Readers of fiction are all armchair travelers. We love to go someplace different, to step into someone else's shoes, see things through someone else's eyes. Readers of historical fiction go even farther. They put on shoes of a different style, wear clothes of bygone fashions, visit places that may now not even exist, and meet people who died long ago. Historical fiction readers delight in learning something about the past, whether recent or remote, and along the way they learn something about how we came to be who we are.
Immersing readers in a different era means using all the trappings of that period--food, clothes, technology, language, education, culture, politics--all the details that make up the landscape of human existence. It means the drama of the Civil War in Gone with the Wind or the snobbery of high society in Georgette Heyer's Regency romances. It means the Empire-waisted dresses of Jane Austen's time or the bustle-and-corset fashions of the turn of the twentieth century. It means understanding that it could take weeks to travel from London to Rome, or that cobblestone streets lit only by gaslight could be treacherous at night. It means knowing what writing instruments people used, how they warmed their homes, or whether they had indoor or outdoor plumbing!
These things, of course, we can discover through research. The historical fiction writer, though, should go beyond mere truth, the facts and figures of the past. I should say, perhaps, that the writer should go beneath mere truth. She should delve beneath the resources of diaries and journals and letters and biographies, and search for the emotional center of the characters who populate her period.
This is what readers want, I think. Male readers, who tend to be more drawn to military historical fiction, want to know what it felt like to be part of the wars they read about. They're trying to imagine themselves in the middle of it all, and they wonder if they could meet the challenges with the same courage their ancestors did. Women are curious about what it meant to be female in a different time. What were the opportunities, the restrictions, the expectations, and how would they deal with them? Many readers are drawn to a particular historical period, over and over, and they place their trust in writers to provide them insights.
A writer for The Guardian's Books Blog has said, "Historical accuracy is like quicksand. Stay too long in the same place and it will suck you down and there will be no movement, no dynamism to the story." It's an interesting comment, but I can't imagine, as a fiction writer, ever being sucked down by accuracy! There are facts we're certain of, and we can weave our stories around them. There are large events--earthquakes, shipwrecks, floods--and we can stage our stories against those dramatic backdrops. There's no need to change known and recorded historical facts. Through the lens of an individual character, all these things--dates, events, catastrophes--become intimate. They become personal, and that intensifies their impact. Ten thousand dead is unimaginable; one tragic story is overwhelming, and unforgettable.
This, I think, is the job of the writer, to help a reader live an event, not simply record it by memorizing its statistics. Of course the reader wants to be entertained, but she also wants to experience the past as our ancestors did. That's why she reads fiction and not merely a history book. Those who dwelt in the past, whether as distantly as in the great days of Rome's supremacy or as recently as the Cold War scares of the 1950s, are part of us. Their times are the prologue of our own times. We have a lot to learn from them.
For more reading about historical fiction and its many subgenres, I recommend Sarah Johnson's exhaustive page on the Pratt Library website.