Historical Fiction Without the Famous

I had the pleasure of being included on a panel at the HNS Denver conference that took place from June 26 to 28, 2015. The panel topic was Recreating the Past: Historical Fiction Without the Famous. My co-presenters were Jenny Quinlan of Historical Editorial and Let The Read Books and Beatriz Williams, author of The Secret Life of Violet Grant and other novels. Jenny explored the contribution stories with fictional historical characters can make and why we so enjoy reading about them. Beatriz brought the marketing perspective, explaining how agents and editors look at fiction without the famous.

My role was to discuss relevant reader data and provide a writer’s perspective on creating fictional characters.

First the data about readers.

Readers characters and settingsIn the 2015 survey, 84% of readers selected ‘fictional characters within a backdrop of great historical events’. This is reflected in the favourite titles mentioned by readers where only 23% of favourite fiction mentioned concerns famous historical figures. As mentioned in the main report, these numbers are good news for authors who prefer to write about fictional characters.


After showing other survey data I summarized the challenge for authors: you need to bring the past to life with a great story that helps readers learn using superb writing so that they feel immersed in time and place. Furthermore, make sure your historical details are accurate and make sure you create interesting and complex characters who behave realistically to their time period.

A tall order. And what about developing characters?

Harry Sidebottom, author of Warrior of Rome series, offered this comment: “The past is another country, they not only do things differently there, they think about things differently.” Authors have to subtly immerse readers in those differences using characters, dialogue, plot, conflict, setting, theme and world-building.

What elements go into that? To make your characters come alive you need to investigate an enormous range of topics – some in more detail than others depending on your story.Creating Fictional Characters in Historical Fiction

Needless to say this list is incomplete.

Dialogue should suit the times without being cumbersome to read or difficult to understand. Authors can do this by dipping occasionally into vocabulary and grammatical structures of the past. Someone uttering the phrase “dog’s breath” is clearly not of modern times. Plot, of course, will be enhanced by including upheavals and major events of the time period. Readers expect such events to have a bearing on the twists and turns of the story. And although you could argue that conflict transcends time, characters must still experience conflict in the context of their time.

Research is absolutely critical and, as Deanna Raybourn, author of A Curious Beginning, said, “Research brings colour and texture, and a well placed detail can anchor a story in its time – but the novel should not be so fact-heavy that it is like a text book.”

Emma Darwinauthor of A Secret Alchemy, has been writing a book on writing historical fiction. She says the worst is when you write with a history book in hand and “The best is when your characters and their points of view are so alive to you that of course you write what they see and how they see it: their voices filling that panelled room or smoky alehouse. Story is king: it just happens that the stuff of your story comes from the past.”

It was a pleasure to be included on the panel and to attend the HNS conference where I met so many wonderful people and attended great sessions on many aspects of writing historical fiction.

FOR MORE ON INSIDE HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

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19 Responses

  1. I’m curious as to what Beatriz said with respect to the marketing perspective of agents and editors regarding fiction without the famous.

    1. Hi Rachel .. here’s the essence of what Beatriz said if I recall (my brain was on overdrive at the time). (1) if you don’t have a famous figure to create the hook, your story hook has to be very strong, and (2) featuring great historical events is another way to build that hook. I suppose this is fairly obvious! We were being recorded so at some point the presentation may be available online.

      1. That sounds like great advice. It’s also a reason to think twice before embarking on a project that, although you may love it, is not “big” enough. Still, in the end, one must “follow one’s heart.”

    1. And great to meet you in person, TK. So pleased to be there this year, particularly as I missed the one in 2013! Loved seeing so many people I know through Facebook and other venues.

  2. Hi Mary – Glad to have met you at HNS and to see you are sharing some of the treasure gleaned. Your site was referred to often. This is my first visit. Bravo.
    Defining character can also be aided by looking at what your character saw and made judgements of at the time – original maps. In the session, ‘The Past Was Where?’ we showed how the actual maps set your story’s stage and mindset. They also improve accuracy of the story. Author Delaney Green showed that horrific gaff in “The Titanic” where Leonardo DiCaprio talks of ice-fishing in Lake Wissota, a reservoir created 5 years after the Titanic sunk.
    Taking the deep dive with your character into that foreign country of the past lets you share with readers a vivid personality with unique views of life. And if you are writing in the long format you get to reach something most important – and for my character – what made Eleanor of Aquitaine character tick? – Mark Richard Beaulieu

  3. Mary,
    It was a pleasure seeing your presentation on the very helpful data you have collected–something we all find very relevant and helpful as writers. It was also very nice talking to you at the banquet ( I was at your table, two to your left in a green sweatshirt). You are a delightful person to talk to in person, in addition to being adept at presenting a lot of information in a very short amount of time!

    1. What a wonderful comment, Cheryl. And many thanks for taking the time to let me know! I do remember you at the banquet. Warm wishes. I hope you will drop by again!

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