Q&A – Historical Fiction Novels for Newbies
By Jillianne Hamilton
August 18, 2023

Wading into the waters of historical fiction for the first time can be intimidating. With so many sub-genres under the umbrella term of “historical fiction,” how do you know what you’ll enjoy? Thankfully there are lots of styles of historical fiction to choose from to match anyone’s tastes—as long as they like fiction and, presumably, don’t actively hate history.

If you’re enticing a young reader into the fold of historical fiction, there are lots of books for tweens and young adults. As a youngling, I devoured Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, the Royal Diaries series (assorted authors), and the Young Royals series by Carolyn Meyer. In fact, the Elizabeth: Red Rose of the House of Tudor book from the Royal Diaries series got me into English history in the first place. I reread it recently for a trip down memory lane.

Vanitha Sankaran, author of Watermark, encourages genre newbies not to assume historical fiction will be dry or daunting like some history can be.
“The thing I like to tell them is: don’t forget the fictional element! A book, any book—even historical fiction—has to have a story that excites readers. Sure, many of us histfic lovers nerd out over the details and minutiae of a well-researched era but the story still rules. For an easy entry into the world of histfic, I’d easily recommend books that explore popular art and music, works like Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Laurel Corona’s The Four Seasons. Seeing how history can enhance the appreciation and understanding of past times and endeavors opens up worlds of possibilities!”

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Blind Tribute and Royal Regard author Mari Anne Christie recommends anything by Alexandra Ripley, with perhaps one caveat.
“For the record, I did like Scarlett [Ripley’s sequel to Gone With the Wind], though the television miniseries was atrocious, and the book got mixed reviews. (It is the only one of her books still in print.)
“Her Civil War and post-Civil War duology, Charleston and On Leaving Charleston, are among my favorite books of all time. New Orleans Legacy and From Fields of Gold were the first books I read that I would classify as historical romance. She also covered the Medici in The Time Returns and the biblical era in A Love Divine, about Joseph of Arimathea. Alexandra Ripley is nearly single-handedly responsible for my love of historical fiction, especially romance.”

Linda Ulleseit, author of The River Remembers and The Aloha Spirit, encourages readers who are new to historical fiction to try something set in a time period familiar to them.
“A Young Adult historical novel is a great choice because it’s not as dense with battle and dynasty details as some adult historical fiction. For the Revolutionary War, I like Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes. For the Civil Rights era, I recommend The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. One book both my sixth graders and their parents enjoyed was Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko. It’s set in the 1930s.”

Alina Rubin, author of A Girl With a Knife and No Job for a Woman, fell in love with historical fiction when reading The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory.
“Every book in her Tudor series has been a treat.”

Archer’s Grace author Anne Beggs had a hard time picking just two or three historical fiction novels to recommend since there “are SO many fantabulous books!”
Shogun by James Clavell swept me into a world I knew nothing about, and one I didn’t think I would be interested in: 1600s Japan. English ‘Pilot’, John Blackthorn and some of his men are washed ashore in Japan. As a reader I learned some Japanese along with the protagonist. This saga has clashing cultures, religions, European hatreds brought to Asia, as well as a love story for the ages. History, language, sociology, and page-turning tension.

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel should still stand the test of time as a powerful book of Neanderthals and Cro Magnon—our ancient ancestors. A gripping tale of a foundling outcast and her will to survive, despite the mistrust of her clan. Ayla is driven to learn and explore beyond what was acceptable for women OR men. If you are going to read historical fiction, maybe start with prehistory. You will be ready for those survival shows, too.
Deacon King Kong by James McBride. I laughed and cried. Brooklyn Projects, USA, 20th century. Such poignant, deep characters. And plot twists. This book paints a touching story of racial tensions, love, and loyalty. Books like this reach the soul and illuminate history and sadly, the present. And the words, poetic passages, that I had to pull over, park the car and write down (yes, I was listening to this on Audible).
“These are books that have stuck with me and required more than one reading.”

Jonathan Posner, author of The Witchfinder’s Well series, believes recommending a starter novel depends on the reader and what they’re into.
“If they’re into the same genre as me – Tudor action/adventure – then they might want to start with the Kit Scarlett spy novels of Adele Jordan. Jordan’s Kit character was a street urchin, taken in and raised by the Elizabethan spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. Now a confident and talented young woman, Kit is sent out on a series of dangerous missions by Walsingham, all in the name of protecting the Queen from plots and assassins. Start with The Gentlewoman Spy.

But what if the reader is looking for, say, Victorian England and comedy? Then I would suggest the Flashman novels of George Macdonald Fraser. Racy, raunchy, historically very accurate, brilliantly written, and very, very funny, Harry Flashman’s ‘memoirs’ are a great read. Flashman (originally the bully in Tom Brown’s Schooldays) is an abject coward, liar, cheat, fornicator, and desperate cad – yet he always seems to win through in the end. Maybe a little politically incorrect (actually very politically incorrect – so be warned!), there are plenty of books to choose from, covering such momentous 19th-century events as the Afghan wars, the Indian Mutiny, the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the American slave trade. Start with Flashman.”

Judging Noa author Michal Strutin recommended a few novels as well, starting with Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.
“Her novel traces a Ghanaian family from the 1770s to today in jewel-like stories, all linked but each stands on its own: from Asante farming villages and coal mines in the South to Harlem’s beat. Through the lives of her richly imagined characters, Gyasi reveals a history of racism; yet the mood is not dark, but as full of energy as life.
“Set on South Korea’s Jeju Island, The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See engages us in a community of village women who make their livings deep-diving for abalone and other edible sea life. See creates a palpable, unforgettable world of undaunted women living through war and poverty. At the heart of See’s book is a friendship that is as many-leveled as love. I also learned something of Korean history. And See’s descriptions of Jeju Island are so vivid, I can close my eyes and see it still.
“Also, The Rose Code or any book by Kate Quinn.”

What novels would you recommend to a reader new to the genre?

Jillianne Hamilton

Written by Jillianne Hamilton

Jillianne writes delightful historical fiction featuring rebellious ladies and happy endings. Her debut novel was shortlisted for the 2016 PEI Book Award and Victorian historical fiction novel, The Spirited Mrs. Pringle, was longlisted for the 2022 Historical Fiction Company Book Award. Her WWII romance trilogy, Homefront Hearts, will be released by the end of 2023. Jill lives on Canada’s beautiful east coast.

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1 Comment

  1. Anne M Beggs

    So many fantabulous books to read! TY for sharing all these.


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