There’s a birthday keepsake that hangs on the wall of my son’s bedroom. It lists all the important events that happened on his birth day, and in his birth year. There are names of famous people throughout history that share his day of birth, and there are important events across the world that happened in his birth year. Of course, also included in the mix are a number of plain old factoids — how much a gallon of gasoline cost back then, or what TV show had the most ratings, or which movie won the Best Picture Oscar that year.
I was looking at that wall hanging the other day, and it dawned on me that it would be pretty interesting to try an exercise like that with the historical fiction genre. I could take a particular era, say the 15th century, and cast an eye on everything that happened in that time frame, around the world. Without really planning anything out, I instinctively started with Europe at the tail end of the middle ages (with Henry V at Agincourt, and Joan of Arc burned at the stake), and then slowly transitioned into the Renaissance (with the emergence of great artists like Michelangelo and da Vinci). Across the Atlantic, the Americas were still in the early days of being invaded and colonized by the Spanish. Meanwhile, around roughly the same time, Timur Lang and his marauding hordes were conquering Damascus, and beating up on the Ottomans in Turkey. The Vikings’ foothold in Greenland had just ended after a 400-year occupation. The Ming Emperor in China was building the Forbidden City. Over in India, Guru Nanak had started a new religion, Sikhism, while the Bahmani kingdom was reaching its peak in the Deccan plateau. In Africa, the Mali kingdom of West Africa was in decline.
I suppose I could have gone on, depending on how granular I wanted to get. But while the historical exercise was fascinating in its own right, what I was really itching to discover, given my perspective here on this site, was the historical fiction set during that period. So I followed the trail and cast about all the familiar places I haunt (Goodreads, Historical Novels, to name a few). Not surprisingly, I found literally a ton of fiction set in 15th century Europe: from Philippa Gregory‘s series on the Tudors, to PC Doherty‘s mysteries featuring his sleuth, Matthew Jankyn, to Margaret Frazer and her Benedictine nun as crime-solver.
As I trekked over into Asia and the Middle East, though, the landscape started to thin out: Alex Rutherford’s novels on the Mughal empire did begin in the 15th century with Babur, and CC Humphreys’ novel about the fall of Constantinople was a good find, but I didn’t see a whole lot other than that. And while I dug up a wealth of historical fiction set in Japan and China, the 15th century didn’t seem to be much of a historical hotspot for those writers. It was the same story in the Americas — I found a good cache of fiction set earlier than the 15th century (the Mayan and Aztec civilizations, notably), or later than that, with the romanticized Wild West occupying much of the book shelf. Africa turned out to be no different — again, a heavy concentration of material set in ancient Egypt, but hardly anything touching the 15th century specifically.
So there you have it — I started with an idea (which, of course, seemed absolutely brilliant at the time), and took it as far as I could with the resources I had available. And while it didn’t quite turn out to be the magical journey I imagined it would be, it certainly gave me a glimpse of the kinds of fictional roads I could travel. I still think it’s an idea worth exploring for all lovers of historical fiction — whether to find new reading territory, or even just for the sheer fun of it.
Looking back on my little journey across time and space, perhaps the arbitrary choice of the 15th century was not a great one, if the goal was to find historical fiction set during that period in many parts of the world. But the good news is that there are plenty of other centuries to choose from. To borrow from Stephen Bayne, having so much historical fiction to explore is rather like “being a mosquito in a nudist camp.” So, happy exploring, everyone, and let us know what your favorite time period is!