Recently I noted an article in a prestigious publishing journal that says readers are looking for more fiction. I hope the article is right! To narrow this down, we can look to historical versus contemporary, since many authors write both.
To clarify, for the purposes of this blog, I am limiting my discussion to traditional CBA trade book fare of strong stories heavy on romance. I am not discussing speculative works or set genres such as mass market romance or romantic suspense.
More than once when discussing fiction with authors, they have mentioned that their readers often don’t follow them from historical to contemporary or from contemporary to historical. Often they simply read one or the other, but not both, even when they enjoy a particular author.
I think readers of historical fiction in particular are looking to escape to a time they believe was simpler. (Personally, I’d rather buy chicken already packaged, place it in a modern oven and serve it, than run after a hapless chicken in the barnyard, catch it, wring the poor thing’s neck, pluck it, dress it, and then cook it over the uneven heat of an open fire. But maybe that’s just me.) And yes, I know several of you will comment on how you slaughter and prepare your own chickens. So maybe it is just me. But I live inside the city limits, and they don’t allow us to raise chickens on our property. Yeah. That’s it. I’ll go with that. Anyhooo….
Back then, Christian values were expected to be upheld, at least in public. Most people professed to be Christians or to uphold another faith tradition. Readers don’t have to suspend disbelief much to go along with Christian characters upholding our values in times that often seem glamorous through the thick lens of many moons past. You know, women wearing silk and hoops and all.
Writers of contemporary Christian books face the challenge of showing characters living out our faith, often against what seems to be increasingly hostile public opinion. These writers must show realistic characters that don’t seem odd or silly in light of what today’s readers know is reality. Also, novelists often approach their work with the idea of speaking about a tough issue. A balance of addressing the issue without bringing the reader down is a challenge that is extraordinary to undertake and then to master. I believe readers of contemporary fiction may be looking to think more than to escape.
Neither reader wants to have her time wasted, to be preached at, or to be talked down to. Both readers want to feel uplifted, entertained, and that the time spent reading also glorified the Lord.
Where is my opinion spot on?
What points did I miss?
Do you read both contemporary and historical fiction?
Do you prefer historical or contemporary fiction? Why?
I’m one who raises my own chickens, so I laughed at the chicken comment. Contemporary stories tend to be set in a big city, or with characters who are so alien to how I live, that I find it hard to connect with them. So many focus on the wealthy, or those climbing the corporate ladder … people I have nothing in common with.
History, on the other hand, has fascinated me since I sat at my granddad’s knee and listened to his stories.
To challenge the stereotype a bit though — I have 3 roosters to do in later today (wish I was kidding, but when they are screeching at 3:00 am, I only wish it had been sooner), have a Bachelor’s degree in history (as well as English Lit.) and strongly dislike historical fiction.
Maybe it’s because of the degree in history? I don’t know. I write contemporary (without strong romance even) and like that challenge (well some days I moan about it, but I like it when I’m done).
Vive la difference.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Pegg, perhaps try looking for small town fiction such as the Mitford series. I’m sure our blog readers will have other suggestions, too.
My cousin used to raise chickens but found he got too attached to them because they have unique personalities. He wanted to keep them all as pets. He finally gave up on chickens and has decided to focus on produce instead.
I’m glad God made so many of us humans. Makes the world an interesting place to be! 🙂
Elizabeth Byler Younts
Interesting take on the differences. I agree with several areas…but I am with Pegg. I very much disagree that people read history more for escape…I find it the total opposite as an author and a reader. Historical readers typically love to learn and be stretched.
I think a lot of readers read to escape and a lot of readers read to be challenged. I think those readers in both camps will find their chosen “thinking” or “escapism” books/authors in the genre they prefer. There are books in all genres that will make your brain hurt from all the thinking (what I like) and some that are just for sweet entertainment.
Yes, some read for escape and some for thinking. However, the same reader can do both. We aren’t required to fit in either/or. I tend to like historical fiction because when done well, it causes me to see that people are the same no matter what era. And that Christian values are the same and can be lived out no matter what era. So, sometimes I want to escape and sometimes I want to think and sometimes I want to do both at the same time. Fun!!
thank you for making this distinction. I hadn’t thought about these differences. As a fan of When Calls The Heart, a Janette Oke inspired TV series set in 1910 (Hallmark Channel)— make that an admin of a 27,000 member fan group— I have heard a lot more discussion lately about why people crave simpler times, and I understand that craving. But I have never thought about what readers or audiences of historical vs contemporary are looking for. And this is important for me to know since I have published 2 contemporary inspirational romantic dramas and am about to launch a new book set in the 1950s. I would like to think my lovely reader fans will follow, even if the setting is at first different. Now that you mention it, I am in that group who like to think and see realistic people facing realistic challenges. Oddly, my 1950s era story places my characters up against more issue-related challenge (racial & gender inequality & social injustice, threat of communism, etc). than my more modern day stories. So this line of thinking helps me pull an important thread of continuity through all 3 of my books when discussing my work as a whole, which I’m about to do in some upcoming public events. Thank you so much for this post!
