Mike Baron on Writing, Historical Fiction



I picked up Wolves of the Plains, Conn Iggulden’s first installment in his epic Genghis Kahn series, at a coffee shop in town. I spent the next year reading all six books and those who saw me at cons found my nose in Iggulden. I’d read historical fiction before, notably Bernard Cornwell, George MacDonald Fraser, and James Michener. I enjoyed them all but Iggulden was something new—he writes with an immediacy and ferocity that leaves you breathless. His fiction is mostly about war—the combatants, tactics and strategies—and he writes with a close point of view that puts you in the scene. He effortlessly achieves the goal of all fiction writers, to erase the line between the reader and the story.

I have long been a fan of Robert Harris who has written four novels about Imperial Rome including Pompeii, Imperium, and Conspirata, the last two told from Cicero’s point of view, an excellent counterpoint to Iggulden’s massive Caesar series which I am also reading. The last Harris I read was An Officer and a Spy, perhaps the most complete and entertaining exegesis of the Dreyfus Affair. Harris’ books are not nearly as action-oriented as Iggulden’s, but they are just as gripping due to his skill as a storyteller. The book sent me to the encyclopedias, as they always do, and I found that Harris got every fact about the Dreyfus affair right down to the minor characters. He gets inside their heads and elucidates history from the inside — the sign of a master.

But writers of historic fiction are not always ept. Take the brilliant historian and essayist Victor Davis Hanson who has been chronicling the decline of our republic from his farm in California for decades. Hanson’s essays are brilliant. I ordered his novel The End of Sparta as soon as it was announced. I found it unreadable. Every page jammed with thousand-word paragraphs punctuated with one unpronounceable Greek name after another. He wrote like a pedant lectures, with a sort of numbing rhythm and repetitiveness that proved the antithesis of reader involvement. Professor Hansen does not understand the importance of the narrative voice. I recommend his non-fiction books whole-heartedly.

We have all read some Michener. He’s inescapable. Michener had a squad of young researchers who helped him with his massive tomes. Michener is among the least painless methods of learning history because he is fun. Or rather, his stories are involving. While all his characters may not ring true, enough do to draw you in. No fiction can succeed without the reader’s emotional involvement in some of the characters and Michener understood that. But the sheer length and breadth of his work resulted in many characters getting short shrift. How could it be otherwise when he covered periods spanning millennia? Of all the Micheners I’ve read Mexico is my fave. It is the only Michener with a sense of humor.

I’m planning a historical novel.

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