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Two days ago, I wrote about the ‘tricks of the trade’ that make a bestseller so gripping. The analysis comes from James W. Hall’s book on Hit Lit. Ultimately I’d like to consider Hall’s twelve features against some of the top historical fiction authors that readers identified in the survey and these posts are a way for me to clarify ideas in my own mind. Writing helps me think.

Let’s have a look at a few more features:

Feature #2: Raise the controversy of the day

For some hot-button issue to have real wallop, it also must express some larger, deep-seated, and unresolved conflict in the national consciousness.

Hall’s book is peppered with references to the American experience. (This is the time to explain that I am Canadian and hence accustomed to living in the shadow of our great neighbour to the south.) He gives examples of hot-button issues from the twelve bestsellers he’s chosen.

Gone with the Wind – published in 1936 where the hot-button issue was capitalism and its many failures. Remember this is a time when The Depression was a recent experience. In Peyton Place – the hot button was sex. To Kill a Mockingbird – published at a time when race issues were boiling. The Hunt for Red October – cold war paranoia. John Grisham’s The Firm – corporate greed. The Da Vinci Code – religious corruption and conspiracy. “And all of these stories explore some hot-button social issue of their day that is rooted in a long-term national dispute.”

Question: does historical fiction explore today’s hot-button issues or those of long ago?

Feature #3 – “Colossal characters doing magnificent things on a sweeping stage”

Hall asserts that bestsellers pit relatively ordinary people against high stakes situations. Readers are intended to connect to these characters, to be inspired by the aspirations, actions and bravery of everyday heroes like Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Mitch McDeere, a small town boy made good in The Firm, Robert Langdon – really just a rumpled professor – in The Da Vinci Code. The characters become colossal because of the fight they take on. David and Goliath come to mind.

Question: are readers fascinated with historical fiction because it allows them to see the everyday person in famous people like Eleanor of Acquitaine or Thomas Cromwell?

Feature #4 – “America as paradise”

America as the new Eden. A land of second chances, fresh beginnings in the virginal wilderness.

Often the novel’s hero is alienated or exiled from their ‘homeland’ and struggles to return. That ‘homeland’ can be the land itself such as in Gone With the Wind and Scarlett’s home Tara, but it can also be a state of innocence, youthful idealism, a time of security, a parent or grandparent.

Feature #5 – “An abundance of facts and information”

Hall explains  that readers want to be informed, to “learn about the larger world”. Whether its the intricacies of a nuclear-powered submarine or the workings of a prestigious law firm or the “double-dealing of showbiz”, readers are fascinated with the facts and figures and the social arrangements and codes of behaviour within these worlds. Readers “read in order to peer inside secret places not open to them otherwise”.

Fact-based fiction has broad appeal because it is simple, hearty fare. No highly refined palate required. Anyone can buy a ticket.

Historical fiction certainly offers an abundance of facts and information.

Feature #6 – “All twelve of these bestsellers expose the inner workings of at least one secret society.”

Let’s have a look at Hall’s examples. The Godfather exposes the mafia. Jaws exposes the secrets of the sea. The Da Vince Code – Opus Dei. The Bridges of Madison County – the secret world of adultery. To Kill a Mockingbird – the KKK.

And here’s the punchline – our simple, everyday heroes triumph over these secret societies. Good over evil.

Question: in historical fiction do we see monarchies and the nobility as secret societies?

The final six features will be posted on Monday.