advice for writers of historical fiction, M.K. Tod's 2012 Historical Fiction Survey, M.K. Tod's 2013 Historical Fiction Survey, reader surveys, what readers want from writers, writing historical fiction
Having conducted two reader surveys with more than 3000 participants and ten reader interviews, I’ve identified six recommendations for writers of historical fiction that seem to surface again and again.
- Historical accuracy is crucial – half the readers interviewed said that historical accuracy is very important to their reading enjoyment. Moreover, when asked in the 2012 survey ‘what detracts from your enjoyment of historical fiction?’, 44% of readers responded with inaccuracies which included seeing modern sensibilities in a historic setting, anachronisms, dialogue that does not fit the period, poor research, moving major dates to suit a story line and so on.
- Make all aspects of your story authentic – since the top reason cited for reading historical fiction is ‘to bring the past to life, appreciating how people lived and coped in past times’, it’s not surprising that readers want an authentic story, the kind of story that makes them feel ‘immersed in place and time’.
- Avoid too much historical detail – in essence, make sure your facts are correct, but don’t weigh the story down with all the research you’ve done. Nothing bores readers more than feeling like they are reading sections on non-fiction inserted within the story. What one writer referred to as a ‘Wikipedia dump’.
- Keep your novels coming – readers who discover a new writer or those who wait longingly for the next story from tried and true favourite authors are anxious to dive into the next story.
- Ensure that your writing is superb – poor writing, unrealistic characters, slow pacing, overly sensational stories turn readers off. Polish, polish, polish every line of text.
- Avoid gratuitous sex and violence – cheesy sex scenes, explicit sex scenes, overly gory battles and scenes of violence are a particular turnoff for women.
Note: in the accompanying chart, the section in purple refers to other reasons cited by survey participants.