Lately I’ve been taking time-travel trips to Asia.
Time travel isn’t as difficult as physicists would have you believe. It only takes a good historical novel, and, for me, a pair of reading glasses.
I’m particular about the vehicle in which I travel. The book needs not only to tell a compelling story, but to be well researched.
One positive feature of reading a good historical novel is combining the fun of fiction with gaining knowledge. To give readers both, authors must get the history right or, if they deviate, give notes to the readers at book’s end.
I’ll excuse a plausible theory to fill in the blanks existing in historical records. Even historians surmise about what isn’t documented.
Invention of characters minor to the deeds of the day is fine if the characters are true to the period and culture.
To write good historical fiction, writers almost always need to spend time in the places being written about.
Readers feel closer to the events and characters if the writer has walked the paths, seen the ruins and picked up the culture’s remnants as well as put in library time.
Two creators of my time-travel vehicles to Asia who do those things well are Conn Iggulden and James Clavell.
In his Genghis Kahn series, Iggulden builds a sturdy first book around the childhood and teenage years of the future conqueror. He uses not just historical accounts, but his travels in Mongolia and research on its 13th-century customs.
That information along with his remarkable storytelling ability is what satisfies readers of historical fiction.
It’s easy to feel the hunger and cold, smell the camps and envision the terrain in Iggulden’s novels.
Clavell does similar things with his “Shogun” and “Gai-Jin” novels from Japan and his “Tai-Pan” and “Noble House” novels from China.
C.J. Sansom provides both mystery and great perspective on 16th-century England in his novels “Sovereign” and “Dissolution.”
In “Pillars of the Earth,” Ken Follett gives readers a feel for life in 12th-century England. He follows it with “World Without End,” which takes place 157 years later.
For insightful historical novels about the United States, Gore Vidal’s “1876” and “Lincoln” are hard to top.
As a reader, I know none of these novels is perfectly accurate in detailing all of the complexities that make up any historical character, but biographies and history texts share that shortcoming.
What I like to come away with from good historical fiction is a reasonably accurate account of the events and some understanding of the culture and politics of the period.
Often it drives me to more scholarly works to check interesting details, get a broader picture of the events or to find other perspectives.
What it also does is let me escape from today’s world for a little while every night.