It’s probably apparent from my reading choices and ratings that I really enjoy and appreciate good historical fiction but what does that mean, “good”? I know it when I read it? (LOL!) Pretty much. It can mean different things in different books but – as far as I can tell …
1. The only common thread has to be that it takes place at least 50 years ago (or prior to the author’s birth). Before that and I’d have to call it “nostalgic-al” fiction. Imo, the author should not have memory of the events and very very little family relationship associated with them – s/he should have had to have researched his era, etc. via the usually reliable and verifiable sources – these sources will not change, and I can go hunt up the original or a confirming source.
2. The history doesn’t have to be factually accurate – there are lots of conflicting reports about a whole variety of things. Sometimes the tone of the book serves as warning to the reader that this account may not really be literally factual (see John Barth or Thomas Pynchon or Gabriel Garcia Marquez). But other times the tone is straight and the historical material is in error – then it will irritate me.
3. Where does the history end and the story begin? Is a given book history first and fiction second? I think you just have to look it up every time – I’ve been so surprised to verify some things but, otoh, there have been times when the supposed history is just not accurate and the story (fictional characters, plot, etc.) works (or doesn’t work) from there. I’m not a big fan of alternative history, but it can be done well enough – this is largely a matter of personal (in)ability to suspend disbelief. I’m getting better at allowing an author of historical fiction more leeway in creating his own story.
4. If I’m reading fiction I do NOT want to be beat over the head with irrelevant tidbits the author happened to find in the course of research. The material has to have some bearing on the story – with fiction the story and style come first. If I wanted to read non-fiction I’d go get it and not have a big problem with some digression. But be warned, Dear Author, if your story is draggy or the characters boring, no amount of research will fix it. Otoh, a great story can support an enormous amount of research – love it!
5. I enjoy it when the author shows how the history (social and political – all kinds) and the times play into the lives of the people – not when it’s simply background. The story should be integrated with the history – it shouldn’t be able to take place anywhere although “universal” themes can obviously be used.
6. I really don’t care if an author supplies some notes about his sources or not. I’d rather that was kept for the end so as to leave the story intact but … that’s not my call. It’s up to me if I want to find sources – it’s just for my own interest anyway – fiction is fiction.
Actually, with some books it’s a wee bit disrespectful of both the imagination of the author and the intelligence of the reader to include a note on the history sources when that material is readily available for the checking. It might even detract from the “mystique” of some novels to include it. Not all source notes are disrespectful or detract – some history is pretty obscure. Generally, I figure if I don’t know it or can’t find my own verification, the “history” is invented.
Some of my favorite historical fiction is (in no particular order):
Hillary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell series – (16th c. England)
War and Peace by Tolstoy – (19th c. Russia – historical when written)
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (early 20th c.. Colombia)
Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon (20th c. world)
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (14th c. Europe)
The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley (14th c. Greenland)
The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson (10th c. Sweden)
Europe Central by William Vollmann (Europe – WWII)
Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (2nd c. Rome)
Shogun by James Clavel (17th c. – Japan)
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (US Civil War)
The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye (India – mid 19th c. – lots of HF re India)
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Nigeria – 19th c.)
Teahouse by Lao She (China – early 20th c. – a play)
There are lots and lots more where those came from –