A Passion for the Past: Penman’s Picks of 2011’s Best Historical Fiction

Critically accalimed author of tales set in Medieval England, Sharon Penman chatted with NPR’s Pricilla Nielson last weekend, and shared her list of the best historical fiction of 2011. Penman offered a brief overview of each title and her opinion on why it made her a-list. Of course, my ears prick up any time I catch author interviews and critiques on the radio, but I especially enjoyed this one because I’m a lover of good historical fiction. What makes a novel historical fiction? On this Penman and I agree: it is not just a novel set in a particular historical period; rather, actual historical events must come into play in the plot line and help shape the actions of the characters, even though they may be fictional. If nonfictional characters are included, they must not veer off and do radically different things than they really did way back when.  And, it’s important to remember that good historical fiction is not a history lesson, but it does “teach” us history because it makes it come to life in a way we are able to vicariously experience. Authors skilled in writing historical fiction must, of course, do careful research to provide readers with an accurate telling of the factual parts of their stories as well as to portray the period details. Listen to the interview.

Here are Penman’s picks:

 Elizabeth I by Margaret George; The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman; Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks; Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwell; and The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.

Barbara L.

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