Writing historical fiction – greatness and great times

Some time ago, Larissa MacFarquhar wrote about Hilary Mantel in The New Yorker. What struck me at the time is the notion that Mantel doesn’t “believe in inventing greatness where none exists” and “feels she can write about greatness only in historical moments that have already proved ripe for its flourishing. She believes that there are no great characters without a great time; ordinary times breed ordinary people”. Mantel implies that our present times are ordinary not great.

Does the favourite authors list from my survey imply that readers like to read about great times? Let’s have a look.

Sharon Kay Penman – Richard III, King John, Henry III, Edward I, Henry II and others

Philippa Gregory – War of the Roses, Katharine of Aragon, Tudor England, 18th C slave trade

Elizabeth Chadwick – knights and crusades, King John, Henry I, Eleanor of Aquitaine

Diana Gabaldon – mid to late 18th C time travel

Bernard Cornwell – Napoleonic Wars, Arthurian times, Alfred the Great, Hundred Years War

Ken Follett – WWI, WWII, Henry I and King Stephen plus contemporary times

Anya Seton – mid 19th C, Aaron Burr, John of Gaunt & Katherine Swynford, 17th C US, Anglo Saxon England

CW Gortner – Elizabeth I, Catherine de Medici, Spanish Queens Isabella and Juana

Alison Weir – Eleanor of Aquitaine, Elizabeth I, Tudor times, Lady Jane Grey, many non-fiction books

Margaret George – Mary Magdalene, Cleopatra, Mary Queen of Scots, Helen of Troy, Elizabeth I

Georgette Heyer – Regency romance, contemporary and historical thrillers, William the Conqueror

Michelle Moran – Napoleonic times, Madame Tussaud, Nerfertiti, Nefertari, Cleopatra’s daughter

Jean Plaidy – Norman times, Plantagenet, Tudor, Stuart, Charles II, Queen Victoria

CJ Sansom – series set in time of Henry VIII

Jane Austen – wrote about her own times so not technically historical fiction

Dorothy Dunnett – 15th and 16th centuries, William the Conqueror

Ellis Peters – 12th century Cadfael series, English murder mysteries

Susan Higginbotham – Edward II, Edward III, Henry VI, Henry VIII, War of the Roses

Tracy Chevalier – eclectic mix of periods and subject matter

Jacqueline Winspear – aftermath of WWI

Patrick O’Brian – Napoleonic Wars

Deanna Raybourn – mysteries set in Victorian times

My conclusion is that readers enjoy reading about greatness and great times. What do you think?

27 thoughts on “Writing historical fiction – greatness and great times”

  1. But you can put ordinary people in times of great upheaval and change and have the same results. (Roots, Gone With the Wind, North and South, Shogun, Ragtime, the Color Purple, the English Patient)

    1. I agree, Rachel. The list I put together was to illustrate people and times that the top historical fiction authors write about. Personally, I love stories depicting ordinary people dealing with extraordinary times and circumstances and I’ve tried to write that kind of story too. Sometimes those are the more compelling ones.

  2. I agree with RachelB. I think part of the attraction of historical fiction is seeing how ordinary people of the times behaved. Ordinary people do — and have done — incredible things in ALL periods of history. Authors of historical fiction can inspire today’s readers by portraying the ordinary people of other times.

  3. Oh dear. This does not augur well for my emerging writing career because my first love is for ordinary (but complicated) people in ordinary (past) times.

    How do Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side, Annie Dunne, etc place? Ordinary (though beautifully crafted and complex) people in difficult (but not great) times?

    I love ordinary people. And your blog today has made me realize why I often steer away as a reader from books about great people in great times. Crazy but true – I never did finish Wolf Hall.

    1. You can make your characters as ordinary as you want, but as long as you put them in danger (whether psychological or physical), you will have a great story. Think: All Quiet on the Western Front, Jaws (not HF), the Godfather, Misery (not HF).

