Why are certain historical eras written about more than others?

This will be another sort of musing post. I’m still sick, though I’m better than last week (geez, this flu hangs on forever). Anyways, for those who don’t know, yesterday was the anniversary of the founding of Jamestown in 1607 in Virginia. This last semester in college I took a Colonial American class. I really enjoyed it, and what I learned the most was the disparage between what most people think of the Colonial era (usually just Revolutionary Times around 1776) and what actually constitutes Colonial America (starting in the early 1600s and stopping after the Revolutionary War).

This got me thinking about why a lot of modern historical readers like me know more about certain eras and less about others. My main answer for this are that some eras are written about more, so readers like me tend to pick up more books about certain eras simply because those are the ones available.

But why are certain eras written about more than others?

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First and foremost, I think it has to do with nearness in relative time. Think of all the main historical eras you see a lot in both fiction and nonfiction alike. There are a lot of WWII books (probably these are the most common), Victorian books, 1920s books, etc. All of these have one thing in common. They are all recent history, less than two hundred years ago. I most commonly see the 20th century written about.

Why is that? It might be easier to do research, because there is more information out there. Or it might be simply that they are jumping on trends. WWII books have proved to be popular, so why not make a bunch? While I love WWII books, I am kind of sick of just how many new historical releases are set in that era.

However, this “recent history” theory cannot be the only explanation. For example, certain other historical time periods of more distant histories are popular too.

For example, the Tudor era (especially concerning Elizabeth I and her father Henry VIII) as well as Ancient Egypt are two eras which are commonly written out which are farther back in history. But that leaves a lot of gaps in history, not just by era, but also by place.

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Yes, Ancient Egypt is a fascinating ancient kingdom with a lot of power. But you never hear of Mansa Musa, considered the richest man who ever lived who ruled the Mali empire in the 14th century (in Africa). What about the Aztecs in America? I can just think of a couple books I’ve read about them (not to mention all the lesser known early American civilizations like the Anasazi and Olmec). What about the the Khmer Empire in modern Cambodia, which gave us famous landmarks like Angkor Wat, which at its height rivaled even the Chinese Empire.

Even Chinese historical fiction seems to focus more on modern Chinese history nearing the end of the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century. What about all the incredibly powerful empires before that, like the Qin Dynasty (famous for its terracotta warriors and the Great Wall of Chinese) and the Tang Dynasty (around the 7th century A.D.) where some of the most famous cultural achievements were made in Chinese history.

My point is, there are so many eras and places in the world which I rarely or never see in historical fiction. I’m not counting scholarly writings as these eras, as scholarly books very rarely get read by an average reader.

But again, I think a similar reasoning fits for why a lot of these eras are rarely covered in historical novels. One, for various reasons some eras are simply more popular than others. For example, with Ancient Egypt, there was a massive resurgence of its popularity in the early 20th century, especially with the finding of Tutankhamun’s tomb and Mummy movies from the 1930s. Similarly, the Tudor era has been made popular by Shakespeare still being read as well as King Henry VIII’s infamous six wives (though that is hardly that much compared to how many wives most Chinese emperors had).

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Another reason is that there are a lot of more information about those eras, making it easier for average historian fans to do research and write a fictional book about that era. Some of the less popular civilizations I mentioned above didn’t have any writing about them, like the Anasazi in America and the Khmer Empire in Cambodia. It’s just harder to learn about an era when there is less writing about them.

I know this is a really random post, but what are your thoughts on this topic? Why do you think certain historical eras are commonly seen in fiction, while others are less so? Would you like to see some eras not commonly written about covered more? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, thank you so much for reading, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Anne

19 thoughts on “Why are certain historical eras written about more than others?

  1. Interesting post! I don’t read much historical fiction but I notice there are a lot of Tudor and WW2. I think maybe authors write about the periods they know best. I remember at school only certain eras were taught and I guess we just feel comfortable with what we know. It takes a lot of dedication to research a different era from scratch and then write in a way to make it believable, plus a good story too.

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    1. That’s true! Writing a historical novel takes so much more research than, for example, a fantasy novel (not that fantasies aren’t hard to write, but it’s more of creating a new world, as opposed to researching a preexisting one). And you’re probably right that authors write about what they know already.

