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Why is Christian Historical Fiction So Popular?

If it’s true that “You are what you eat,” then that probably applies to your literary diet as well. So what does it say about contemporary Christian fiction readers that Historicals and Historical Romance remain so popular?

This hasn’t always been the case. While Historical fiction has always been popular in mainstream publishing, in Christian publishing, however, it took some time to catch on. At least to the degree it has. But one glance at the CBA bestsellers list for April 2012 will reveal that things have changed. One-third of the Top 20 CBA bestsellers are Historicals. Which probably explains why the majority of agents at this years ACFW conference will consider Historical fiction.

Point is, If you’re writing Historical fiction, you’re in the CBA wheelhouse.

This trend fascinates me. Think about it — What if Epic Fantasy suddenly replaced Historicals as the hot genre in the Christian industry? What if one-third of the CBA bestseller list suddenly became occupied with stories about dragons, elves, and wizards. We replaced parasols with swords, swapped bonnets for chain mail, and abandoned the farmhouse for the stone castle. What would that say about the culture of Christian readers?  That a bunch of fanboys took over? That publishers finally woke up to promoting to another demographic? Or that a convention full of Dungeons and Dragons fanatics experienced Pentecost?

The typical response as to why Historical Fiction is so popular among Christian readers is this:

During hard economic times, people want to escape into the past.

This is an actual quote from a respected CBA agent. Indeed, stories help us escape. What better way to deal with the cares of our world than by retreating into simpler times. It’s the power of story that makes such transport possible.

But is escapism the main reason behind the popularity of Christian Historical fiction. I think not. My theory is that it’s a reaction to waning traditional values. As much as Victorian morality can appear prudish and repressive, Christians yearn for an age of chivalry, manners, and charm; where men were gentlemen, where strict social codes of conduct were respected, where tea and etiquette were served in equal portions.

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner (my rep, btw!) put it best in her post, What’s With All the Bonnet Books. Rachelle writes,

If you look at the history of romance books in general, they’ve been one of the staples of the publishing industry since it began. From the “dime novels” of the late 1800s through the “Fabio” books of the 1980s and ‘90s to the more steamy books of today, romance has always sold well. But as romance novels got more racy and explicit, many romance readers became uncomfortable reading it. They still wanted romance, but they wanted it cleaner—more romantic, less sexy—like it was in the past. The Christian publishers fill this need with their bonnet books and other clean romances.

As for why “Amish” fiction itself is such a popular type of romance, think of it this way. In today’s world, it’s more difficult to write the kind of “clean” romance readers want without it feeling unrealistic; yet if you set a contemporary romance in an Amish, Mennonite or other obviously religious community in which certain moral guidelines are followed in courtship, the story can be “clean” and yet still completely realistic. So this is one of the reasons I think it’s so popular. I also think it’s a trend that is going to continue for quite some time, especially as mainstream romance continues to push the edges of eroticism. (emphasis mine)

An article in the Historical Novel Society back in 2005 entitled Pioneering Efforts in Christian Historicals makes similar observations:

Christian historicals offer family-oriented content set in a wide variety of locales and eras. They can also provide what some readers may consider a more accurate view of our religious past. By combining research with their own beliefs, the novelists can take readers back to a historical time when religion played a major role in the average person’s day-to-day life. Because of the religious focus, profanity, explicit violence, and sexual content are avoided. (emphasis mine)

Christian Historicals do not simply serve as a means of escape during tough economic times, they reinforce “cleaner,” more traditional morality. It’s easier to scrub a story of sex and language — a requirement of Christian fiction — if it takes place in the pioneer days or Victorian era rather than the present day. This is not to suggest that eroticism and vulgarity couldn’t be found in historical eras, but that social norms were far more enforced, even to the point of repression. So not only does the Historical genre help readers escape contemporary culture, it meets the moral guidelines and expectations of more conservative Christian readers, the latter perhaps being the real driving force behind its popularity.

It’s more than just the desire to be transported to simpler times that fuels the current popularity of Christian Historical Fiction. It’s a yearning for values that our culture is progressively abandoning.

