Top Ten Ingredients of Favourite Historical fiction

In his book Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers, James W. Hall sets out twelve ingredients that drive bestsellers to the top of the charts. I’ve written about Hit Lit in three separate posts: Thoughts from Hit Lit, More Features of Hit Lit, and Hit Lit – the Final Six Features. According to Hall, best sellers incorporate the following: (1) an offer you can’t refuse, (2) controversy of the day, (3) colossal characters doing magnificent things on a sweeping stage, (4) America as paradise, (5) an abundance of facts and information, (6) inner workings of a secret society, (7) bumpkins versus city slickers, (8) God sells, (9) re-enactment of American national myths, (10) rebels, loners, misfits and mavericks, (11) fractured families and (12) sex.

Do the same ingredients apply to historical fiction? This is the question I’ve been deliberating for the last two weeks and I have some preliminary thoughts. I would be grateful for your feedback.

To come up with this list, I’ve analyzed interviews with top historical fiction authors (my own and others) and looked at reviews of their works in a number of forums. I’ve also looked for materials discussing the ‘popularity of historical fiction’. The survey I conducted last spring showed that the top three reasons people read historical fiction are to bring the past to life, to enjoy a great story and to understand and learn. Not surprisingly, these reasons are reflected in the ingredients that distinguish favourite authors and best selling historical fiction.

My analysis suggests the following critical ingredients.

  1. Superb writing. Similar to Hall’s first feature – an offer you can’t refuse – this ingredient covers prose, pacing, emotional resonance, plot twists and entertainment value. Table stakes for high quality fiction of any genre.
  2. 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’.
  3. 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 so different from today.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Ageless themes. Instead of Hall’s ‘controversy of the day’, favourite historical fiction dramatizes thought-provoking themes that are as important today as they were long ago.
  8. High stakes. Life, kingdoms, epic battles, fortunes, marriage, family. In historical fiction, characters risk on a grand scale.
  9. Sex and love. Men and women from long ago rarely chose their partners. Love was often thwarted. Women were pawns. Favourite authors incorporate this type of conflict. In addition, sex is frequently depicted as a turning point in the lives of heroes and heroines.
  10. 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.

So … that’s my take at the top ten ingredients of favourite historical fiction authors. As mentioned above, I would truly appreciate your thoughts.

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26 Responses

  1. I am not sure if I would/could add to your list. It is fairly comprehensive and every one of them true. I am going to have a think about it and get back to you later.

    1. You’ll enjoy the read. Hall’s style is casual and informative. His message has a strong American bias – I would have preferred to see a more universal perspective since the novels he analyzes are sold around the world. Minor quibble 🙂

      1. That’s what I was thinking!
        As an Australian, I often notice how some seem to forget the rest of us exist!
        The American publishing industry tends to live in a bit of a bubble…

  2. A truly thought-provoking and interesting post! However, to answer your question about whether these same ingredients apply to successful Historical Fiction, especially with regard to your comprehensive list, I have found that they do not necessarily apply.

    To start, I turned to the Wikipedia page for the list of Best-Selling Books of all time and picked out the top 5 Historical Fiction novels:

    1) The Name of the Rose (Eco, 50 million copies)
    2) Kane & Abel (Archer, 34 million)
    3) Gone with the Wind (Mitchell, 30 million)
    4) 100 Years of Solitude (Garcia Marquez, 30 million)
    5) The Thorn Birds (McCullough, 30 million)

    While these novels all depict your ingredients #1,2, 3 & 4. They do NOT necessarily depict:
    5) Corridors of Power–they depict more or less average people;
    6) Authentic & Educational–it’s debatable how educational they are, other than, say, Gone with the Wind;
    8) High Stakes-they primarily depict stakes of a more personal nature;
    9) Sex and Love–The sex in these novels is pretty sporadic, if it exists at all and most of the main characters are emotionally unfulfilled, especially Kane & Abel, Gone With the Wind, 100 Years, and The Thorn Birds.

    It’s interesting that the majority of the characters in all top 5 books go through their lives unfulfilled, yet manage to hold on to their ideals, no matter how misguided, most notably in the young monk in “The Name of the Rose” who reaches old age without even remembering the name of the young woman who perhaps changed his life forever.