I write historicals, and I read a lot in the same era, but I also read contemporary, particularly by favorite authors. I enjoy the opportunity to see life in a different time through historicals, which helps me appreciate modern times.
I’m with you, Tamela. I don’t want to chase down a chicken!
Thought provoking. As students, we read history for years in school, but for most the pages are just facts. Historical fiction allows the reader to immerse themselves into the setting. A text book explains the logistics about the wagon trains crossing the plains, but historical fiction forces the reader to walk thousands of miles, smell the campfire smoke, and feel the adrenalin as the Indians gallop across the plains. It truly brings history to life.
My husband’s grandmother was a type of mail-order bride. She left Italy in 1923 to cross the continent and marry a stranger. Why would someone do that? I wrote my novel to understand the ‘why’? To have readers submerge themselves into a character to unravel the motivation and challenges behind historical choices.
I’ll pitch in, even though I may not be a typical person…to wit, at a job interview, I was once asked “how did you relate to other people at your previous job?”
“Through rifle optics” was apparently not the expected answer, but I did get the job.
I don’t like historical fiction, because it’s inevitably a stylization of history, emphasizing the aspects to which the author is drawn, and in the amount of detail given vis-a-vis clothing and manners, it’s often quite superficial.
What skews my outlook is that I have read, and continue to read a lot of historical nonfiction and memoir. Those seem to me the best way to ‘lose myself’ in an earlier time, because the voices are more authentic, or at least have a more valid provenance.
“Period” fiction is also valuable; that is, older books written as contemporary fiction at the time. If you want to have a good idea of wartime England, read Nevil Shute. If you want Kenya at the time of the Mau Mau, have a chat with Robert Ruark (though not after a meal).
I’ve written one historical (as yet unpublished) set during WW2; I won’t be lying if I said that it took a lifetime of research to get the ambience right. Aside from an extensive library, I spent years working on airplanes and firearms from that period, and have operated both (the firearms ‘for real’, in combat, and I’d much rather carry a Thompson than an MP-5, if anyone’s interested).
But even that historical is not made primarily to create a world; it was written to look at relationship issues, and…yes, I’m still a guy…romance.
No matter when it happens, under a tower of billowing sail or in some far-off spaceborne future, falling in love is still the biggest adventure in the world.
“Period fiction” – what a great descriptor! I often see people saying they like historical fiction by authors such as Jane Austen or Charles Dickens (or even Nevil Shute), forgetting the exact point you’ve made: those authors wrote contemporary fiction.
Period fiction. I’m going to remember that.
As an avid reader of both historical and contemporary, I think that all readers are wanting to escape to something simpler, and for me that simplicity comes in shutting out the world around me, grabbing a bowl of chocolate chips mixed with raisins and settling down in my comfy chair for a good read. Even though contemporary themes may seem more gritty, underneath all good books are the same—the protagonist has a conflict that they must solve and they face many obstacles to come to resolution. A Christian book that is well written, with enduring characters and noble virtues can be set in any locale or time. JMHO.
I admit I am not a fan of historical fiction. I like Biblical if it adds something unique but historical doesn’t resonate with me – doesn’t feel identifiable and I don’t want to be part of the past… a city girl myself, I like my food already dead if not already cooked (I rock reservations). I like contemporary because I identify with the problems and the goals they strive for, their circumstances and the insecurities they feel. I can cheer for them, cry with them and love with them.
I think you are spot on in your opinions. I think historical contains clearly identifiable Christian expectations. Contemporary can often feel preachy or contrived. Contrived turns me off but preachy even more. When I find a great story, I want to share it, especially with the non-believers in my life and I can’t share something preachy. I understand this may be the draw to historical for some…
But I love the noise – the messiness of life – and finding the beauty in that. My goal is to write contemporary fiction the believers and non-believers would both read and see Jesus’ love and grace.
I stick with contemporaries unless the story is written by one of my favorite authors. I like the pace of contemporary novels and seeing how the characters deal with challenges we face daily.
I read both but prefer historical, as it focuses on a time period, place, or event with which I’m unfamiliar. I like learning about history though the author’s eyes.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
I write historical, and maybe someday will write contemporary.
I read both and enjoy both.
I don’t think any time prior to the invention of antibiotics and CT scans was simpler. Less hassle maybe, but it was a much harder life, especially for women.
I know for me personally, I’d never leave this time period!! None of my 4 children would have survived either birth, or their first 2 weeks of life.
I like reading about characters who endure hardship and eventually triumph through God’s grace, whether that’s in 1868, or 2015.
