I love history and always have. I got that from my Dad, I suspect, or at least in part. As a kid, I read a lot of non-fiction history and many of those books belonged to my dad and many more came from our library. He was a big aficionado of the Civil War era. We had many a debate on battles and the politics of the time.
My love was the Revolutionary War era. I loved the contrast and similarities between European politics and structure and what was being created here in the 1700’s. The early battles for something different from what they left behind.
Then I discovered historical fiction (remember John Jakes?) where real history was the backdrop of the story and the fictional characters were woven into that history. It takes a true understanding of the era to weave those characters into existing history. Oh, how I loved reading those books. They were like doors into the everyday life of the time depicted. Rich on details of the politics, battles, and alliances and they weren’t short, quick reads, either. I loved that aspect.
Then I discovered romantic historicals. I was in heaven. There were plenty of battles and political machinations, danger and daring, heroes, spies, and a code of honor and all twined into the rich history of the time. They were long books—500 plus pages. They were great because they transported you to another time so well that who paid attention to the fact they weren’t a 300 page read? The authors needed that extra space to accurately create the world their characters played in. Epics and family sagas.
I think I devoured books like the Roselyn Chronicles, by Roberta Gellis (who was an historian and taught it). The Greatest Knight (and a host of others), by Elizabeth Chadwick, Skye O’Malley series, by Bertrice Small. The Thornbirds (as well as several others), by Colleen McCollough and quite a few other authors that all wrote fabulous stories that put you in the era they were writing. They all wrote stories that were over 500 pages long. Too long? I didn’t think so and still don’t. They were bestsellers and some were runaway best sellers. Marvelous stories that were like a mini vacation in a time machine.
From there I discovered other authors, who wrote books a bit shorter—about 400 pages but still told a great story. Still rich in everyday life, politics, and beliefs of the historical period but not quite as long. Jude Deverau’s Velvet trio. Catherine Coulter with Rosehaven, and other medieval stories that were over 400 pages, Julie Garwood with Honor’s Splendor and Lyon’s Lady—just a little shy of 400 pages. And then there were Michael and Kathleen Gear’s first North Americans series, Anne McCaffrey’s first dragon books of Pern (I still go to Pern for a vacation and ditto on the other authors listed).
I don’t like many of the historical romance that has been put out recently. They seem to have a good storyline but they don’t really give a flavor of the time they’re set in. They cut out all the rich history reducing the story to actors dressed in period clothes but little else spouting romantic nonsense. The story could be in any era and the only way you can tell is by the clothes they wear and the historical names they drop. There have been some notable exceptions: Grace Burrows, Julia Quinn, and Elizabeth Loupas. All of them write rich stories steeped in the mores, customs, and politics (which is such an integral part of history), of the era they write. Great storytellers!
I think there is a great deal of difference between books that use filler and those that skillfully use historical narrative and information and weave a good story within it. Somewhere along the way authors/publishers started thinking everything must be fast paced action or lose readers. I have news for them; they lose readers, or at least this reader, by condensing everything into a homogenous romantic storyline and slapping historical on it.
What are your thoughts on the past few years of short and fast?