A Corpus-based Comparison of Historical Novels and General Fiction

Term Paper, 2018

27 Pages, Grade: 1,3

Tim Wenninger (Author)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Historical Novels - A quick overview of general characteristics

3. Data and methods

4. Results and discussion
4.1. Royalty, clergy and the common man
4.2. Landscapes and lighting
4.3. The human body and its behaviour
4.4. Drinking, driving and discovering
4.5. A variety of accommodations
4.6. Fashion and profession
4.7. War, waves and weapons

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

Everyone who has been to a book store within the last decade will have undoubtedly noticed the big bookshelves displaying novels that have made it on the bestseller list. Whilst many people might assume that the majority of these books are simply fictional novels, there are, however, a large number of historical novels among these bestsellers. Books by Ken Follett or Dan Brown are most certainly known by everyone interested in reading novels. The growing popularity of historical novels not only becomes evident by looking at the public perception, but also by considering the number of seminars and research papers that deal with this topic on an academic level.

Given the fact that historical novels have been enjoying increased popularity over the last couple of years, it is without doubt that these novels have to feature certain distinctive characteristics that make them stand out with regard to general fiction. Therefore, this term paper seeks to illustrate possible ways in which historical novels differ from common literary works. This will be done by using a corpus-based analysis in order to find word patterns or sentence structures that occur more frequently in historical novels.

Considering my own experiences from reading historical novels and the common knowledge of many historical periods, certain assumption can be put forward concerning the increased likeliness of words connected to religion, warfare and royalty being encountered in this corpus-based research. However, not only will it remain to be seen if these intuitions are valid, but it will also be interesting to observe if other not aforehand mentioned categories can be identified based on the results provided by this corpus analysis.

The first section of this paper will give a short overview of historical novels in general and thereby also a first impression of common characteristics. The following section will briefly summarize the methods which have been used to gain useful corpus-based information. The main body of this paper will then discuss and categorize the results with the aim of providing a solid base for a final concluding statement concerning our hypothesis.

2. Historical Novels - A quick overview of general characteristics

Historical novels represent a genre which gives room to the author’s creative inventions combined with historical accuracy (Boccardi 2009: 13). Some scholars locate historical novels on the edge between reality and fiction because the readers are inspired to learn something about historical events by interacting with them through the imaginative story line (7). This interaction between history and fiction can be rather productive since it not only provides the reader with some information about the historical context but also comments on these events through the behavior of the characters (5).

This commenting on the past represents one key feature of historical novels - retrospection (5). Fleishman comments on retrospection as the authors’ ability to look back on past events from their present point of view and then use their knowledge and experience to interpret the historical occurrences intelligibly (Fleishman 1971: 24). On the narrative level, this two-folded time frame is frequently expressed through the use of verbs in the past tense and through constructing the narrative into a beginning, middle and end. This is believed to create a more distinct feeling of progression, temporality and reality in the reader’s mind (Boccardi 2009: 9f.).

After having mentioned some information concerning the narrative of historical novels, this paragraph will look at the plot which in many cases mainly circles around the lives of individuals. These representations of lives focus on the individual’s interaction “with his or her social, geographical and historical surroundings” (22). In many cases plots are constructed in a way in which individuals are confronted with major historical events such as maybe social changes, religious disagreement or full-scale war. Boccardi mentions that many plots are constructed this way in order to see how an individual reacts to these obstacles (25). Additionally, it should also be pointed out that numerous historical novels imbed some sort of love relationship in their plot (22). All these elements help to attract consumers since, as Boccardi point out, they “engage the reader in an emotional response to characters and events” (22).

Another key aspect of historical novels is generally its description of society and the economy. Especially portrayals of everyday life can frequently be found in the narrative of historical novels (10f.). Another aspect that needs to be considered can be found by looking at Simmons who argues that many authors of historical novels, such as Dickens, Kingsley and Abbot use the plot of their historical novels to contextualize contemporary social problems of their times. This would then turn the past in their stories into a reflection of the present (Simmons 2015: 21).

