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Top Trends in History Nonfiction Writing

by Barry Trott

*This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of RA News.*

Reading trends rise and fall and rise again in both fiction and nonfiction. This continuous cycle requires that readers' advisors be on the alert for not only what is popular now, but also what will be coming to our readers' attention next. In nonfiction such as history writing, these trends are often driven by popular culture trends, anniversaries, and historic discoveries. By keeping alert to what history finds are being talked about in the media, readers' advisors can have an edge on the next wave of narrative history titles. The titles below all reflect some current trends, but there are undoubtedly new topics and titles that are in production even as this piece is being written. So keep an ear to the radio, and an eye to popular magazines like Smithsonian, National Geographic, American History, and History Today, to be aware of what your readers are going to be looking for. 

World War I

With the anniversary of World War I we have seen an uptick in titles dealing with the causes and campaigns of the war. Authors are exploring new aspects of the war, particularly the campaigns in the Middle East (The First World War in the Middle East by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen and The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East by Eugene L. Rogan). Wounded: A New History of the Western Front in World War I by Emily Mayhew takes an interesting perspective on the war by looking at the experiences of war casualties and their caregivers.  A reexamination of the causes of the war can be found in A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire by Geoffrey Wawro and The War that Ended Peace: the Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan. An excellent recent general introduction to the Great War is World War I Companion edited by Matthias Strohn.

Battle of Waterloo

Another anniversary that is approaching in the summer of 2015 is the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo, so be prepared to stock up on all things Napoleonic. Two recent biographies about the Little Corporal are Napoleon by Andrew Roberts and Napoleon: The End of Glory by Munro Price. New titles on the battle itself are already out or forthcoming. Keep an eye out for The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo by Brendan Simms and Waterloo: A New History by Gordon Corrigan. Don't forget your nautical Napoleonic readers, and make sure to have a copy of In the Hour of Victory: The Royal Navy at War in the Age of Nelson by Sam Willis in the collection. 

Plantagents are In, Tudors are Out

The Plantagents are In, the Tudors are Out. Having mined the Tudors for literary gold, the attention of narrative history has now has turned to the Plantagenets and their offspring. The discovery of the body of King Richard III certainly helped this trend catch on, and readers will be looking for titles such as The King's Grave: The Discovery of Richard III's Lost Burial Place and the Clues it Holds by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones and Digging for Richard III: The Search for the Lost King by Mike Pitts. The Plantagenets by Dan Jones is a superb introduction to this frequently disturbing family as is Demon's Brood: A History of the Plantagenet Dynasty by Desmond Seward. A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris should also be on your radar. Another interesting look at the Plantagenet era can be found in The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones by Thomas S. Asbridge. 

Remembering Moments in Time

"Do you remember when . . . .?" A current trend in historical narrative is to look at history through titles that capture a moment, a month, a year in history, and then illuminate that time through short sketches of the people and events. Start with America 1933 by Michael Golay or One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson to get the feel for these snapshot histories. Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring 20s by Lucy Moore is another excellent entry in the trend. For some narrower focuses, try Down to the Last Pitch: How the 1991 Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves Gave Us the Best World Series of All Time by Tim Wendell or Boundaries: How the Mason-Dixon Line Settled a Family Feud & Divided a Nation by Sally M. Walker.

A similar trend in history writing that is that seems to be building a head of steam is to look at history through the objects and things that have survived the years. Titles in this area are usually easily identified by titles like The First World War in 100 Objects (John Hughes-Wilson), A History of War in 100 Battles (R. J. Overy), The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites (Libby Haight O'Connell), or The History of the Book in 100 Books (Roderick Cave). You get the idea.

Women's Lives

Women's lives continue to be of interest in the 900s and biography section in the library. Whether as the powers behind the thrones or powering the factories, we are seeing a resurgence of women's stories. Here are some titles that you should suggest to readers. Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott, and The Deadly Sisterhood: A Story of Women, Power, and Intrigue in the Italian Renaissance, 1427-1527 by Leonie Frieda all look at groups of influential women in three very different periods. The Founding Mothers continue to be of interest, and Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and her Two Remarkable Sisters by Diane Jacobs is a great story. The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan brings to light the too often overlooked contributions of women to the war effort during WWII.

True Crime

In our final trend, True Crime continues its move from the mass-market paperbacks to respectable hardcovers, with titles that explore unusual crimes through the ages. Although some of the titles could almost be a MadLibs game -- The [era adjective] [crime] the [past-tense verb] [city name] (e.g. The Valentino Affair: The Jazz Age Murder Scandal that Shocked New York Society and Gripped the World by Colin Evans), these are fascinating titles that bring history to life through crime and punishment. Here are some recent additions that you should keep an eye out for: Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World's Greatest Art Heist by Stephen Kurkjian, The Death of Caesar: The Story of History's Most Famous Assassination by Barry S. Strauss, God's Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican by Gerald L. Posner, Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans by Gary Krist, and The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, the Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation by Harold Schechter. 

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Barry Trott is Special Projects Director at Williamsburg Regional Library, editor of RUSQ, RUSA's peer-reviewed journal, and Past President of RUSA.