Top Ten Tuesday: Top ten books on my (make-believe) Historical Fiction 101 syllabus

Top 10 Tuesday new

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Top Ten Books That Would Be On Your Syllabus If You Taught X 101 (examples: YA fantasy 101, feminist literature 101, magic in YA 101, classic YA lit 101, world-building 101).

After changing my mind a few times, I’ve settled on historical fiction as the subject of my imaginary course. I love historical fiction — the idea that we can learn about a particular time and place in history, experience something of what life might have been like, meet real historical figures, and appreciate all the ups and downs and dramatic tensions of really great fiction.


Of course, even within historical fiction, there are  a wide variety of approaches and types. There are the novels that are super faithful to historical detail, and are fiction only in that the dialogue and interactions, based on historical records, are dramatized or imagined in some way. There are those that center on purely fictional characters, but place them in a specific era or at the scene of a well-known conflict or historical turning point. There are some that take a real or imagined supporting character (for example, a jester to the king) and retell history through this observer’s eyes. And there are some (near and dear to my heart) that take a historical setting and add a mystical, mysterious, magical twist to make them something unique.

historical fiction 2

(Actually, there are tons more examples of types of historical fiction than just these, but hey, it’s my Historical Fiction 101 class, and this is what I’m covering!)

Without further ado, here are the 10 (or so) historical fiction books that belong on my syllabus:

Starting with some 20th century classics of the genre:

1) I’d start my class with a trio of blockbuster novels from the 1970s, all of which created a huge pop culture impact at the time, and absolutely epitomize the idea of grand, sweeping historical fiction: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, Shogun by James Clavell, and Roots by Alex Haley. (Yes, three books — I’m cheating a bit.)


2) How can we talk about historical fiction without including James Michener? Talk about blockbusters! Michener’s works tend to be huge, multi-generational works tracing the history of a particular place by visiting multiple eras and connecting the dots from one decade or century to another. Two that I particularly love are Alaska and Hawaii, each of which literally covers millions of years, from the earliest geological origins of the area up through the 20th century.


Moving on to examples of historical fiction that are a bit more concentrated in scope — first, a few that capture an era through the experiences of a fictional character:

3) The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd, about a Scotswoman’s journey through love and scandal in the Far East in the first half of the 20th century.

Ginger Tree

4) People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, moving backward through time to trace the origins of a valuable Haggadah, with each time period brought to life through the people in whose hands the book rested.

People of the Book

5) I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe, a heartbreaking love story set during the Civil War.


Next, a few that take the eyewitness to history approach — in one case, a fictional character meeting up with some of the most influential political forces of the time:

6) Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell, making a riveting story out of a political conference in Cairo, with a spinsterish woman from Ohio witnessing history in the making at the side of Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence, and more.

Dreamers of the Day

And two others that portray unforgettable events or people through the eyes of real people from the time, imagining their narration or point of view, and shifting the narrative from the center of attention to a person normally in a supporting role:

7) Snow Mountain Passage by James D. Houston, telling the story of the Donner Party through the eyes of one of its younger members, Peggy Reed.

Snow Mountain Passage

8) Wolf Hall (and Bringing Up the Bodies) by Hillary Mantel, a brilliant visit to the Tudor court, observing Henry VIII and his wives from the vantage point of Thomas Cromwell.


Finally, two books (or series) that excel at introducing the inexplicable into a historical tale:

9) The Winter Sea (and sequel The Firebird) by Susanna Kearsley, in which time slips and visions of the past bring contemporary and historical figures together. In fact, almost any of Susanna Kearsley’s books would make great examples of fiction that illustrates a particular historical period by adding in a mysterious or supernatural element.

the winter sea

10) Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Surely you didn’t expect me to write about historical fiction without a big shout-out to the Outlander series? Take a time traveling voyager from the 20th century, introduce her to a practically perfect Highlander, and we get not just steamy romance, but an amazing history lesson that brings to life all the sights, smells, tastes, and sounds of the 18th century.


What do you think — would you want to take my Historical Fiction 101 course?

What’s on your “101” list this week? Share your links, please, and I’ll come check out your top 10!

If you enjoyed this post, please consider following Bookshelf Fantasies! And don’t forget to check out my regular weekly feature, Thursday Quotables. Happy reading!


Do you host a book blog meme? Do you participate in a meme that you really, really love? I host a Book Blog Meme Directory, and I’m always looking for new additions! If you know of a great meme to include — or if you host one yourself — please drop me a note on my Contact page and I’ll be sure to add your info!



37 thoughts on “Top Ten Tuesday: Top ten books on my (make-believe) Historical Fiction 101 syllabus

  1. I love your topic!

    I’ve actually only read Outlander -and only the first book at that- so I really have to start with some of these. I’ve never read anything by James Michener, but I’ll definitely look into that now. I’ve picked up a lot of recommendations thanks to this, so thanks 🙂

    Great list!

    • Thank you! I ended up really like Michener after reading his Hawaii book before my very first trip to Hawaii — the whole experience was so much more meaningful to me when I could connect the places I visited to the stories I’d read. 🙂

  2. I remember Michener and Clavell from back in the day – they were huge! I always wondered about Michener and his big doorstopper books- never read any but was intrigued by his attention to a geograpgic location in each one. Might be interesting now to take a look…

    And Gabaldon’s stuff- while it’s not my thing, I’ve always liked the covers of those and the book titles. Very evocative. Great list- this would be a fun class!

    • Someone just gave my daughter a copy recently, and even though she still hasn’t read it, my husband ended up borrowing her copy! I should probably reread it, except I’m afraid it would end up rekindling my inappropriate crush on Father Ralph.

    • I noticed that you were on a Susanna Kearsley kick! Once you finish The Winter Sea, make sure to pick up The Firebird. I love all of her books… sigh.

    • It’s funny you mention the cover of The Winter Sea — that’s one of the few books I bought absolutely because of the cover, and then luckily, it turned out that the book itself really appealed to me as well. 🙂 People of the Book is amazing. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I would be interested in taking your class! I haven’t read any of the books on your list but I might add a few to my TBR list. Especially ‘The Ginger Tree’. 🙂

    • The Ginger Tree is so good! It’s been at least 10 years since I first read it, but some of the details are still so vivid in my mind. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. IS THAT I SHALL BE NEAR YOU?? Seriously, I’ve been wanting that book for ages! Is it good? I hope it’s good. 😀

    Anyway, HF is a beautiful genre. I only read few of HF though, like Storyteller by Picoult, All the Light We Cannot See and some others. I want to read so much more. Amazing post!

    • I Shall Be Near To You is such a beautiful, amazing book. I actually have two review posts for it — one a guest review by a friend and one by me, with reasons to read the book. Loved it! (Plus, the author is super nice and participated in my online book group’s discussion of the book). I loved All the Light also, and still need to read Storyteller! Thanks for visiting!!

  5. Nice work. I am hoping that one day someone will allow me to teach a course on Western History, in which I solely use historical fiction to teach 3500 years of civilization. I would begin with the Ancient Greeks (Mary Renault’s Fire from Heaven), the Ancient Romans (Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series), Ken Follett for the middle ages, Hilary Mantel for Henry VIII, Hilary Mantel again for the French Revolution (A Place of Greater Safety). There are still a lot of pieces I need to fill in. I came across your post while searching online for a syllabus to help inspire me.

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