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  2. I think a lot of this is also due to the conservative nature of the publishing industry and also that their marketing departments believe they know what people – in the West, for instance – want to read. Stories about Ancient Rome will always sell, stories about Han Dynasty China not so much. It would be an interesting exercise to analyse which time periods, and geographies have been popular in the book industry in the last 100 years and whether it could be determined if that demand has been pushed by the industry or the industry has responded to what the market wants. For instance, China, despite being in the news all the time, remains a hard sell in terms of fiction. I write mysteries set in the Song Dynasty and police procedurals set in contemporary China and people will still shy away from them because of where they are set. Peter May, the thriller writer, wrote a series of mysteries set in China in the early 2000s and gave up for lack of interest and started writing other stuff. Elsa Hart wrote a trilogy of mysteries set in Qing Dynasty China and has now started writing about Queen Anne England!! LOL! And yet Robert van Gulik and his Judge Dee mysteries (a mish-mash of Tang & Ming culture) remain popular to this day. I always think about The Good Earth by by Pearl S. Buck that was set in a Chinese village, won the Pulitzer Prize, and was the bestselling book in the U.S. in 1931 and 1932. I guess it was so popular not because it was set in China but because it came out at the beginning of the Depression and Americans could see their own plight in the book – which, I suppose, comes back to universal themes. So you pose a very good question with no easy answer!! Hope you feel better soon!!

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    1. Thank you! Interesting thoughts. I hadn’t considered that publishers more than authors may dictate what eras and places sell. And I love Elsa Hart’s trilogy (I own all three books)! Robert van Guilik’s first book was great (when he was just translating the original Judge Dee mystery), but his sequels were pretty average to me. Pearl S. Buck is an amazing author, I agree! I’ve only read a couple books by her (including The Good Earth), but I hope to read a lot more. I haven’t read Peter May though, so I’ll have to look up his books. And I’m so happy to hear that you write books about China, because its history is so fascinating!

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  3. I think a lot of has to do with a sentiment in society that I call, for lack of a better phrase, “making the past relevant.” Some periods of history don’t have the same applicability to today’s world and today’s challenges. For example, I honestly don’t see a lot of people talk about WWII nowadays (outside of World War II veterans dying off) because the world is far less violent (in terms of state-on-state conflict) now than it was, say, 50 years ago. People are now more focused on social issues and fighting causes than fighting a common enemy, which may also be why war fiction in general is becoming less and less prevalent. We naturally look to the problems and challenges of the past and try to apply them to the present and as time moves forward, certain periods become more or less important.

    You can actually see this outside of fiction as well since the History Channel used to be known for making high-quality documentaries about periods of conflict like World War II (it was once called “The Hitler Channel” for that reason), the Civil War, World War I, and others. Now, stuff like that is a rarity and we consider ourselves lucky to find a documentary about Hitler in a sea of programs about the Apocalypse, Nostradamus, and ancient aliens.

    I’m actually kind of concerned about that since my next big writing project will be set in the Napoleonic Era which doesn’t have much in terms applicable themes and parallels to today’s world. However, I’ll be the first to say that when I started writing, I didn’t really know or care about trends; I just wrote about what interested me. For the longest time, that was World War II. Now, I’m transitioning to a different period.

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    1. I agree completely! While I know a lot of readers who love historical fiction, the average person (especially younger person) seems to have little care about learning much about history. And do not get me started on how horrible the History channel is now! I used to love the history documentaries there as a child (like fifteen years ago), but like, what the hell is Ice Road Truckers and what does it have to do with history? Absolutely nothing! Also, as you mentioned, aliens are more sci-fi and modern, not historical. History channel is just one proof that history is being lost.

      Good luck with with your Napoleonic Era novel! I’m taking a Napoleon and Russia class next fall (we’re reading War and Peace) and I’m really exciting to learn about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

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  4. Your first reference to the Tudor era has it written as Tutor. You might want to fix that. /nitpick

    I think that eras and locales definitely go in trends where historical fiction is concerned. My works have primarily been 19th C., but I’m currently working on one set in the 1st C. CE. I don’t necessarily follow the hip crowd, LOL.

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  5. I think it’s a combination of factors: fewer authors who write about the time periods we see in books less often and publishers who believe the books will sell. As for China, it is only been in the past few years more books are written about the Japanese invasion and occupation. Those who write these books live in America at this time, but back in that period they were living in China. I’ve noticed a few of the memoirs are mother/daughter writing teams. The World War II era is a hot historical fiction time period, but at some point it will wane. I am expecting the 1960s time period to heat up with books. That was an era with much going on politically, in society, and the war in Vietnam.

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    1. Interesting thoughts. I agree that WWII currently might be popular, but it may shift as publishers see other type of eras selling well. And I’ve noticed a lot of 20th century Chinese memoirs being published recently as well!

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