Historical fiction for beginners

Until fairly recently, I wouldn’t touch historical fiction with a bargepole. The covers looked boring and I imagined the stories inside to be boring too, not to mention rather heavy. I’ve read a lot of books set in World War II and a few set in World War I, but nothing set earlier than that.

I still love a thriller, psychological or otherwise, but there’s only so many stories about missing children or women abused by their husbands that you can read. So I’ve started mixing it up a bit. And, this year, historical fiction has become my favourite genre.

How did that happen?

It started with the Shardlake books by C J Sansom. They are detective stories, but set in the 16th century, during the reign of Henry VIII. It took me a long time to pluck up the courage to read my first Shardlake book. The cover was so boring! And so BROWN!

But when I started reading, I realised it was actually very similar to the modern day detective stories I read. But with some interesting historical detail. So not only was I reading an exciting story, I was also learning about things I didn’t know about before. And, while I appreciate that historical fiction is just that – fiction, it is always well researched with the main historical detail as accurate as it can be.

By the second and third Shardlake books, I was hooked. (Although I still haven’t read the full series.)

After I’d read a couple of Shardlakes, an old friend of mine said: ‘If you’re interested in the time of Thomas Cromwell, you should read Wolf Hall‘. Now I wasn’t interested in the time of Thomas Cromwell at all, I was just reading a detective story. But I took up the challenge anyway and read Wolf Hall. And it was brilliant! As were the second and third parts of the trilogy – Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror & the Light.

Now, I’ll be honest, The Wolf Hall trilogy is quite heavy and might not be to everyone’s tastes, if you’re just dipping your toe into historical fiction. But it did the job for me.

After Wolf Hall, I could handle any historical fiction. Although I did have The Doll Factory for nearly a year before I took the plunge because, again, I wasn’t keen on the cover. When I read it, I realised how silly I’d been to avoid it for so long.

I haven’t yet read anything before Henry VIII’s reign, but I’ve read books from Tudor times through to Victorian times. And I’ve discovered that, even though over 300 years separate the two reigns, there were a lot of similarities between Tudor times and Victorian times, particularly in terms of poverty and people’s living conditions.

This year, I’ve enjoyed the incredible Hamnet, based on the life of Shakespeare’s only son, The Foundling, an easy and enjoyable read, and The Smallest Man, loosely based another story based on a real historical figure.

Now I’ve had a taste of historical fiction, I’ve realised there is whole world of untapped reading out there for me. Historical fiction is a vast genre, encompassing detective stories, family dramas and love stories, as well as stories based on the lives of historical figures.

If you’ve always been nervous of historical fiction too, I would definitely recommend you give it a go!

Historical fiction, Historical fiction for beginners, Books, Reading,

Author: Sarah Mummy

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  1. So glad to be spreading the Wolf Hall love! Now, if only I could go see the play of The Mirror and the Light in the West End….

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    • Thanks very much! I’m very grateful that you pointed me in the direction of Wolf Hall. I think The Mirror and the Light in the West End would be rather a long shot for you! I still haven’t seen The Cursed Child and I do at least live in the right country to see it.

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  2. I’m enjoying the Shardlake series, I am on the sixth one now. I couldn’t get into Wolf Hall although my husband loved it. Hamnet is on my list though after I saw how much you liked it, someone else had recommended it to me as well. I’m going to check out The Smallest Man too and I look forward to hearing some more historical fiction recommendations from you as you get more into it.

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    • You’re ahead of me on the Shardlake series! I’ve read four and I’ve bought the fifth and sixth to read. I borrowed the first four and of course due to the pandemic I haven’t really seen the friend I borrow them from, which is why I stopped reading them!
      Wolf Hall definitely isn’t to everyone’s tastes. I think anyone who likes it really loves it though.
      It may be a while before any more historical fiction recommendations. I bought quite a few books with my birthday money and realised that nearly all of them were crime fiction/ thrillers!

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