When I was growing up, I read a lot of historical fiction like the novels about the American Revolution by the great Kenneth Roberts. Those led me to non-fiction and biography as a way to learn more about, and to appreciate, history. It's a love that continues to this day. And I also continue to veer back and forth between reading the serious views of the history of an era and the novels that describe the same period.
I'm not sure how I discovered "Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre" by Sarah L. Johnson but it is a great find, tailor-made for readers like me. The book is one of the titles in the "Genreflecting Advisory Series" geared to library staff. Locally it is part of the South Central Library System's "professional collection," which includes a circulating copy of the book. No matter what type of fiction you're interested in — teen romance, Jewish-American, African-American, horror, sci-fi — there is a Genreflecting guide.
Though "Historical Fiction" was only published in 2005, there is already a Vol. II to this particular subject. According to the author's website, Vol. I covers over 3,800 historical novels, 1995-2004, arranged by subgenre. Vol. II — published in March 2009 — is a guide to over 2,700 historical novels, 2004-present, plus info on the latest trends. Mind boggling, huh?
The thing that makes this such a useful tool for librarians and readers alike, is that the book begins with a discussion about the appeal of the past, what readers are looking for, and the various "appeal factors" in this subject, such as type of character, pacing, level of realism. Then the titles are arranged by a finely-calibrated subgenre categorization with sections on traditional historical novels, multi-period epics, Westerns, historical mysteries, literary historical novels and so forth. And then those categories are further broken down by period (ancient civilizations, Victorian) and country or geographic region.
So that means you can hone in on a very specific group of titles that will appeal to you. Or you can find a whole new area to explore. I began by looking for titles and authors that I had already read in a particular category to see what Johnson said about them. Then I went to the library looking for my list of suggested new authors and titles. I currently have home a selection of books by three authors dealing with the WWI era, both straight-out mystery novels and literary titles. The first book I started was so compelling that I am about to finish the fifth and final book in the series (which I will write about another time).
If you like to read in a particular area, I would suggest looking for the Genreflecting guide that fits your taste. Johnson's volume on Historial Fiction has proved so immediately rewarding that I could imagine using it as a guide for a long time. Johson also has her own blog: Reading the Past, where she reviews books including titles that are out of print. Another bonus for someone like me who is already a fan of publishers of out of print lit like Persephone Books.