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

University of Virginia

A unique and exciting introduction to the genre and craft of historical fiction, for curious students, aspiring authors--anyone with a passion for the past. Read classics of the genre, encounter bestselling writers of historical fiction, and discover your own historical archive while interacting with a global community of interested readers.

Plagues, Witches, and War will provide an engaging introduction to the genre and craft of historical fiction. You will learn about some of the classics in the genre while encountering five established and emerging authors of historical fiction (including a Pulitzer Prize winner and several New York Times bestsellers) who will be visiting our class as guest writers.

In Parts 1 and 3, I'll introduce the genre to you, and we'll read together from a number of classic historical novels from England and the US: Scott’s Waverley (often described as the first historical novel), Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (set in Paris and London during the French Revolution), William Wells Brown’s Clotel (the first novel in the African American literary tradition, set in part around the time of Thomas Jefferson), and several others. Given the length and complexity of these novels, lectures will cover selected excerpts only while providing an overview of the development of historical fiction during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We'll then move into the twentieth century, with lectures on modernism, metafiction, the mass market, and the New Historical Novel of Latin America. You should think of these parts of the course as providing a kind of toolkit for your future reading in the genre. What motivates certain writers to turn to particular historical moments, and what do they hope to find there? What creative challenges do historical settings and personages present to authors seeking to reimagine the past in fictional narrative?

Guided by similar questions, Parts 2 and 4-7 of the course will consist of a series of seminars on the craft of historical fiction. These seminars will feature five novelists who will be our guests for recorded workshop and discussion sessions as well as on-line forums and chats with Coursera students. We are lucky to have an extraordinary line-up of guest artists whose novels bring to life an array of past cultures, from ancient Rome to Renaissance England to nineteenth-century Malaysia. We will read selections from these authors’ novels along with some of the original historical sources that inspired their fiction. During these sessions our guests will discuss the process of research, the crafting of character, setting, and dialogue, and the challenges of historical fiction as a genre, among other topics. (See below for the list of guest writers.) 

Along with these introductions to the genre and craft of historical fiction, you will have a chance to research and, if you wish, begin crafting your own historical fiction. All students will be assigned to identify either a local archive in their immediate geographical area or a virtual archive on line. This archival component of the course, which you’ll be encouraged to share in the forums, on the course Facebook page, and over our Twitter stream, will expose you to a wealth of historical materials inspiring your peers around the world. For those wishing to attempt writing historical fiction themselves, an optional, ungraded assignment will allow you to post a brief piece of creative work to be read and commented upon by your fellow students. 

Historical fiction immerses us in the past in new and unexpected ways, even while teaching us much about the present. I hope you’ll join me as we explore this immensely rewarding genre and learn from some of its most talented contemporary practitioners.  


Here are our visiting writers, with links to their books and home pages:

Jane Alison, Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Virginia, is the author of three novels (including The Marriage of the Sea, a New York Times Notable Book for 2003) as well as a memoir, The Sisters Antipodes. We will be reading from her first novel, The Love Artist, featuring the poet Ovid and his mysterious exile from Rome to the shores of the Black Sea.

Geraldine Brooks, an internationally bestselling novelist whose works have been translated into dozens of languages, received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2006 for her novel March. She will visit our class to discuss Year of Wonders, which recreates a mountain village beset by plague in seventeenth-century England.

Yangsze Choo is the debut author of The Ghost Bride, a Fall 2013 selection in Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers series. The novel, set in colonial Malaysia in the 1890s, explores the Chinese world of spiritual marriage through the eyes of a young woman faced with dark secrets and an impossible choice.

Katherine Howe is a New York Times-bestselling novelist as well as a scholar and teacher of American culture. She will join us to discuss The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, which tells a transhistorical tale of witchcraft, magic, and persecution from the seventeenth century to the present.

Mary Beth Keane, author of The Walking People, received her MFA from the University of Virginia and in 2011 was named one of the 5 Under 25 by the National Book Foundation. Her novel Fever retells the story of “Typhoid Mary”: Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant identified as the first immune carrier of typhoid fever in America. 


