On Historical Fiction & Guilty Pleasures

First off, I should say that I am a proud historian. I may also be a proud English teacher, a proud archaeologist, a proud editor, and a proud writer, but I am also a historian. Other than maybe “writer,” being a historian was the first professional label that I got, and one that I am still very fond of.

Of course, there are problems with being a historian. The main one, I think, is that it kind of warps how you see things. Not only are you supposed to look for cause and effect, you are supposed to analyze things.

And at some point, you find yourself knowing way too much about a certain topic.

For example, my thesis looked at the railroad during the 19th century and a little bit forward (1800-1920, though the actual dates I was looking at in-depth were 1880-1930). Now, when I watch anything about the railroad or America during that time period, I know how things actually went.

Basically, I find myself nitpicking and being annoyed about the historical inaccuracies.

Which is a problem in historical fiction, since it is, in fact, fiction. When you’re writing, you have to take certain liberties with your setting and world(personally, I write in alternative timelines or in fantasy, just because of that. Someday, I will write a Western, and it will be gloriously accurate and boring as beige). These changes are put in place to make the story stronger, and this can be done very well, appealing to even the most nitpicky of historians, or very badly.

There are some historical fiction authors and films that I love. Lauren Willig is a historian who has done mountains of research for each book and manages to capture the spirit of the people and the setting. She’s like Michael Crichton, only for history (and with some scandalous moments). To me, that is quite high praise, fyi.

Other great historical things I love include “Hell On Wheels,” which looks at the building of the transcontinental railroad. HBO also has some fairly wonderful (though violent and graphic) shows that are accurate (ish).

So there are the positive historical fiction works. However, as you may have guessed from the title, there are some historical fiction pieces that I like, in spite of myself. I think of these as guilty pleasure films or books. They’re not historically accurate and I know I should hate them on some level, but I just can’t help but love them.

Here are, in no particular order, six of my Historical Fiction Guilty Pleasures.

MY HISTORICAL FICTION GUILTY PLEASURES

1. I want to point out that I have a soft spot for Westerns, so they are all included in this list in one place. This is because some are accurate, some are not, and even though I have an in-depth knowledge of that particular time period, I have decided that Westerns are okay, regardless. I love most of them, television or movie, new or old, accurate or not, this is one genre of film or show that I’m almost always interested in watching. Westerns can be cheesy, but they are also, in my opinion, fantastic (though there are some that make me roll my eyes at times).

2.”Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”-This one is obvious, mostly because it makes no real attempt to be historically accurate. Right there in the title, it tells you everything that need to know about the movie. Abraham Lincoln becomes a vampire hunter. Also, I have to say it, slavery was not the main cause of the American Civil War. This film plays hard and loose with history, lifting the characters, costumes, and settings from history, but I’m 99.99% sure that “historical accuracy” was not something that crossed the mind of anyone involved in the making of this film. It’s ridiculous, cheesy, and quite wonderful.

3. The History Channel’s mini-series, “The Sons of Liberty”-This one should really offend me. It was produced by the History Channel, and that gives it a certain air of respectability that other productions on this list might not have. It gets the basic timeline correct, and Boston was the powderkeg that started the American Revolution, but Sam Adams was not as attractive as Ben Barnes. Sorry, man. There are quite a few historical details that got mucked up. The team justifies their changes to history in the “Making Of” special, but still, these changes are kind of a big deal. Really, this mini-series should be really annoying-Sam Adams is a ninja? What?-but it’s really just cotton candy for the brain. Just, if you study the American Revolution, be prepared to be annoyed.

4. The Books of Lori Wick-Specifically, I want to mention her “Kensington Chronicles” series and her “The Californians” series. Lori Wick’s biggest problem seems to be that she writes these gorgeous settings and costumes that are historically accurate, but then drops modern characters into the novels. Basically, you have these locations that prove that she did her research, but the characters. Oh, the characters. In “The Kensington Chronicles,” set in Victorian England, the characters act and talk in ways that is much more modern than Victorians. It kind of drives me nuts at times. All of her books are still delightful and the characters are still engaging, but they are not historically accurate, putting them on this list.

5. “A Knight’s Tale”-Look, I know. This one really shouldn’t even count, since it seems to be pretty self-aware. But, as a Medievalist (I wear many historical hats), I’m aware of the flaws here. I have heard enough people tell me how awful this movie is. Actually, there were quite a few liberties taken with the story, and most of the costumes were also not accurate. That’s why it’s on this list, really, because it falls into the trap of using historical settings and then not quite following through on the whole accuracy thing. There are things that, in any other movie, would cause me to hate it. In this movie, it doesn’t work like that. I love it anyway, I just remember that it’s not supposed to be taken seriously.

6. The Books of Gilbert Morris-Specifically, I’m talking about his “House of Winslow” series, forty books that follow a family from their arrival to America on the Mayflower to the end of World War Two. Like Ms. Wick, Morris seems to be more interested in the settings. Although he sometimes manages it, this series has a tendency to feel like modern characters have been put into different historical contexts and left to deal with things in the past. Some of his characters act like people in that time would, but most of them don’t and it can be very frustrating at times. It’s Christian fiction that is clearly more interested in the setting than in being historically accurate.

And there you have it, my Top Six Historical Fiction Guilty Pleasures. These are mostly things that are set in the eras that I like most, so now I’m curious, do you have a historical fiction guilty pleasure?

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