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Ask a Book Question: The 43rd in a Series (Finding Historical Fiction)

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Katie writes in with this question:When I was in Rome I read I, Claudius [by Robert Graves] and loved it. Now I’m looking for other historical fiction, of any period or nationality, that does a comparable job of bringing a time and place to life and maintaining some literary credibility. Any suggestions?According to Wikipedia, not the definitive source in this realm but a decent enough place to start, a work of historical fiction can be defined as one in which “the story is set among historical events, or more generally, in which the time of the action predates the lifetime of the author.” This is a bit broad for my taste, but I think it’s a good place to start. Going by this definition, a lot of books that we think of first as fiction could also qualify as historical fiction. Some of my favorite books by contemporary authors fall into this category. T.C. Boyle’s Water Music is about a Scottish explorer in Africa in the late 18th century, and Edward P. Jones’ book The Known World is about black slave owners in Virginia in the 1840s. Another example of a book like these is Charles Frazier’s Civil War novel, Cold Mountain.But these books aren’t really historical fiction in the same way that I, Claudius is historical fiction. Traditionally, in historical fiction, the history is like another character in the novel, and the action is more likely to be ripped from the history books, as it were, placing the reader in a novelized version of true historical events. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell about Atlanta during the Civil War is a famous example. Another is James Clavell’s Shogun about the 16th century exploration of Asia. Of the few historical novels I’ve read, my favorite would have to be Leon Uris’ Trinity, a powerful epic about the Irish struggle for independence at the turn of the 20th century.There is also historical fiction that hews closely to a particular niche, like the Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian and C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series, both of which take place during the time when tall-masted ships ruled the high seas. The there’s Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series, which is prehistoric, historical fiction. I know, crazy.I’m sure there are plenty of folks out there who have historical fiction to recommend, so please share in the comments, and thanks, Katie, for your question.Update: Jenny exposes my unfamiliarity with historical fiction by suggesting many, many fantastic-sounding books in the comments. Check it out, and leave some more suggestions if you’ve get them.

Ask a Book Question: The Twenty-third in a Series (Bringing a Book to Hollywood)


Rick writes in wanting to know how he can lay the groundwork for a big-screen version of a bestselling novel.Does anybody know if (or how to find out if) someone has the motion picture rights to Leon Uris’ novel Trinity? Any help would be appreciated. ThanksI can’t tell you all how pleased I was to see this question in my inbox. I was beginning to worry that the year I spent getting coffee and wearing a jaunty headset at a Hollywood agency had gone to waste. Luckily in between my important duties as a glorified (and grossly under-compensated) secretary, I was able to glean some actual knowledge about the entertainment industry. Even more luckily, I will most likely never work in said industry again. As I was saying, though, there are ways to find out if anyone owns the film rights to a particular book, and if so, who. It basically involves persistent phone calls in which each person you talk to tells you to call another person, who tells you to call another person, and so on. And while I am not, at the moment, inclined to do the leg work, (although Trinity would make a great movie), I can at least tell you who to call first. Begin with the Writers Guild, also known as the WGA. Typically you can call them with the name of a writer, and they can tell you which agent represents that writer (bear in mind, however, that if you give them more than one name they are liable to get very snotty very quickly.) You can then call the agent and begin fishing for the pertinent names and numbers, though it may take a week or two to get past his or her assistant. They are, as I once was, tenacious buggers. If this route fails, try calling the publisher, in this case Bantam or whichever conglomerate currently owns that imprint. Once you get someone on the phone who sounds helpful (and they will typically be more helpful than the Hollywood types), try to get the digits of whichever literary agent or lawyer handles Mr. Uris’ estate. Which brings me to another point, since Mr. Uris passed away last year, you will be dealing with his estate, which may make things more complicated. Finally, be aware that figuring out who owns which rights to which book at what price can often be a laborious and Byzantine process, especially in the case of a book like Trinity, the rights to which, as a decades old bestseller, have probably changed hands a number of times. It’s because of these complexities that many of the bigger Hollywood agencies have a full-time employee whose responsibility is sorting out these rights issues. Still, if you have a dream, a vision, and a little bit of dough, none of these impediments should hinder you. Good luck, and feel free to let us know how things turn out.

Leon Uris RIP


I’ve been meaning to post for a couple of days, but as those in the blog world have probably noticed, blogger was down for a while. But it’s back, and so am I. In the meantime, there was a piece of sad literary news. Once hugely famous, but now somewhat forgotten novelist Leon Uris passed away. When I was about fifteen and too young to know that my taste in literature wasn’t particularly cutting edge, I happened to pick up a copy of his book Trinity. It is a historical novel about the strife in Northern Ireland, and even then, when I was a youngster, I knew it was a masterful book. People are no longer used to the sweeping period pieces set in exotic locations that used to be so popular. They have fallen by the way side and been repaced by realism, flashiness, and dry modernity. Alongside all the stark reality that masquarades as fiction these days, a Uris book can be comforting in its ability to fix you in a distant place and time and to compell you to feel a visceral connection with his antipodean characters. If you like Uris at all, you will also like his contemporary James Michener. I still remember listening to Hawaii on cassette on one of the many interminable car trips of my youth. I’m not sure what compelled my parents to choose this form of entertainment, since I had never known them to be audiobook fans or Michener fans. Against all odds (or so it seemed at the time), I loved Hawaii in much the same way that I would later love Trinity. It’s the power of a really good story. That’s all for now… More soon I hope.

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