    2. Remember, Bronwen – the list I offered reflected the favourite authors mentioned by survey participants. The entire list of authors mentioned – some with only one or two ‘votes’ – includes more than 400 different names!! And room for lots more, I hope, like you and me 🙂

  4. I, like some of the other commenters, also prefer reading about ordinary people in historical settings. Every “great” historical personage is a product of the society s/he existed in, and I find that having ordinary people be my tour guides through that society allows for the society itself to become a character and take center stage. I don’t agree that our present times aren’t great, or perhaps better put, I don’t believe any time is truly great except when viewed in hindsight and compared to some other era.

    1. I like your notion of ‘the society itself to become a character’. I wonder what responses would emerge had I asked a question about favourite historical fiction novels (as opposed to authors)? Perhaps the next survey will ask that.

  5. Very interesting comments! Mary, you’ve chosen a good topic, one that people have strong feelings about. So interesting. I thought it was just me who veered toward to ordinary people.

  6. Harriet Beecher Stowe is often credited with influencing the country to think differently about slavery. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) became a publishing and propaganda phenomenon. Using stories to illustrate the human impact of slavery, Stowe’s blistering pen lit the world on fire. The statistics remain record-breaking: 10,000 copies sold in the first week; a million and a half British copies in a year. The book was so successful it was immediately dramatized for the stage, where it became a theatrical icon. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, leader of the radical Republicans, said, “Had there been no Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there would have been no Lincoln in the White House.”

    In an 1853 letter, Stowe explained what drove her. “I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother, I was oppressed and broken-hearted with the sorrows and injustice I saw, because as a Christian I felt the dishonor to Christianity—because as a lover of my country, I trembled at the coming day of wrath.”

    Those interested can read more about this remarkable writer. I don’t believe her life has ever been dramatized in a novel. This would be the writing challenge of a lifetime!
    http://www.harrietbeecherstowecenter.org/

    1. Rachel, thank you so much for that. What Harriet Beecher Stowe said in her 1853 letter is so gut-wrenching and so inspiring.

  7. I think Hilary Mantel is a superlative writer of fiction but she says some very odd things when pontificating in propria persona! Surely your list goes to show that any period within the last 2000 years can be defined as ‘great times’?

    1. Good thought,VM. Or perhaps the point is that Hilary Mantel prefers history to today? That said, she has written a few contemporary novels. Hmm. Maybe my premise is wrong. Or perhaps we historical fiction enthusiasts think the past is more compelling than the present.

      1. ‘Ordinary times breed ordinary people’ is such a strange remark. Who defines ‘ordinary’ or ‘great’? We probably all do it differently but she sounds as though these are universal definitions. Ask any historian of any period and she will tell you why her chosen period qualifies for greatness! I write about the 9th-11th centuries, both as an academic historian and as a novelist, and they are every bit as central to European history as the 16th is.

        And, as for ‘ordinary people’ – what does it mean? Who are they? This reminds me of Mantel’s comment last May about the Catholic Church not being for ‘respectable people’: there’s something about it that makes me profoundly uncomfortable.

  8. I think most people are “ordinary” people. I’ve tried to approach this in my writing by focusing on a mix of fictional “ordinary” people at all levels of medieval society but having them interact to some extent with a few of the well known individuals of the period. This way I get the best of both worlds…(or the worst… I hear you say.)

      1. Well that’s right and of course the advantage of writing about fictional characters is that you can be sure of their reactions and express their emotions quite precisely whereas with actual persons you can only estimate what they felt in any situation according to what evidence we have of their actions and behaviour. Once you get back as far as 1450 this evidence is very patchy.
        Derek

  9. Sorry, didn’t read all the comments – just wanted to say: I doubt the people living through those times thought it was all that great. We create “great” by our storytelling. So – have at it!

  10. […] Writing Historical Fiction – Greatness and Great Times … in which I explored a perspective shared by Hilary Mantel who doesn’t “believe in inventing greatness where none exists” and “feels she can write about greatness only in historical moments that have already proved ripe for its flourishing. [Mantel] believes that there are no great characters without a great time; ordinary times breed ordinary people”. The post looks at favourite historical fiction authors and the times (as of 2013) they’ve written about. […]

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