Why I Stopped Liking Historical Fiction…and 6 Types of UNCONVENTIONAL Historical Fiction I DO Like

September 20, 2018 Discussions 19

Unconventional Historical Fiction


I used to LOVE historical fiction. In fact, just a few years ago, it was one of my favorite genres. But, things have changed over the past couple years. For the past three years, historical fiction as a percentage of my overall reading has decreased every single year (2015: 12%, 2016: 10%, 2017: 5%). And, so far this year, I’ve read only 4 historical fiction novels. I think I’ve gotten bored with historical fiction…and started to view the genre as perfect for my mother’s generation, but not edgy enough for me.

But, it’s not all bad news. I have really loved a few historical fiction novels lately…and they were all atypical of the genre. I’ve figured out that I can enjoy historical fiction these days as long as it’s unconventional historical fiction.

What does unconventional historical fiction mean for me? I’m going to try to unpack that here.

Explore Modern/Still Relevant Themes

Though these books are set in the past, the themes they explore are still top of mind and being discussed today. The examples of this type of historical fiction that I’ve loved explore women’s roles and identities, racism, and sexuality.

Successful Examples: 

Feature Strong Female Characters

I could also call this my badass lady category! And, these ladies’ courage and accomplishments are all the more astounding given they occurred during a time when women weren’t necessarily encouraged to attempt feats of greatness.

Successful Examples: 

Set During A Specific Event I’m Interested In

There are certain events I’m kind of a sucker for. The JFK assassination is one…especially if it involves conspiracy theories. Various disasters are another.

Successful Examples: 

Contain Simmering Tension

You can feel the tension, but it’s a quiet, simmering tension. You know something bad is going to happen, you’re just not sure what it will be or how it will go down.

Successful Examples: 

Based on Real People

There’s something about fiction being based on real people that makes it all the more compelling. While reading these types of books, I’m questioning what details are real every single second. And, I always look forward to the “Afterward” where the author generally outlines what’s true and where he/she took liberties for the sake of the story.

Successful Examples:

Have a Soap Opera Quality

Pure, unadulterated juiciness. 

Successful Examples:

How do you feel about historical fiction? What types of historical fiction work for you? Which types don’t?

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19 Responses to “Why I Stopped Liking Historical Fiction…and 6 Types of UNCONVENTIONAL Historical Fiction I DO Like”

  1. bermudaonion (Kathy)

    I’ve never read much historical fiction for pretty much the same reason. I do enjoy some set in the 20th century or later, though. It’s become an issue for me lately because it seems it’s all my book club wants to read any more.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I feel like historical fiction is extremely prevalent in book clubs! Maybe another reason I’m not in one?

  2. Susie | Novel Visits

    Wow! We are really on the same wave-length here. I’d actually been outlining a similar look at the differences between the historical fiction that works for me and that doesn’t. (I’ll put that on the back burner for a while now.) One of the things I’ve also noticed is I like historical fiction where I’m actually learning something about the time in history. Like in THIF I learned a lot about life in the very Catholic Ireland and in The Nightingale I learned a lot about the French resistance during WWII. But, if it’s just a book set in the past like The Summer Wives or Not Our Kind then it has to be a truly amazing story for me to like it. (They weren’t!) I see myself being much more careful with my historical fiction selections in the future. I love you list and completely agree!

    • Sarah Dickinson

      You should still publish it! It would be interesting to compare!

      And I wonder if we like lesser known time periods/settings for historical fiction? I definitely didn’t know anything about the Catholic Church and gay rights in Ireland before reading that book!

  3. Sarah Bryant

    So many good historical fictions I have read lately. I recommend Girl at War by Sara Novic, Half a Yellow Sun and also Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, All the Light You Cannot See and The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer.

    • Jan

      Sarah, I loved Girl at War. So well done and I learned new things! That book did not get the buzz it deserved.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I did love Girl at War when I read it a few years ago! However, I couldn’t make it through the sample of All the Light We Cannot See 🙁

  4. renee

    Historical fiction isn’t typically one of my favorite genres but many of my very favorite books are actually historical fiction so I guess I contradict myself:) I loved The Nightingale, Heart’s IF, A Hundred Summers and The Book Thief to name a few. From your list, I want to read The Rules of Magic and The Swans of Fifth Ave. I really like the sound of a soap opera!

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I feel like I contradict myself too! Maybe you’re on the unconventional train with me? You would love Swans!

  5. Beth F

    It depends on what you mean by “historical fiction” — do I like books set in the past? Yes. I’m not interested in only books set in the 21st century.

    Are there time periods I’m over? Yes. I have to have a recommendation from someone I really, really trust to read another WWII or Tudor court book.

    I’m probably your mother’s generation, so I guess I fill the bill. Of the novels I’m reviewing next week, one is set in the 500s, one in the 1870s, and one in the 1970s. Does that make me an historical fiction lover? The two nonfiction books: one set at the turn of the 20th century, the other in the late 20th century.

    Ooops … not a 21st century book to be found over the last 2 weeks.

  6. Jan

    Hmm, well I’m probably pretty close to your mother’s generation, haha!! But I agree with you. Like Susie I need to learn something new and I love it when a book sends me to the internet to find out more. Simply having a book set during a certain time period does nothing for me. It has to have compelling characters, feel real to me, and be very well-written. I also love a book with a strong sense of time and place with the proper period details.

    I really dislike a book that has a real person in history that imagines dialogue and thoughts/emotions. It irks me to no end. Give me a good non-fiction book on the character. I have no patience for making up stuff about a real person in history.

    I’ve read and enjoyed books on every one of your categories. Great list!

  7. Tina

    I agree with you about being over historical fiction for the most part. Although I don’t think I was ever into it that much. I was going to recommend Z to you if you haven’t read it already- loved learning about her.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I have a strange obsession with her! I think she’s fascinating and far more interesting than her husband!

  8. Kim@Time2Read

    I’m probably of you mother’s generation, and maybe it shows, but I LOVE good historical fiction. But my definition of historical fiction may differ from yours. I have to learn something from historical fiction, and it has to leave me wanting more, send me to the internet to explore, etc. Just being set in a particular point in history, to me, does not qualify a book as historical fiction. I refer to that as ‘period fiction’. Real historical fiction has to have at least some characters who were real people, be well-researched, and have author’s notes explaining where liberties were taken with the facts and why.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I like how you differentiate those types of books! And the Afterward is often my favorite part of historical fiction!

  9. Sarah R

    I’m reading Crossing to Safety now (which I see you read way back in 2013) and I was actually hoping for more of a historical fiction tone. I would have loved to see how my grandparents generation lived in college in the 30s and 40s. Unfortunately, the time period doesn’t really seem to have an effect on the book and is more character driven. To be honest, it’s a slog to get through. I’m not sure why so many love this book!

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I remember not liking it much when I read it. It was a book club pick back when I was in a book club!

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