Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction – Course Review

I was introduced to Coursera by my partner who suggested the writing course – Crafting an Effective Writer – might be of use to me. These MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses are free and provide an insight into various subjects, from history and writing to science and philosophy.  The writing course was fairly basic but it never hurts to go over what one knows and fill in gaps. That course will be discussed elsewhere.  Below is my review of the Historical Fiction course run by the University of Virginia and Professor Holsinger.

Plagues, Witches, and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction

This course appealed to me as a reader of historical fiction and a writer of fantasy. There are elements shared by both genres and it is never bad to consider how someone else sees the world in their books.  The course begins with an overview of the origins of the historical novel, and what is expected within the genre. Historical fiction is diverse, from romance to tragedy and semi-biographical accounts.

Definition: “A genre of imaginative narratives set in the past whose authors make a deliberate effort to convey chronologically remote settings, cultures, and personages with accuracy, plausibility and depth,” Bruce Holsinger.

So what does this mean? Fiction set in a real scenario, for example ancient Rome, or Civil War America featuring fictional characters, or even real persons speaking with the author’s voice. One of the visiting authors discussed emotions – emotions rarely change and thus it is plausible to assume a character would feel a certain way in a certain situation. The characters, or scenarios are not real, but the background is, as it were.  Some well known Historical Fiction texts would be Gone with the Wind, The Other Boleyn Girl, or The Last of the Mohicans. As you can see these are a diverse mix of subjects by diverse authors.

Historical Fiction continues to be a popular genre but in many ways it is very complex. World building is necessary in any novel but in the worlds of Historical Fiction the world is often there, for the researcher to find. It needs to be convincing – the ‘accuracy’ factor of Professor Holsinger’s definition. The key is research – what did people of that era eat? How did they live? What transport did they use? What religion did they follow? Whilst this is the case in world building for other genres because this world is real the accuracy needs to be there. Unconvincing scenarios will throw a reader out of the story. Research is more important here than perhaps elsewhere.

Plausibility is an important factor for a writer, even one who writes fantasy, after all much can be explained with magic but not all. Even magic has to have a basis in the possible, to understand the impossible one has to understand the possible. Fantasy worlds are often based around Middle Ages Europe or ancient Eurasian cultures and so knowledge of these eras and cultures is helpful.  Depth of course is a necessity, both in the worlds we create, and read and the characters which inhabit them. Shallow characters are weak, and the reader may end up not caring about their fate. This is true of any fiction. Historical fiction, in its basis in fact, has to work doubly hard to attain this, especially with popular or well-known personages.

There was a conversation on the forums about the ethical side of interpreting real events from the point of view of someone who did not exist, or claiming a person who did exist dealt with situations in such a way which was unreal, or possibly unreal. The key here is FICTION, the writer is not saying it was so, only that is MIGHT have been so. There is, of course, the risk that adherents of the personage may disagree.

One prototype historical story was Xenophone’s Cyropaedia  (4th Century BCE) – a fictionalised account of Cyrus the Great of Persia, although this was not a novel but a fictional political treatise. (George Saintsbury). Saintsbury later assess the Greek and Roman myths, Icelandic myths, the literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance and culminates in the works of Sir Walter Scott. Although Saintsbury’s work is now little outdated the basis is there for what we now regard as vital for the historical fiction novel (The Historical Novel).  There is some assumption that there is a fictional element within established history and this can be distinguished from historical non-fiction.

The latter parts of the course discuss specific works and feature online interviews with authors who discuss their books.The authors are very frank in their discussions and it is a good insight into the writing process, the importance of research and the motivations of a writer.  As a reader the course offers some excerpts and full novels which, otherwise, I may not have considered.  There is a lot of reading required, in a fairly short timescale, and I admit I fell behind with this. I am not convinced all the reading is necessary. The seminars with the visiting authors are not great quality and at least one I ended up watching with the subtitles on as the video kept dipping out.

Readings include:

The Love Artist by Jane Allison (see review linked below); The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe (dealing with witchcraft); The Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (dealing with the plague in an English Village); Fever by Mary Bethe Keane (dealing with Mary Mallon – typhoid Mary) and The Ghost Bride by Yangsee Choo (dealing with the Chinese traditions of the afterlife).

Plus supplementary readings from Dickens, Faulkner, Walter Scott, William Wells Brown and several more.

I feel the course could benefit from running for longer, enabling students to keep up with the reading, however this Coursera course is free and a good insight into the genre, writing and research.  I will continue to post the reviews of the reading as I complete it. If you have the time I would recommend this course – I found books I would not otherwise have read and the discussion forums were lively.  As the final assignment was dealing with archival sources and encouraged students to think of a story around the one they sourced who knows, perhaps something will come from that.

So what next? I am signed up for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World which starts in February. As I am also taking a history course at the same time I expect to be kept very busy!

8 thoughts on “Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction – Course Review

    1. They are pretty good. There are tons to choose from. I am doing the fantasy/sci fi one next, then there are a couple of history ones lined up after that. You don’t have to be a writer, although it is useful if you are but as a reader learning how books are crafted, and what inspired the author is interesting. For this course you are expected to get hold of the books but many of them are pretty cheap – I got 2 from amazon for hardly a bean save the postage. As a fantasy writer the course was helpful, research and accessing archival sources, character building and the writing process are helpful tips.


  1. This was my first MOOCS course. I had never heard of free online classes. I have always loved reading historical fiction, so this class caught my eye. I absolutely loved the class. I learned so much more than I would have expected, about this genre that I love. I am retired, and have plenty of time to read, so I was able to do all the reading suggested and or required. It led me to many books that I may not have discovered without the course syllabus, along with the forums that gave a wonderful reading list for the future. I think Professor Holsinger was very engaging, accessible and participated with us, even in the discussion forums, facebook, his own blog, etc. Great experience ! 🙂


    1. I agree, I found some books I probably wouldn’t have considered. I did find the reading schedule a bit much but I do have a full time job, writing commitments and for the first couple of weeks was doing another course. I was so please, Professor Holsinger saw my review and thanked me via facebook. He shared to his own blog and I have had a lot of interest in the post. Hopefully it will encourage others to look into these courses. I have studied online before, as I have a diploma in Classical Studies with the Open Uni, and a lot of that was online. One does need to devote the time to it but it’s well worth it. Hopefully the fantasy and sci-fi one will be as good.


    2. I agree with all the comments so far, I also just finished this course and am signed up for the fantasy and science fiction one coming up. I found this course to be a good introduction to historical fiction and I too read books I wouldn’t normally pick up. Also, as a side note I found all the books in my local library, so this course really was free for me:) Since I found coursera and also ed x (and saylor also has some fantastic English literature courses) I have become addicted to MOOCS, and I recommend them to everyone and anyone who is interested in learning,


      1. Maybe I will see you on the Fantasy one:) I have read some of that reading list already, although not recently. I will look forward to checking out the rest. I should really leave a review for the Crafting an Effective Writer course as well. There are quite a few free/low cost online courses and although it is a form of study which doesn’t suit everyone judging by the sign ups for these it is populr. It is a great way to make new friends, find new knowledge and experience new books and ideas.


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