Time period and genre are not the main driving factors in what I select to read. I like both contemporary and historical equally well. Although I like to take novella romance collections on camping trips for escapist relaxation (and they are great for that), at home I prefer stories where the romance is part of a plot driven by other conflicts. That means the books I prefer might be classed either as historical (Tracy Higley, for example) or historical romance. They might have assigned back-cover labels that could be either “contemporary” (Karen Ball’s What Lies Within, which could easily have carried the romance label) or “romance” (Colleen Coble’s Black Sands, where the main conflict isn’t the romance and the heroine is a female scientist –I so resonate!).
I read the back cover to see if an unfamiliar author’s book intrigues me. Once I find an author I really like, I don’t care what the genre is. As far as what I’m writing at the moment, I’ve chosen a historical time period where the decision to follow Jesus can get you killed, and wrestling with that decision is interwoven with the romantic plot developments. That could be a contemporary story if set in the right country. I have a plot outlined for a scientific thriller with the male protagonist being a renowned scientist, a strong Christian, and the romantic target of two of the main females. It may be a challenge to select the best back-cover category for marketing that one.
Call me overly-sensitive, but I tend to bristle at the world “escape” when applied to one genre or another. I believe all reading is escape, but when it’s pointed at a single genre, I feel like it demeans the readers. It’s sounds like someone saying, “I read to better myself, but you just read to escape.” I may be misinterpreting it, but that’s how it always feels.
I write historical fiction, and as Hebrews 13:8 says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” That idea fascinates me. He’s been real and active in all generations, just as he’s moving in my life today. So when I write (and read) historical fiction, I’m drawn to characters who are struggling with serious, real-life issues. I also enjoy learning how they deal with these problems in the face of their culture and times.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Karen, no need to bristle, since I’d be “insulting” myself. Sometimes I read to escape. I used to write both historical and contemporary fiction, and I would escape into my characters’ problems, too.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my life. But when I was a teenager, I would read to imagine what it would be like not have to worry about the next day’s Algebra test. And now it’s fun not to think about the pile of laundry I must do. Speaking of which, that load of jeans beckons….
Sandy Faye Mauck
So contemptible or hysterical? Oh, sorry…
I agree with Karen’s bristle but I would say that we often read to escape or relax and enjoy good story, even if it stresses us out a bit. I love historical. I will read some contemporary but I love my genre. I am an incurable romantic and I love the same era as Karen because it is not stuck in the outhouse and they wear big hats. LOL. Well— not exactly but if I had to live in the past, that is where I would be. I love a good mystery but it has to have romance. I love the old west and read those author’s, too. Love regency stuff, too. I guess I am (unlike Karen) an “old” and old-fashioned sort of gal.
Everywhere I go, I see people affirming and propagating live simple—less is best, tra la. I am not there but I do believe our world is complicated and out of control. I would rather be in a rose garden sipping tea then in a Starbucks downing a mocha latte.
Linda Riggs Mayfield
What a thought-provoking and encouraging thread! Reading all the previous posts has raised my hope level considerably for a historical novel now under consideration by a Steve Laube agent. It was meticulously researched for a historical context that is fascinating and still influential but little-known–doing that provided the facts for the learners. In contrast, preview readers have commented about the strong character development written into the story–doing that provided the emotional bond for the escapers. Writing this book, my intention was that learners and escapers would be equally intrigued, and the comments of so many thoughtful writers here certainly support the notion that the goal was a difficult-to-achieve but reasonable one. Writers certainly do encourage other writers!
I read and write both. I loved your blog post on this topic and the fun humor with it too 🙂 I read to learn, escape, experience, and time hop. I write for the same reasons, but I also like to explore topics and issues with my characters that I face. It helps me think about them from different perspectives. I have readers that read my books whether historical, contemporary, non-fiction, and comedy … it’s been interesting that being an eclectic reader/writer, I think I attract eclectic readers too. But yes, I’ve heard of some that stick to a type. I used to do that. Then I’d wear out and get bored with one genre or era. So now I let my mood or interest at the time pick 😀 I tend to read historical when I’m in a more serious mood and contemporary when I’m in a more light-hearted mood. But that’s just me 😉
I’m with you on the whole chicken thing. Praise God for freezers, microwave ovens, electricity and hot/cold running water! (And the internet.)
I read both historical and contemporary fiction, often depending on what mood I’m in. What I don’t usually do is read both by the same author – Francine Rivers is the only author I’ve found who is equally competent at both. With other authors, I’ve found their contemporary fiction too unrealistic, like they’ve transplanted the social customs of 1880’s prairie fiction to modern-day cities. It doesn’t feel right.
Nice post! For some reason, I have never liked historical fiction, but over these last few years, I have been drawn to writing it. I guess I like both historical and contemporary. For my next book, I plan on reading ten historical western novels just to get the flavor of the books, along with pertinent details that I wouldn’t think of otherwise if I hadn’t read the books. I’m taking copious notes. Too much research? My guess is probably not because you probably can’t have too much.