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{ 21 comments… add one }
  • Heather Day Gilbert April 17, 2012, 7:32 AM

    Hmmm…well, I beg to differ here. While Christian pubs like historical fiction, it’s only certain ERAS and LOCALES for said fiction. Andy Scheer just did a post on a llama historical novel here: http://hartlineliteraryagency.blogspot.com/2012/04/trouble-with-llamas-by-andy-scheer.html. Even if the book is sound, if it’s not a trendy time period or locale (right now, probably Regency, or something in the USA, ANYTHING in the USA), it might not fly. Which really stinks, because I’ve heard lots of readers interested in OTHER time periods and locales.

    As with the paranormal genre, I’m hoping Christian publishers will be open to new ideas for historical books. Don’t people CRAVE things that are new and different? Who wants to read about a time period you already know everything about? Who wants the same old, same old? As a writer, I want to lead, not follow. I’d rather not write at all if I can’t be different in my genre.

    Enough ranting for this historical fiction writer. And for the record, my Viking novel does start out in North America! Yay!

    • Jill April 17, 2012, 7:50 AM

      You’re 100% right about this. Regency and Victorian are the trendy time periods. But I’d have to say, before this time, people could be pretty crude. Authors loved to write about bodily fluids and use coarse language pre-Victorian.

      • Heather Day Gilbert April 17, 2012, 8:07 AM

        So true, Jill, but that’s only how historical fiction writers have PORTRAYED this time period. Everyone in the middle ages wasn’t coarse, just like early man wasn’t the stupid, monosyllabic Neanderthals evolutionists propagate. I say there’s a place for Christian fiction that presents REAL people from those time periods. It was definitely my goal–to humanize Vikings and make them people we can relate to. Because they most certainly were!

        • Jill April 17, 2012, 10:54 AM

          That’s not true. I’ve read many, many authors from the 17th and 18th Cs, and they weren’t prudes. They loved to write about effluence and shit and stuff. Same thing with many 15th/16th C authors I’ve read. They also loved innuendo. But I haven’t read an awful lot from the middle ages, so maybe people were more refined in those days! There are an awful lot of centuries in between the middle ages and Victorian, though.

          • Heather Day Gilbert April 17, 2012, 1:31 PM

            I think we’re on the same page here–I was saying those writers weren’t prudes, either, often reveling in the presumed coarseness of the age. But what I’m saying is that previous hist. fiction novels have informed our views of those early time periods. For instance, Clan of the Cave Bear (earlier, I know) or The Mists of Avalon.

            Therefore, as a CHRISTIAN hist. fic writer, we have the chance to bring out the good aspects of history that the world doesn’t want to emphasize. Not by twisting history, but by searching out those moving stories, even from the Middle Ages, that show God was active even then.

            • Jill April 17, 2012, 5:49 PM

              Gotcha! I wish I could just like a comment on a blog. 🙂

  • Bobby April 17, 2012, 7:47 AM

    Hit the nail on the head here. And it’s not hard to see why, even if the trend is frustrating. My wife was recently telling me about a Hot New Book that everyone’s talking about called Fifty Shades of Grey. The book is basically a hardcore, BDSM version of Twilight. I was thinking, you might as well just watch a porn-o and write down, in the most explicit, descriptive terms possible, what happens and there you go…a best-selling book! Even better: the mommies are the ones buying it. So we’ve got visual internet porn for the guys, and literary porn for the ladies. Just hilarious, in a tragic, heart breaking sort of way. So yeah, I guess it makes sense that Christian ladies would like their men to treat them in the ol’ timey way.

    Heather makes an interesting point about “hot” historical times that authors use, and I’d say World War 2, America after the Civil War (Old West), and post-Jesus Bible times are favorites. That second one has to be at least a third of all books on a Christian bookstore shelf.

    • Mike Duran April 17, 2012, 9:28 AM

      Bobby, I’ve wondered the same thing about this “Fifty Shades of Gray” phenom. What does it say about contemporary female readers — whom I assume are the driving force behind the book’s sales — that this stuff is popular?

      • Bobby April 17, 2012, 11:03 AM

        I’d say it really does boil down to female porn. Of course, guys and gals look for different things in their porn (read: fantasies) so I guess it makes sense that Twilight and its more agressive, highly-sexed up clones (I believe Grey started out as Twilight fan fiction, with Bella and Edward as the original starring roles) meet that fantasy in a more direct way.

