Historical Fiction Without the Famous – Part 2

Jenny QuinlanJenny Quinlan of Historical Editorial and Let Them Read Books was on the panel with me at HNS Denver talking about Historical Fiction Without the Famous. Her focus was the contribution these stories make along with a discussion of why we as readers choose books of this nature. Jenny has kindly offered her notes for me to post on A Writer of History.

Why do we love to read about nonfamous people in historical settings?

Market data shows that many readers love to read about the nonfamous people who experienced history firsthand. In my analysis on Goodreads of historical fiction slated for publication in 2015 from mid-sized to large traditional publishers, only 33-percent featured famous protagonists, leaving 67-percent in the nonfamous category. The list of novels compiled by the Historical Novel Society for 2015 puts that figure a little higher: at 75-percent.

Stories of nonfamous characters taking place without the backdrop of a big historical event comprises the majority of these novels, while fictional characters in the middle of big events comes in second.

So with all of the titles coming out about queens and duchesses and society gals, what makes historical fiction about nonfamous people just as—if not more—popular?

We all love to get glimpses into the lifestyles of the rich and famous, both of today and of years gone by, but most of us wouldn’t consider kings and queens and celebrities to be people we easily identify with.

But kings and queens and the countries they ruled couldn’t function without the masses: the people who built their castles and roads, farmed their food, made their clothing, cleaned their houses, served in their armies, and turned their cities and ports into thriving centers of commerce and trade.

Reading fiction about the regular, everyday people who lived through some of history’s triumphs and tragedies allows us to better imagine what our own lives might have been like. Not only in terms of how people lived back then, without all of our modern technology and conveniences, but also in regard to how we ourselves might have reacted to history as it happened. We are able to put ourselves in their shoes, to compare ourselves to them, to face the decisions and hardships that they had to face as if we were facing them ourselves.

But sometimes the themes of these novels are not so much about coping with a big event but about coping with the societal restrictions of the times, particularly in respect to women. As modern women in a free country, it’s sometimes hard for us to read about the plight of women in earlier time periods, but it’s important that we do so. Reading about a heroine who faces monumental challenges simply because of her sex allows us to appreciate how far we’ve come, and to appreciate what our ancestors went through.

Reader sound bites:

  • Laura Frantz: I believe readers relate far more to nonfamous persons because most of us are ordinary yet, in that very ordinariness, we make lasting, significant contributions in countless ways. This enables us as readers to feel our lives have significance and meaning in lasting, heartfelt, even eternal ways.
  • Sandra Byrd: Much of what makes for engrossing historical fiction revolves around one of these two situations: An extraordinary person with ordinary concerns; or An ordinary person who achieves something extraordinary, or who lives and takes on extraordinary circumstances.

Most of us are ordinary people, living ordinary lives. So when we read about others like us, who are then presented with extraordinary challenges or opportunities, we love reading about them risking all and winning, though with heartbreak along the way. We are them, and they us, vicariously.

One of my favorite aspects of nonfamous historical fiction is going into a book knowing that the main characters are not constrained by a prewritten story, that anything can happen so long as it fits within the historical context.

And it allows for more happy endings!!! Oftentimes when I pick up a book about a famous person, I know how it ends. History is full of tragic stories, as is real life. While I enjoy reading about famous people, and I appreciate stories that are true to the facts, occasionally I just want to have some fun and be uplifted by a happy ending.

Just last week I came across an article written for Publisher’s Weekly by romance author Marie Bostwick in which she noticed there seems to be a consistent segment of readers that eschew the happy ending, considering them to be unrealistic or too commercial. Marie asks: When did happiness fall out of fashion? And why is it surprising that a novel with a happy ending can be engaging, well written, and even intelligent?

Today, as in the era of Austen and Dickens, readers still need, and even crave, happy endings. Why? Because happy endings provide hope, instilling the belief that obstacles can be overcome, love can last, fences can be mended, and good can triumph. Writing books with happy endings: this, too, is a fine and noble occupation for a writer.

And I’d saying enjoying a happy ending is a noble occupation for a reader too!

Trends in nonfamous historical fiction

Four genres have a preponderance of non famous characters:

  • Christian/inspirational
  • War/revolution
  • Mystery
  • And rising in popularity is the dual timeline novel

All of these categories allow for more exploration of the human nature side of history.

Inspirational fiction allows people to explore their current faith via historical experience. Religion was far more important and woven into the fabric of daily life in previous centuries.

Fiction taking place in war time allows us to see how people coped—both those that went off to fight and those that kept the home front going. In times of social turmoil and violence, the best and worst of human nature is on display, and this often makes for the most compelling stories that resonate with readers on a more personal level.

In the case of mysteries, nonfamous characters are able to take us places a famous person of the time period would likely not have been able to in an investigation. They often find themselves in the position of dealing with all walks of society and are able to really show us the contrasts between them while showing us the realities of the social structures of the times.

And in the case of the dual timeline stories, they form a literal connection between the present and the past and illustrate how the past still impacts us today.

How does historical fiction about nonfamous people contribute to history?

I see two main avenues: By allowing us to understand it on a more personal level; and by keeping it [history] alive.

Dr. Jerome De Groot teaches english literature at The University of Manchester and has written The Historical Novel. He says that: “History itself possesses interest for us more as the unfolding of certain moral and mental developments than as the mere enumeration of facts” . . . and historical fiction develops an “awareness that the events of history have an impact on the contemporary.”

When we read historical fiction about the nonfamous, we’re basically getting a chance to read about ourselves in times gone past. Because we can relate to them, we can grasp a fuller understanding of the impact of history on our ancestors and on us today.

As modern readers, we get to experience how history affected people like us at the most basic human level. We get to experience the societal differences and human motivations that led people to act and react the way they did. We get to look within ourselves and wonder what we would have done had we been in that situation.

So de Groot right: It’s far more than just giving us the facts. It’s giving us the reasons behind the facts and giving us an opportunity to compare and reflect in relation to events going on in today’s world.

And the more we read about history through the eyes of someone who could have been there at the time, the more we think about it and talk about it and recommend it to our friends, the more we’re keeping it alive and relevant.

Many thanks, Jenny. You’ve given us lots to think about. Part 1 of Historical Fiction Without the Famous can be found here.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

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9 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing Jenny’s thoughtful analysis, Mary. I can attest to Jenny’s points that readers enjoy reading about non-famous – or as I call them ‘everyday’ – characters because it lets them imagine how they themselves might have lived. Readers of my WWI-era novel have told me it made them think about what life was like for their grandparents. And the restrictions women faced in that time also made them appreciate how far women have come.

  2. Jennifer impressed me with her other session on editing as well. I truly enjoyed meeting her.

    HNS2015 was fabulous, and the sessions were particularly relevant and thought-provoking this time around. It’s so hard to choose which ones to attend, though, because the topics and panelists are so interesting!

    I like fringe characters because they surprise us in a way that marquee characters sometimes cannot. And as an author, when you own that character, he/she can take you places that a more famous character will not go. Inner conflict and motivations smash up against history and the story comes alive in a whole new way.

    My novel has a fictional setting, so I have the benefit of royal characters who make their own history. This was an intentional choice to tell a personal story with high stakes. So I am fortunate to have the best of both worlds in this discussion.

      1. Yes! And I didn’t run into the problem of three “must see” sessions all scheduled at the same time. Very happy with reconnecting with several HNS friends too.

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