Can you find enough Historical Fiction?

Trolling through the historical fiction survey data yesterday I found an unexplored topic – the reasons why readers cannot find enough historical fiction.

The base question is Can you find enough historical fiction you like? 78.2% said YES, 21.8% said NO. Those who said NO were asked to comment.

The top three reasons for being unable to find enough:

  • Poor quality writing
  • Looking for a specific time or geography
  • Too much romance

Let’s hear from a few readers:

“Distorted, hastily written books on historical women flood the market — with half the lady’s face off the cover. Always a sign of hack work — forgive the pun.”

“Never enough well-written with strong narrative arc and authentic period detail.”

“Just not a lot of really great US historical fiction, except for Civil War and World War II.”

“Not enough written from European history circa C14th – C16th.”

“With about 3/4 of it convinced that nothing happened outside Tudor England and the rest romance, good historical fiction is hard to find.”

“Bad writing. And I fear ebook publishing is going to make it much worse. Everybody who thinks they can string words together seems to be self-publishing. I’ve read a lot that is dreadful and I’m very wary about it now.”

Interesting messages for authors, agents and editors to consider.

Feedback: I’d love to hear from others concerning this topic. Do you agree? Do you have a different point of view?

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34 Responses

  1. Thank you for another very interesting post. I would love to give those readers a free copy of my historical novel because it’s set in antebellum America, isn’t remotely romance, and not hastily written! It’s interesting to know whether we are missing ways of connecting with readers.

    1. I’ve posted a few bits on this topic under the tag ‘connecting readers and writers’. Also saw an interesting tweet this morning by Deanna Raybourn lamenting a book she thought she might read only to find that it had far too many 5-star reviews that were obviously paid reviews. The survey I did clearly shows that historical fiction readers are increasingly finding recommendations via blogs and other digital sites. Well over 100 blogs were listed by survey participants! I’ve also seen articles on the topic of ‘social reading’, the concept that folks enjoy reading, talking about reading and sharing their comments with others (for talking, substitute any social media forum). I suppose the trick is to either find a blogger with a base of followers who will review your novel or create your own focus on antebellum America to attract like-minded people. Have you done this? Your Hotel Alphabet site does not seem to connect to the antebellum theme. Just a few thoughts 🙂

      1. Thank you very much for your very thoughtful response. Yes, you’re quite right that creating a blog around the period rather than the theme is a good idea. I am a big fan of LibraryThing after doing a giveaway there because readers seem to take care with their reviews and the community on Goodreads is also very supportive. There’s also the question of whether you should identify a book as commercial or literary fiction. What does everyone think?

  2. When I decided to write a novel about Anne of Brittany that takes place in France around 1500 I started exploring other historical novels–first the period and the place. There were not many, so I went wider. And I found that so much that was out there was very poorly written, driven by sensationalized sex , battles, and/or vivid descriptions of period costumes.
    But some historical fiction has inspired me: Geraldine Brooks, Hilary Mantel, Orhan Pamuk, Gore Vidal, Iain Pears, to name just a few.
    I forwarded your blog to the Historical Novel Society; it will be interesting to see what its members think.

    1. Thanks for your feedback and for passing my post along to HNS. I’ve become a member of HNS and will speak at the London conference – should be a fascinating way to connect with others who are passionate about historical fiction.

  3. I have such a long list of authors I have read, and it’s taken me about 5 years to get through the ones I’ve found. So so far, I have enough historical fiction. If you need help let me know! I always look at the author comments or notes in the book or on back to find more authors. I do hope there are enough to keep me going!

    1. Hi Heather … can you share some of your favourite authors on this blog? Other readers might appreciate your input. You might like to see my earlier post on top historical fiction authors – I’d love to know if some of these are your favourites too 🙂

  4. I’m starting discovering also myself that it’s difficult to find really well written historical fiction, I mean both the quality of the writing, and also the historical accuracies. So far I was a great fan of Michelle Moran, but one of my readers has opened my eyes with comments on my review of The Second Empress, showing that actually her historical sources may not be that good. here is my review, and see the 2 long comments. I’d actually like to know what YOU think:

    1. Hi – thanks for visiting. I love France too! One of the novels I’ve written is set there. Now, for your comment about The Second Empress. I have not read Michelle’s latest novel so I’m afraid that I can’t comment about its storyline and accuracies. I do know that many, many readers are upset with inaccuracies – one of the top reasons for not reading historical fiction. I think readers forgive a certain amount of license with the details as long as the story is gripping and the author acknowledges circumstances where they’ve adjusted facts. The person commenting on your blog seems to know a lot about these historical figures and offers credible perspective – one might draw the conclusion that these distortions would spoil the story for that individual. But what is the responsibility of a reviewer? If you undertook to check every fact your reviews would take forever! As long as you are clear about your preferences, then people reading your blog can determine whether yours align with theirs. A bit of a ramble on my part … what do you think?

      I reviewed a book recently – Flight From Berlin – and I certainly did not check any of the facts. I concentrated on story, writing style, character development and so on.

      1. Hmm, very good point. I think though that if I realize that there are many accuracies, I would warn the readers more. I personally think I should actually take more time to check facts. But that’s probably my perfectionist side. And my idealist one: I want a very well historical fiction, with seriously researched facts. The author can take some distance from them, but he/she has to be clear about it in a note to the reader or something, as often some do, at the end of the book.
        What’s your book set in France?