"Plagues, Witches, and War": The Big Picture

An overview of "Plagues, Witches, and War" 
How to Get the Most Out of This Course

Unit 1: What Is Historical Fiction? 

1.1 Defining the Genre
1.2 The Pre-History of Historical Fiction
1.3 From Archive to Novel
1.4 The Question of Origins
1.5 Historical Fiction: A Global Genre

Unit 2: Poetry and Exile in Ancient Rome: Jane Alison

2.1 Seminar with Jane Alison on The Love Artist

Unit 3: Two Centuries of Historical Fiction 

3.1 Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales: Fiction on the Frontier 
3.2 Brown’s Clotel: Slavery, Fiction, and a Founding Father 
3.3 Dickens and the French Revolution: A Tale of Two Cities 
3.4 Anna Katharine Green and the Invention of the Historical Mystery 
3.5 Modernism, Metafiction, and the Mass Market, 1920-1980 
3.6 The New Historical Novel in Latin America 

Unit 4: Witchcraft and the Early Americas: Katherine Howe

4.1 Seminar with Katherine Howe on The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

Unit 5: A Plague Year in Renaissance England: Geraldine Brooks

5.1 Seminar with Geraldine Brooks on Year of Wonders

Unit 6: Disease and the Written City: Mary Beth Keane

6.1 Seminar with Mary Beth Keane on Fever

Unit 7: Ghosts and Marriage in Colonial Malaysia: Yangsze Choo

7.1 Seminar with Yangsze Choo on The Ghost Bride

Wrap-Up and Conclusions

Recommended Background

No background is required. All are welcome!

Suggested Readings

Links to on-line resources
Units 1 and 3 will cover a range of novels and other materials, many of them freely available on the web. Links will be provided to full texts of the nineteenth-century novels, with the excerpts discussed in lecture clearly identified by the instructor.


Units 2 and 4-7 will be devoted to five novels by our visiting writers. While authors will focus their seminars on specific excerpts that will be provided to students, you are encouraged to purchase these novels and read them in full (click on the title to visit each book's Amazon page): 

Jane Alison, The Love Artist
Geraldine Brooks, Year of Wonders
Yangsze Choo, The Ghost Bride
Katherine Howe, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
Mary Beth Keane, Fever

Course Format

The class will consist of several interrelated components:
  • Lecture videos, between 8-12 minutes in length, with some embedded quizzes
  • Segmented videos of seminar sessions and discussions with visiting writers
  • Interactions on discussion boards, our dedicated Twitter stream, and hangouts
  • Three quizzes, five brief author queries, an archival assignment, and an optional creative assignment 


  • Will I get a Statement of Accomplishment after completing this class?  Yes. Students who successfully complete the class will receive a Statement of Accomplishment bearing the instructor's signature.
  • What resources will I need for this class?  All you need for this class is an internet connection and the time to read, write a bit, and discuss marvelous works of literature with your peers.
  • What is the most interesting thing I'll learn if I take this class?  My hope is that you will learn an entirely new way to understand the past and its cultures.
  • Are there any required readings for this class?  Yes, though they are not extensive. I will provide links to the novels and other primary texts referred to in the lectures. 
  • Do I need to purchase any textbooks?  No. Purchase of our visiting writers' books is entirely optional (though strongly encouraged).
  • Will I be able to interact one-on-one with the visiting authors? Most likely not, given the anticipated size of the class. A number of students will have the opportunity to participate in Google hangouts with our visitors, and there will surely be some active and interesting exchanges on the discussion boards and Twitter, but it's difficult to imagine scaling up one-on-one exchanges to meet the hopes of 10,000 students! 
  • How can I get the most out of this class?  By listening carefully, reading closely, and interacting energetically with your classmates.     
  • 15 October 2013, 8 weeks
Course properties:
  • Free:
  • Paid:
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  • Language: English Gb


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