        Doesn’t internet porn bring in bazillions of dollars? Well, I guess it makes sense that the female version is just as successful.

      • Liliy April 17, 2012, 5:27 PM

        I don’t think you can really call this a ‘contemporary’ thing. Porn’s been around since the first writing utensil hit paper–all forms, writing, drawing, whatever. There’s a reason for the meme “Rule 34: If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions.”

        This stuff has always been popular, it’s just never been in the light before b/c it was always in other places specified for that sort of content–or just flat out free (Read: A good chunk of fanfiction.)

        I think women just tend to enjoy the written version of it more than the visual–when done right anyway. It’s more personal & tends to be more emotionally involved.

        Plus, it sounds a whole lot better/less guilt-inducing when you call it ‘Erotic Fiction.’ 😉

  • Tim George April 17, 2012, 8:09 AM

    Consider the fact my agent has asked me three times to consider writing Historicals and praised his male authors who have, this one is comes close to home. The crazy thing is that I have always been somewhat of a history wonk but the Amish stuff is a personal mystery.

    It would be easy to make light of people who write and love to read Buggies and Bonnets but that would be wrong on many levels. The genre meets a need for them, so more power to them.

    Even I find myself taking a break from Fringe, and Alcatraz , and Dean Koontz for a little Andy Griffith (black and white only with Barney) break. There is a reason the “Man in a Hurry” episode of Andy Griffith is consistently picked as the fan favorite over the last 40 years. It does indeed remind us of simpler times. Times when my mother had no fear of allowing me to wander for hours on end across our small town without even thought of need for adult protection.

    Now I’ll resist further meanderings to say I think you are spot on in your analysis.

  • Ally April 17, 2012, 8:52 AM

    Hmm… But I don’t think this is a new thing – all of the Christian fiction I and my mom and aunts read in the late 80s early 90s was historical fiction, and it’s not because my mom is all that into historical fiction – she rather stays away from it now – and my grandmother complained about it at the time because she said she was sick of riding in covered wagons in every single book – but it was all the library (which had a large selection of Christian fiction if all historical) and local Christian bookstore carried. (I on the other hand was obsessed with anything historical as a child – my mother started me reading Janette Oke in 3rd grade because of my Little House obsession – so it didn’t bother me at the time)

    • Mike Duran April 17, 2012, 11:21 AM

      Ally, if I’m not mistaken, the majority of Historicals published in the 80’s and 90’s was from a handful of authors and nowhere near the volume today.

      • Ally April 17, 2012, 12:47 PM

        probably true – the fact that I only remember about 4 authors – Janette Oke, Michael Phillips, (wait a second his first two in the Corrie Bell Hollister series were with Judith Pella whom I believe did write historicals on her own though I didn’t read her stuff), Lori Wick, and Gilbert Morris… oh and the lady who wrote the really long series (how it can seem longer than Morris’s house of winslow series I don’t know) that I didn’t care for but the rest of my female family members read and I think is still on the shelf at my aunt’s (I can picture the covers…something to do with brides…)

        My point was just that it seems natural to me that Christian Fiction leans historical, because that’s what I’m used to seeing 🙂 not that it wasn’t all historical back then because that was the only people writing (though that does make one wonder why only historical fiction writers were writing then)

        Not that I didn’t read any contemporary stuff in the 90s, but that was all YA Christian stuff (Christy Miller series by Robin Jones Gunn, and Cedar River Daydreams aka Sweet Valley High for Christians (by a lady whose name I forget)… and I still can’t figure out why YA writers loved the name Todd back then – every series had a main character dating a guy named Todd, I swear it!)

        Regarding the accuracy – I can’t attest to current stuff, but one of my friends who was a history major attributes her making good grades in US History without really trying to the fact that she had read the entire Gilbert Morris House of Winslow series…

        And I always thought Michael Phillips stuff, especially his later stuff (late 90s early 2000s), was decently historical – at least to a non-historian. I do have to admit the Corrie Belle Hollister series had Corrie acting quite a bit too modern I think, even if she was made out to be unusual for the day.