  5. I generally think there is a good amount of historical fiction out there in the marketplace. Don’t forget that “Gone with the Wind” is the quintessential work of historical fiction, even with the romantic overtones. “The Thorn Birds” was also historical fiction, as was “Lonesome Dove”, “Shogun”, “Tai Pan” and practically EVERYTHING by James Michener and Leon Uris. These afore-mentioned books were monster hits, but their commercial appeal doesn’t detract from their essence in capturing another time, another place, another era, a dramatization of a lost world. Yes, there is a TON of good historical fiction out there. It’s just that we may be so turned off because Richard Chamberlain starred in the miniseries, therefore it must be campy or they made a musical out of it (“Hawaii”) therefore it must be melodramatic and overly-sentimental.

    I disagree with “WordsandPeace” for the above-mentioned reasons. Has “WordsandPeace” ever read “QB VII” or “Mila 18” or “Centennial”? What about “The Far Pavilions” or even “Water for Elephants”?

    The book does not necessarily need a soon-to-be beheaded queen or princess on the front cover for the work to be classified as genuine historical fiction.


      1. Sadly, I think the answer is that these titles have simply gone out of fashion. I remember as a child in the 1970’s that my father’s bookshelves were lined with titles by Somerset Maugham. He loved those books! Who today would be seen on the NY city subway reading a volume by Somerset Maugham? Yet, people have no qualms being seen reading the 50 Shades nonsense or the Harry Potter gobbledygook*. I guess it’s the herd mentality.

        *Actual word used by a Brooklyn Supreme Court judge when deciding a case against an American Harry Potter plagiarizer. The judge was forced to read a volume in order to decide the case!

    1. Hi Evangeline – the survey shows almost identical percentages for men and women on the question of can you find enough historical fiction. Their (men’s) write-in responses are too few to be statistically significant but they do include comments about poor quality, too much romance and inability to find the time period or geography of interest. By the way, I’d enjoy seeing the info graphic you sent but for some reason Safari can’t open it.

    2. According to Bowker, a global firm that tracks people’s book-buying habits, here are some statistics from 2009:

      More than 40 percent of Americans over the age of 13 purchased a book; the average age of the American book buyer is 42.

      Women make 64 percent of ALL book purchases, even among detective stories and thrillers, where they buy more than 60 percent of that genre. (And that probably includes Historical Fiction as well.)

      Men buy more e-books than women (55 percent)· Women buy the great majority of paperbacks, hardbacks, and audio books· Generation X buyers (ages 30 to 48)purchase more books on the Internet (30 percent)· About 21 percent of book buyers heard about a book first online· Mass merchandisers continue to gain market share while bookstores show declines. For authors and publishers all this is critical information when attempting to gear promotion, publicity, or advertising to a book’s particular audience.

  6. Several references and commentators I’ve seen in the last few months said that Walter Scott was the best writer of historical fiction. So….I downloaded a few titles onto my Kindle–to read one day. Haven’t gotten to them yet! Maybe that is typical.

  7. I do love Michelle Moran and CW Gortner, they are my tops. Also Margaret George and Anne O’Brien. If you visit my blog you will see my book reviews on a lot of historical fiction. It is true though, most of it is The Tudor period. I did read some from the War of the Roses, China and such. A lot of them are about women it is true, and not all well written. I suppose I am easy to entertain though:) I don’t like to get too bogged down by facts like Alison Weir’s books.

  8. This reader and historian entirely agrees:

    Romance putting on period costume and the author believing this masquerade is an historical novel;

    Poorly written, sentence-by-sentence, poorly plotted, cardboard characters and no structural sense of what composes a novel’s narrative — lacks rhythm and voice which leads to tone deaf sense of wit and repartee;

    All the same periods and locations

  9. Sorry to be late in replying to this post. I’m writing what has recently been classified as a historical saga. I think it’s quite difficult writing about any given period without plenty of research but I also think it’s slightly easier and perhaps more rewarding to write a historical around your own ancestors especially if they have an interesting story to tell. Mine were pioneers to New Zealand. Will my novel be interesting though or publishable? Don’t know yet I have finished!

    1. Thanks for your comment … particularly delighted to hear from a New Zealander, one of my favourite places to visit. I agree with the thought about ancestors. My only caution is based on personal experience, sometimes you have to let go of what you know of them as people in order for the story to take shape.

      1. I’m not actually a New Zealander, my mother was. However, although I’ve based my story on our family history – relatives have been fantastic help – the story does diverge quite a bit from the reality.

    2. I just attended a pitch conference in NYC where a lot of writers were trying to pitch memoirs. The short answer is: DON’T. Publishers, especially NY publishers are not interested in memoirs because there’s no money to be made in it. Unless, of course, if your ancestors founded Auckland or Christchurch something of that stature. The other graveyard for books is “Literary Fiction”. Read attached:
      Your best bet is to turn your ancestors’ story into a unique work of historical fiction (think “The Thorn Birds”) but turning your ancestors into powerhouse characters with a UNIQUE New Zealand voice that weave in local dialect with local cultural aspects, such as superstitions or legends. Put New Zealand on the map the way “The Thorn Birds” put Australia on the map: memorable characters, a powerful, emotional story, and larger themes such as religion, church, patriarchal society, keeping secrets from spouses, etc., etc.

      1. Good advice, Rachel. I encountered the same problem when agents thought my first novel was a memoir because I said in my query letters that it was inspired by my grandparents’ lives.

  10. Not nearly as successful as the lady who pitched “Mazel Tov Jesus”, the story of a half-Korean, half-Jewish boy who is having trouble preparing for his bar mitzvah. How could you possibly top that? I just walked away scratching my head. There must be something in the NY water supply.

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