This is my idea of what a historical novel should be – to take the reader to another time and another place – to so create the feeling of the historical era that for the reader it’s like time travel. I’m one of those writers who came late to reading romance (I admit, it was those over the top covers of the early days of romance).
However, I’ve always read historical novels and one of the hand outs from my Another Time, Another Place workshop I give a list of some of my favorite historical novels that as reader took me on that time travel journey. These are some of my old favorites, in no particular order.
Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield – as Classical Greece was one of my favorites eras to teach in my Western Civ classes, I really enjoyed this book. It recounts the battle of Thermopylae with a much more authentic feel than the movie The 300 (which was based on a graphic novel, and not history).
Another of my classical favorites is The Last of the Wine by Mary Renualt which is a coming of age in classical Greece during the Peloponnesian Wars. I actually did a paper on this novel for my graduate class comparing the novel with the primary and secondary sources for the time. The fact that Ms. Renault was a classical scholar came through loud and clear. And she wrote a compelling story.
For another classical story, again, nothing like the movie, try The Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault about the childhood of Alexander the Great..
I also recommend two novels written in the forties by Samuel Shellenbarger. Unfortunately, they read a little ‘old fashioned’ from today’s novels, but are still worthwhile. Prince of Foxes gives a glimpse of life in Renaissance Italy. I haven’t seen the 1949 movie with Tyrone Powers. The second is The Captain From Castile, the story of a young Spanish nobleman’s adventures in the New World
Several historical writers create a character or cast of characters and then take them through a series. Two of my favorite series are Bernard Cornwall Sharpe series and Dudley Pope’s Ramage series. Both are set in the same time frame. Try Sharpe’s Eagle (the first written) and march with the British army against Napoleon. Or go to sea and sail with the British navy with Dudley Pope’s Ramage and follow the adventures of Lieutenant the Lord Ramage.
And I hope if you like history, you’ve read Gone With The Wind and not just watched the movie. Of course when you have to condense a lengthy novel in to a movie that people can actually sit through, you have to lose a lot. Like one of Scarlett’s marriages.
If you liked Old Yeller about a boy and his dog, try another of Fred Gipson novels, Recollection Creek and see life through the eyes of a young boy in 1990s Texas.
One of my favorite series are the Williamsburg novels by Elsworth Thane, starting with Dawn’s Early Light. Again, the writing style can strike you as old fashioned, but it really is a romance. And then you can follow the family though the American Revolution and beyond.
My other favorite series are the Americana novels of Janice Holt Giles. Her first book is The Kentuckians, which so enchanted me as a teen, that when in my thirties I started to write, my first story took place in the Kentucky that Giles made real for me.
I wrote Kentucky Green in which my heroine was a young girl on the frontier during the time of The Kentuckians.
I later found out that Ms. Giles used a Master’s Thesis, The Life and Times of Benjamin Logan to give authentic background to her story. The main character in The Kentuckians is David Cooper and Ben Logan one of the minor characters. And of course, this story was also a romance, as David and Bethia have to find a way to be together against the background of the American Revolution in Kentucky frontier.
As a history teacher, I really enjoy and delight in novels that make the past come alive for the reader. After all, how can we know where we want to go if we don’t know where we’ve been? Have I mentioned any of your favorite historical novels? Do you have one to recommend?