One last feature of historical novels which should not be forgotten are collocations. Authors of historical novels often like to use collocations, especially when they consist of archaic elements (Siepmann 28). Many scholars agree that collocations are of considerable significance for the impression of literariness in a reader’s mind (18). Amossy and Dufays name a number of reasons why collocations are of central importance for literary texts. Collocations offer for example a possibility to include stereotypes and recognizable idiomatic expressions in a text, which hence provide a more familiar frame for the reader. Additionally, Amossy and Dufays underline the fact that collocations increase the quality of a text in terms of its literary aestheticism (Amossy 1982: 38, Dufays 2011: 229-331). Certain grammatical constructions, such as collocations, are a frequently used option for authors to “present characters’ thoughts, feelings and motives as they unfold before their consciousness” (Siepmann 26).

This first step of recognizing some key characteristics of historical novels should provide useful background information for the analysis of the results in the following chapters. Special emphasize will be put on the identification of common collocations and the description of daily lives.

3. Data and methods

For the obtaining of data, a system called Lexiscope was used which included a corpus consisting of historical novels and a corpus of general novels. The historical novel corpus consisted of 17,764,261 words and the general novel corpus of 17,442,917. The loglike setting was 10.

The conducted search was particularly focused on the frequency of noun constructions, which often represents the head of collocations. Consequently, there were many encounters with nouns in combination with verbs, articles or prepositions. The most prominent combinations were normally used by forty to eighty different authors.

However, as it can be seen by the size of the corpora, this analysis will only be able to provide a first simple indication of which key words and sentence constructions occur significantly more frequently in historical novels.

4. Results and discussion

The following seven chapters illustrate the results of the corpus-based key word search. Since it is important to look at collocations instead of single key words, the following lists will include key words in combination with verbs, articles, pronouns and prepositions. After examining the list of key-words and collocations, it became apparent rather quickly that many frequently appearing items on the list could be clustered into topic-specific categories. The following seven categories therefore represent a balanced overview of words and expressions which appear above average in historical novels. A small introduction will be given to each category at the beginning of the respective chapter, only to afterwards be followed by a brief discussion of the results which will include a number of suggestions on how these results came to place.

4.1. Royalty, clergy and the common man

This chapter aims at representing the structure of society depicted in historical novels. Due to the fact that in the past most societies were shaped by hierarchical structures, the following findings have been subdivided into royalty, clergy and the common man. This will help to understand the utterances which authors of historical novels used to refer to a certain group of people and their rank in society. Additional attention will be given to certain utterances frequently used in communication with for instance people of a higher social rank.


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Other less frequent items appearing more often in historical novels: altar (3x), in the name of God (3x), my soul (4x), the Lord’s prayer (2x).

Before moving on to the findings concerning the common people, a quick addition shall be made about elements in regard to authentic communicative utterances, which as it appears authors like to use rather frequently.

183 – I beg your pardon (17x)

141 – I am obliged (to sb) (fewer than 5 occurrences in the other corpus)

116 – (to have) the pleasure of (2x)

79 – (to have) the honour of

72 – If I am (not) mistaken (4,5x)

The common man:

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These results definitely present ample evidence for the hypothesis that words connected to royalty and religion appear more frequently than in general fiction. It is interesting to observe that the words attached to royalty most commonly appear in the genitive case which might be explained by the fact that rulers were the people who owned more things than any other people in those times.

The items associated with the church and its clerics revealed only two noteworthy features such as monks not even occurring once in the other corpus and the oral expression “By God” which was mainly used at the beginning of a sentence. The latter construction is rather remarkable showing considerable similarities to the modern expression “oh my God” and thereby providing a helpful example which clearly shows a distinction between the use of language in historical novels and general fiction.

A final look at the items in the common man category lends additional credence to the assumption that historical novels include many hierarchical structures by including characters in the role of slaves, servants and prisoners. These differences in society also express themselves through the use of certain aforementioned set phrases which put special emphasis on behaving respectfully when talking to people of a higher rank.

4.2. Landscapes and lighting

This section will look at utterances connected to landscapes and lighting, which at first glance might not come as a surprise since most novels use a vast number of items describing nature and people’s surroundings. However, it becomes evident that certain items are still used far more frequently in historical novels than in general fiction.


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Excerpt out of 27 pages


A Corpus-based Comparison of Historical Novels and General Fiction
University of Osnabrück
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This book is an essential guide for everyone who wants to write their own historical novel. The paper provides an detailled overview of which choice of words will definitely distinguish your historical novel from other works of general fiction.
corpus-based, comparison, historical, novels, general, fiction
Quote paper
Tim Wenninger (Author), 2018, A Corpus-based Comparison of Historical Novels and General Fiction, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/459812


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