Guest Post: The ABCs of Historical Fiction
Earlier this year, I posted about Mary Tod’s reader survey regarding historical fiction. She’s finished the survey and has been blogging about the results. She wrote up a small summary of her findings which I thought DA’s readership might be interested in.
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History (www.awriterofhistory.com). Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two Wars. Two Affiars. One Marriage, will release in paperback and ebook formats in September 2013. Unravelled is on Goodreads at http://www.goodreads.com/
In 2012, I conducted a reader survey (http://wp.me/p29Qar-2L) 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 (http://wp.me/p29Qar-4I) 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 books share three attributes:
- thoughtful, trustworthy information about books,
- opportunities for an exchange of ideas, and
- a community of like-minded readers.
# of mentions
|Historical Fiction blogs/sites|
|Small book review blogs *|
|Library Thing & Shelfari|
|Author blogs and sites *|
|Big book review sites|
|Genre Sites *|
|Publishing & Industry sites|
|Newspapers – online|
|Other social media|
|General history sites|
|Do not use|
- Goodreads, historical fiction blogs and small book review blogs are the top three by a wide margin.
- Goodreads is the dominant site for book recommendations with 41% of readers listing it is a favourite.
- Adding Library Thing and Shelfari to the Goodreads number brings the category of interactive reader communities to 49.8%.
- Participants mentioned over 150 book blogs run by individuals or small groups.
- Top historical fiction blogs are Reading the Past, Historical Novel Society, Historical Tapestry, Historical Novel Review and Passages to the Past.
- Only 13% of respondents said they did not use online sites.
- Most participants mentioned three or more sources for recommendations.
- Beyond Goodreads, Library Thing and Shelfari, Facebook (71), Twitter (21), other social media (13) accounted for 18.6%.
- With only 89 mentions, Amazon does not fare well.
- Big book review sites like Fantastic Fiction, Book Browse, Abe Books, Fresh Fiction, ACFW, London Review of Books merited 35 mentions.
* small book review blogs are blogs written by one or two individuals, author blogs and sites include sites dedicated to deceased authors, genre sites include those dedicated to mystery, crime, fantasy etc.
Readers 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. Such conversations, along with those who curate them, are gaining more and more influence.