    1. An interesting post. But I think that ‘the top novels’ is too wide a mark for me to aim at. Readers are more diversified than that. There are best-selling HF novels that I love, and best-selling HF novels that I loathe. So I made a list of the books that I really liked, figured out why I liked them, and then try to reach that standard of storytelling.
      My best guess is that my reader’s tastes will be fairly similar to mine. (If they aren’t, then it’s unlikely I’ll be able to please them very long.)
      Unfortunately, when it comes to Historical Fiction, I’m very hard to please!

      1. Emily .. yours is an excellent point. Writers come in so many different packages just like readers. Lots of advice out there about following your passion, writing what you love, finding a voice that works for you. Do any of these ingredients make you think about your writing differently? One that has me thinking about what I’ve written is ‘immersed in time and place’. Of course, the other problem is that without #1 (superb writing), any novel has difficulty penetrating the market!

    2. Hi Rachel … many thanks for your thoughtful comments. Interesting to note that Gone With the Wind is in Hall’s list of best sellers and his analysis suggests that the love of Rhett Butler fits with #9, that the loss of Scarlett’s home and land torn apart fits with #8. In Hit Lit he says that the secret society exposed in Gone With the Wind is southern aristocracy, perhaps a parallel to corridors of power. Regarding 100 Years of Solitude, wouldn’t you call that fantasy rather than historical fiction? Do you have other ‘top ingredients’ you would add or substitute?

      1. The only other ingredient I would add is perhaps something I call the “spectator effect”. You get the spectator effect in novels of a grand scope, like “Exodus” or “The Day of the Jackal”, “The Winds of War”, “A Passage to India” or “The Far Pavilions” (all great movies by the way), where the reader becomes like a UN observer, watching history being made, watching leaders and nations rise and fall. Watching a relationship wax and wane amid the backdrop of societal chaos. “Gone with the Wind” is a perfect example of this, but the majority of Historical Romances don’t fit neatly into this category because the action and POV are limited to the couple’s happiness and not the changing events around them. It’s interesting to note that a happy ending for the couple is NOT always the desired outcome. The day Rhett Butler walked out on Scarlet O’Hara is the best day of his life.

        By the way, Herman Wouk is still alive and kicking at 97 years old. Give him credit in the annals of historical fiction for sheer longevity!

        1. What an interesting concept, Rachel. I will add that to the list for future consideration. I’m trying to figure out whether all the survey work, author and blogger interviews and other analysis would make an interesting non-fiction book. More work to be done. Did I also see that Herman Wouk recently released a new book? Looks like you enjoy some of the classics of historical fiction.

  3. I think that for many readers one satisfaction sought in historical fiction is to find lessons or examples that may help us respond to present conflicts. Shakespeare’s historical plays, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, anything by Howard Fast, all have that as one of their aims. And of course the other informational satisfaction is to see how things got the way they are. These two kinds of search, for present response and for explanation, are my chief interests in the genre. Besides, of course, the wonderful drama in past conflicts. This whole discussion (including the many replies) has been very interesting, and I’ll recommend it on my blog Literature & Society. Thanks, everybody.

  4. This is a very helpful post 🙂 I’m in the editing stage of my first Historical Romantic Suspense, so I’m going to go back through my MS and see what I’m missing. Thanks!

  5. Wonderful post! I love all your critical ingredients and find all those elements in the historical fiction I most enjoy! But I’m curious about the Hall list….what do you think is meant by #4 “America as paradise”? I’m having trouble thinking of novels that portray this ideal, so it’s interesting that it’s included as an ingredient for best sellers. Am I missing something?

    1. Thanks for your comment Ashlee. Here’s a bit taken from James Hall’s book Hit Lit. “American readers have a powrful hankering for stories grounded in the earth itself. Surely part of this hunger is connected to one of our central national myths — America as the new Eden. A land of second chances, fresh beginnings in the virginal wilderness.” Hall refers to it as the Golden Country and says that heroes and heroines in hit lit are “tragically alienated from and in some way struggling to return to” this paradise. “It’s a nostalgic, wistful zone, a faraway Shangri-la that pulses at the core of bestsellers.”

  6. I was shocked by the focus on America, instead of worldwide – “(4) America as paradise, (9) re-enactment of American national myths”. I wouldn’t have thought that America is such a place of interest instead of more exotic/ less known areas like Australia, various paradise islands, Italy, Spain, Greece, Africa or Far East.

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