Are we about to enter a golden age of historical fiction?
A recent article in the BBC gave a fairly good run-down of how book sales are looking two months into pandemic lockdown. It was no surprise to me that historical fiction is leading the pack. Naturally, authors and other publishing professionals all around the world have been discussing how the pandemic will impact our industry and our businesses, and since it became clear that widespread lockdowns were coming, and would persist for months (if not a year-plus), I've been telling my fellow writers the same thing: Fiction set in contemporary times is going to take a hit in popularity. Fiction set in the past or in the future (either a distant, "hard" sci-fi setting or a near-future, "soft" setting) will rule the 2020s. I think it's even possible that historical fiction will finally become so broadly popular and thematically important that it stumbles upon its own "golden age", like the one the sci-fi genre experienced in the 1960s and 1970s, when the genre was the home of visionary and ground-breaking writers.
To some degree, I think there will be room for contemporary settings, but I don't think most of those books will succeed unless there is an element of otherworldliness about them--a hint of Allende-ish magical realism, a little Niffenegger-like supernatural weirdness. But by and large, contemporary settings are going to struggle pretty hard until the 2030s at least.
My reasons for feeling this way are pretty simple: Nobody knows what the contemporary world even is anymore. This pandemic, and the political movements that will arise in response, is fundamentally reshaping everything about humanity: The way we interact with our communities; the way we interact globally, as nations; what problems we prioritize and how to solve them; the way we learn, work, obtain our day-to-day necessities; the way we travel; the way we find entertainment and solace and love. Everything is different. Everything is changed, and will change more, until we finally settle into a "new normal." The new normal won't bear much resemblance to the normal we knew in the first two months of the year 2020. "Contemporary fiction" is effectively donezo, because "contemporary" has no more rational definition, and won't for quite some time to come, and when the new definition emerges, it will make the contemporariness we were all comfortable with eleven weeks ago seem curiously outdated--charmingly retro at best, hopelessly naive and silly at worst.
And the pandemic isn't the only driver of this change. As we begin to feel more impacts from climate change, and struggle for ways to cope with those disruptions, the delay in finding a "new normal", a new definition of the word "contemporary", will grow longer. It will take us a while to find our way through this present thicket of history, folks. The ways and realities we took for granted a few weeks ago are gone forever. We aren't going back. (I happen to think that's a net positive, though of course we are going through some really miserable circumstances in order to get to that positive result.)
So, what does all this mean for us as writers? People are going to want to hold onto something that feels familiar, yet "contemporary" now feels as alien as the surface of another world.
You know what's still nice and recognizable, though? THE PAST.
That's great news for those of us who are already established in the genre of historical fiction. But for the rest of us, I have a simple message of hope: FEAR NOT. The vast majority of stories are essentially the same at their heart, regardless of setting. Most stories are about the ways we struggle with ourselves or with each other, and the truths at the cores of these stories remain the same no matter where (or when) they're set. If you've been dying to tell the story of two people falling in love, or a woman struggling to rise against cultural misogyny, or religious enemies learning how to co-exist as friends, or any other fascinating tale you'd intended to set in contemporary times, the good news is, you can probably just choose a historical setting and plunk your tale down into that setting and no one will know the difference. Stories are basically universal. The majority of them transcend time and place. Your writing career isn't dead in the water just because contemporariness has taken an extended leave of absence.
If you're worried about historical settings because you think you're going to have to do a ton of research to make it ring true, I have good news about that, too. While you'll have to do some research, for sure, it's probably not as much work as you're dreading... and also, learning about other historical periods is pretty fun. You might discover a latent nerdery over some historical era you never paid much attention to before. (I'm presently engrossed by the golden age of piracy, myself. Yarrr.) But although readers of the genre certainly do expect a bit of fact and accuracy mixed into their fiction, the story itself outweighs the setting's details every time. You can and should stop researching at a certain point and just get back to writing. I go over how to know when you've done enough research in my how-to book for authors, Making It in Historical Fiction, which I wrote years ago and never expected would have a very broad readership, but here we are, on the verge of a renaissance in historical fiction, which will see publishers hungering for more HF manuscripts than the current array of authors can supply. So maybe more folks will find it useful than I'd originally anticipated.
By the way, last week while I was wrapping up a deal with my agent, she told me she'd had several conversations with acquisitions editors and a few other publishing professionals that confirmed historical fiction will be the next big trend, at least for a handful of years. "We're looking to historical fiction," one of these professionals told her. "We think readers are going to want stories about the past much more than they're going to want stories about right now, or about an unknown future."