        Ok now that my rambling, probably incoherent thoughts are done, I must be back off to my term paper for the graduate class I am taking – please excuse anything that doesn’t make sense to term paper research fatigue…

  • Katherine Coble April 17, 2012, 8:58 AM

    The problem I’ve run into consistently with CBA Historicals is that with a few exceptions they are NOT “historical”. They are books with modern mores, cultural attitudes and roles all plucked from the 2000s and dumped in an historic setting. (And yes, I realise there are probably some real gems that other people have read that I haven’t gotten to yet. But when you pick up 10 books and 8 of them are this way, there’s justification for calling “trend”.)

    The fact that these are often the highest sellers buttresses your point, Mike. People want a comfortable setting in CBA, not necessarily a challenging one.

    As to Amish fiction…someday I may blog about it. As a Mennonite I’m continually offended by the Amish books I pick up. They lack any versimilitude and treat all Amish like whitewashed cartoons of happy joy…except for whatever lame conflict is thrown up to drive the story.

    • Jill April 17, 2012, 11:01 AM

      I thought life among the Amish was perfect and ideal. What are you saying?

    • R.J. Anderson April 17, 2012, 6:06 PM

      They are books with modern mores, cultural attitudes and roles all plucked from the 2000s and dumped in an historic setting.

      The Christian equivalent of DR. QUINN: MEDICINE WOMAN, then?

  • Iola April 17, 2012, 2:10 PM

    Personally, I am rapidly getting over Christian Historical Fiction for the same reason that I am over Amish fiction (although I’ve recently read and reviewed a couple of very good Amish and Mennonite mysteries). CHF (especially romance) is very repetitive, and some of the new authors feel like they are just following a trend rather than writing where their heart is. Some can’t even bother to get basic facts right (like the fact that a Regency Romance is set during the time when the King was not the ruler – the Prince Regent was).

    My other pet dislike is some of the more established authors who feel they have to add an ‘edgy’ side to their Christian Historical by making their heroine an ex-prostitute (usually forced into the profession by an abusive family member). Apparently the American West was settled entirely by protitutes and Christian virgins.

  • Marcia April 17, 2012, 2:28 PM

    I’m with Ally on this. Historical has been prominent in Christian fiction for some time. I was writing MG series in the CBA in the 90s. Along with the examples Ally gave, many of the MG series being published then were historical. Hilda Stahl was just one such author. But then publishers began to ask for contemporary, so I think they too felt that historical was glutting the market just a little too much. However, they went back to it for a time when Dear America became a hit in the mainstream.

    Mike, I think you’ve hit on part of it: the popularity of historical among Christians has to do with being able to avoid todays mores and go back to a time with more manners, chivalry, stricter social sanctions (yes, even to the point of repression, as someone said). In other words, it’s just a whole lot easier to both meet the standards of the Christian industry yet write believable characters and dialogue if you write historical. Writers and readers alike want to retreat to the past for this reason.

    But I see this at work, too: It’s easier to write believable Christian characters, period, in the past. It’s just more credible to many that people of the past would speak more openly about God. There was more biblical literacy, more church attendance, in the past. But put a lot of Jesus dialogue into the mouths of contemporary characters, and it’s just very, very hard to make your book NOT sound like a tract in disguise. In other words, the CBA’s desire for overtly evangelical fiction can be more plausibly and palatably satisfied by historical.

    • Mike Duran April 17, 2012, 6:20 PM

      “It’s easier to write believable Christian characters, period, in the past.”

      Marcia, this says a lot about the type of faith evangelical readers may be cultivating — a faith that is more comfortable in another era. If this is so, it would mean we are woefully out of touch with modern man. If we have a hard time constructing believable characters for the 21st century, it makes me wonder if our faith — not to mention our writing — needs an overhaul.

      • Heather Day Gilbert April 18, 2012, 5:40 AM

        I don’t think historical fiction has to be woefully out of touch. Honestly, I wouldn’t write it if I thought it were. For instance, my some of my Vikings will have addictions to deal with (or not): http://jordynredwood.blogspot.com/2012/04/research-driving-you-berserk.html. I think we can make history as relevant as we need to. After all, humans have struggled with the same emotions since God created them (though maybe not exactly the same situations).

        But I get what you’re saying. We’re not living in an Amish wonderland today (honestly, the Amish aren’t either! It’s a difficult life, filled with long hours of hard labor!), so we have to know how to bring those situations to a relatable level for our readers. Otherwise, how can they have any effect?

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