Saturday, August 3, 2013

The ABCs of Historical Fiction

by Mary Tod


In 2012, I conducted a reader survey that reached more than 800 people from around the world. Participants explained why they read historical fiction, what time periods and geographies they prefer, their reading habits, favorite authors and favorite sources of recommendations.

In The Historical Novel, Jerome de Groot suggests that those who write historical fiction “put the flesh back on the skeleton that is history”. Readers, it seems, love the ‘flesh’ that de Groot refers to and relish the learning that goes along with their enjoyment.

What seems obvious and was reinforced by the survey is the following ‘equation’:
Authors + Books => Conversations.


A: Let’s talk about authors first.


In the 2012 survey, favorite authors abound with over 400 different names mentioned. Of the Top 40, readers chose 29 female authors and 11 male authors, likely a reflection of the high percentage of female participation. Several Top 40 authors, like Plaidy, Seton and Austen are deceased. Even though each geographic region reads its own authors to some extent, people from those regions still nominated the same ‘global’ authors in high proportions. Except Colleen McCullough (Australia) and Geraldine Brooks (Australia and US), all Top 40 authors live in either UK or US.

For the most part, these authors base their stories in long ago periods, writing about well-known historical figures either in a central or significant role. Many have written series or have concentrated on a particular time period so readers know what to expect and are familiar with their main characters.

I’ve interviewed a number of the top 40. All are serious researchers who work hard to select compelling bits of history and to ensure historical accuracy. All are dedicated storytellers who are passionate about their characters. Many invest considerable time interacting with readers. Most talk about luck and perseverance, about trusting their instincts and the long struggle to achieve recognition.

B: And then there are the books these authors create.

Based on further analysis and my own reading, I believe that the following ingredients make these favorite authors stand out.

Superb writing. This ingredient covers prose, pacing, emotional resonance, plot twists and entertainment value. Table stakes for high quality fiction of any genre.

Dramatic arc of historical events. In essence, successful authors are masters at finding and selecting what Hilary Mantel calls ‘the dramatic shape in real events’.

Characters both heroic and human. Readers want to experience famous figures as believable characters complete with doubts and flaws. Readers also seek stories showing every day people accomplishing heroic tasks in times very different from today.

Immersed in time and place. Activating all senses, authors like Sharon Kay Penman, Bernard Cornwell, Margaret George and others transport readers to another era from the very first paragraphs of their novels.

Corridors of power. Whether Ancient Rome, Tudor England or the American Civil War, best selling novels expose the structure, corruption and machinations of monarchy, military, religion, law, nobility, and upper-class society.

Authentic and educational. Readers love to learn. The hallmark of a top historical fiction author is meticulous research followed by carefully chosen information to create a seamless blend of history and story.

Ageless themes. Favorite historical fiction dramatizes thought-provoking themes that are as important today as they were long ago.

High stakes. Life, kingdoms, epic battles, fortunes, marriage, family. In historical fiction, characters risk on a grand scale.

Sex and love. Men and women from long ago rarely chose their partners. Love was often thwarted. Women were pawns. Favorite authors incorporate this type of conflict into their stories. In addition, sex is frequently depicted as a turning point in the lives of heroes and heroines.

Dysfunctional families. Kings beheading their queens, brothers killing brothers, daughters betrothed at the age of six, incest, rivalry between father and son, wives banished or locked away – merely a few examples of dysfunctional family life that are the subjects of successful historical fiction.

C: Authors create books; books create conversations.


Readers have always talked about the books they enjoy whether one on one with friends, in book clubs, or in gatherings and conferences dedicated to books. The online sphere has enhanced such conversations such that we can talk to almost anyone, anywhere, anytime about books, authors and the reading experience.

One survey insight that surprised me is the extent to which people are engaging in conversations about the books they read using purpose-built venues like Goodreads, Shelfari, and Library Thing, online retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, the online versions of more traditional publications like The London Review of Books or USA Today, and an endless (and growing) number of book review blogs and book forums.

In the 2012 survey, 562 participants listed their favourite reading oriented websites, blogs and social media sites. The winners in connecting readers with other readers through book reviews and related topics share three attributes: thoughtful, trustworthy information about books, opportunities for an exchange of ideas, and a community of like-minded readers.

People love to talk about books.

They engage in lively debates about titles both popular and obscure. They choose to hang out with like-minded folks based on genre, author, time period or geography. They write reviews that are as good as (if not as lengthy as) many well-known reviewers. They catalogue their titles and share them on Facebook, Twitter and other places. They participate in monthly book read-a-longs and yearly challenges. They dedicate time and thoughtful effort to the craft of reading with an ever-widening circle of connections in the online world.

Beyond readers in conversation with other readers, authors are finding new ways to converse with their audience both during the writing process and afterwards. Take Elizabeth Chadwick as an example. Almost every day, Elizabeth posts the opening and closing lines from that day’s work on Facebook. It’s an intriguing way to stay connected while in the midst of the lengthy story-writing process. Let’s hear from some other top 40 authors on how they connect with readers.

“I maintain an active social media presence … as well as an e-mail address where any reader can write to me. I answer all my e-mail personally, even though the volume can be overwhelming at times.” C.W. Gortner

“I confess I was hesitant about venturing onto Facebook at first, but I soon became addicted. In addition to my personal Facebook page, my readers have set up three Facebook fan clubs, and I try to stop by as often as I can.” Sharon Kay Penman

Beyond blogging and Facebook, Susan Higginbotham runs a reader-oriented bulletin board, Historical Fiction Online. “… I’ve made some wonderful friends through these sites and have had some great discussions about books and history.”

“I try to make myself as accessible as possible, particularly [to] those with questions about the history behind the books.”
Michelle Moran

“I talk to readers at Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and on blogs, and I just treat them as I would like to be trated myself when talking to someone about a subject I’m interested in. I chat. I sometimes have a giggle … I’m just me.”
Elizabeth Chadwick

“I blog, I am on Facebook and Twitter, and I do phone-in chats for reading groups. I also answer all of my personal email myself … if someone takes the time to write an email or letter, they will get one back.” Deanna Raybourn

“I love chatting and ‘meeting’ new people online.”
Helen Hollick

Authors are connecting much more directly with readers. Information about upcoming books is more accessible than in the past. Book related conversations, along with those who curate them, are gaining more and more influence.


Authors. Books. Conversations. It’s a changing world.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two Wars. Two Affairs. One Marriage, will release in paperback and ebook formats in September 2013. To contact Mary, send an email to mktod [at] outlook [dot] com or on Twitter @mktodauthor. She is also on Goodreads and Facebook.

1 comment:

  1. I love this post- extremely interesting!! It's a great time for readers and authors. Never before has there been so much communication between the two. This closer rapport engages the reader to want to read more and authors to keep on writing- a win-win situation:) thanks for doing this survey!

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