Top Historical Fiction Authors Talk About What Attracts Readers

Those who are frequent readers will know of the interviews I’ve conducted with top historical fiction authors. Collectively these interviews generated lots of interest and discussion. But … what can we learn by looking across nine favourite authors?

One question I asked was what do you think attracts readers to your books. Let’s have a look.

Sharon Kay Penman: readers appreciate “that I am writing of people who actually lived and events that really happened” and “my efforts to be as historically accurate as humanly possible.”

C. W. Gortner: “readers have told me … I write about human beings, not cliches: that I show flaws and weaknesses as well as strengths” and “find the connections between us … that shared emotional experience”

Hilary Mantel: tries to bring the “best writing she can” to her readers … “finds the dramatic shape in real events” … and regards each novel as a “joint effort between writer and reader”

Susan Higginbotham: tells stories “through fresh viewpoints” and “treats the historical figures … with respect” and “tries to avoid black-or-white characters or cliched characters”

Helen Hollick: ” I think the passion I feel for my characters comes across in my writing”

Michelle Moran: “I hope it’s the historical accuracy and the ability to be transported back in time”

Elizabeth Chadwick: readers tell me “they love the feeling as if they are there in the moment … appreciate that the characters are of their time, believable and not anachronistic … they enjoy the vividness, the colour and also the emotional and historical integrity”.

Margaret George: “people do say they feel like they are really there”

Deanna Raybourn: “I try to tell a good story with characters my readers will care about. I am rabid on the subject of historical accuracy”

Common threads – historical accuracy, characters we can understand and care about, the drama of history, vividness of the time.

Connecting back to the survey – the top three reasons for reading historical fiction are (1) to bring the past to life appreciating how people lived and coped in very different times, (2) because it’s a great story, and (3) to understand and learn about historical periods without reading non-fiction. And the number one response to the question of what detracts from your enjoyment of historical fiction – historical inaccuracies.

No wonder these authors are favourites!

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The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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3 Responses

  1. There’s the essential element none of them mentioned.

    The historical events and actions, the choices istorical figures make, and the outcomes of the events, actions and choices are of vital importance to the nations, the families, the citizens of the period. These historical fiction writers bring to us the readers that same sense that “This matters to a whole lot of people!” And in some cases, as with say, Penman or Pargeter, just as two examples, these writers, without any preaching, show us that these decisions and outcomes still carry resonance for a lot of people’s place in the world, their way of thinking, even what country they are living in, today.

    And it’s all exciting.

    So few historical novelists these days seem to be able to get that kind of depth on the page.

    So much seems to be about surface — the method in which the detail is supposed to stand in for the reader for a whole chapter, a whole scene, a whole background. What is that rhetorical device’s name, where the part stands in for the whole? That’s great for poetry — and maybe, she speculates doubtfully, for television or film. But in historical fiction I want the whole — and I also want it taut, and exciting with some adventure, filled with color and colorful characters, and I want narrative coherence, and a good story and historical accuracy in detail and events, and and and and and …. O dear!

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