agree, Tara. Historical fiction is the low tech person’s sci-fi.

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 23, 2015 at 10:12 pm

      It certainly hits all the right notes for me, Helen. Although I love sci-fi on film and TV, I’ve never got into the reading side of it. I must try.


  20. October 23, 2015 at 10:49 pm

    The difference for me is that while sci-fi (telly, film or written) intimidates me into keeping my distance, historical fiction (telly, film or written) fills me with such a deep sense of complacency that I don’t bother with it either. Whoops…

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 23, 2015 at 11:36 pm

      Oh, no. Neither sounds comfortable. Don’t let them beat you. Next thing you know, you’re trembling when noir starts shouting at you going down the street.


  21. October 24, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    On an unrelated note, why is it that saw this and immediately thought of you?

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 24, 2015 at 7:06 pm

      Let’s hope it’s not because you associate me with literary rejection, Nick. Because if it is, that €650k retainer I paid you is going to make me look rather silly.

      Liked by 1 person

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