Recently I posted several questions on the topic of ‘successful historical fiction’ and invited readers and bloggers to respond. Davide Mana is a writer, translator and game designed based in Italy. He’s been blogging about books, historical adventure and historical fantasy for some time on his blog Karavansara.live. Davide – or Dave as he signed his last email – lives in Castelnuovo Belbo, a 900-souls community in the hills of the Monferrato area of Northern Italy. Over to you, Davide.
Q: What’s your definition of successful historical fiction?
As a reader, I want stories that speak to me, stories to which I can relate. For me, a historical fiction is successful when it is both entertaining and involving, and both entertainment and involvement would not be possible without the historical element. Also, the historical element has to be seamlessly integrated into the fiction (or the other way around) and as accurate and convincing as possible or suitable.
Q: What attributes are most important to you when designating a novel as ‘successful historical fiction’.
I’m not sure if this counts as an attribute, but I want the author to make me feel the time and place they are describing. I can go so far as to say that perfect historical accuracy is not essential if the author is able to convey the full impact of the historical period through the characters. I want to empathize with believable characters from another time, and see their world through their eyes, so to speak, experiencing it like they experienced it. So in the end I’d say that the most important attributes are good writing and world building.
Q: Which authors do you think create the most successful historical fiction? (please restrict yourself to a small number of authors!)
Among my favorite authors, I admire the ability of George MacDonald Fraser, for his seamless blend of invention and historical events and his ability to portray through a despicable (but fascinating) character an unbiased and honest portrayal of a time and a culture. I’d also like to mention John Masters, who wrote about India between the 18th and the 20th century: his novels are successful as historical fiction because superb documentation is not an end in itself, it never gets in the way, but is always in the service of story, of psychological observation or of social commentary. He did not write about what happened in a certain time, but about why it happened, and how it felt being there.
For the same general reasons (strong research in the service of great literary style and engaging stories) I might also mention Bartle Bull’s African trilogy as an excellent example of successful historical fiction.
Q: What makes these particular authors stand out?
I think I bundled the answer to this one with the previous, but to recap: the historical background is very strong, and it integrates and reinforces a story about people from another time I can empathize with without them necessarily being “modern people in period clothes”.
Q: In your opinion, what aspects prevent a novel from being designated successful historical fiction?
Apart from poor research and obvious blunders, I’d say a story fails at being successful when history and story do not work together. A story that could be set in any time, with added period color and a few expository passages about historical events, may be entertaining fiction, but it is not a successful historical fiction to me.
Q: Are famous people essential to successful historical fiction?
Not for me, or not necessarily. My interests are broader, and if I can appreciate a time and place trough the eyes of a man or a woman of that time, they don’t need to be (or to hang out with) people from my school’s old history book. It can be fun having the characters have a brush with famous characters, but it is not essential.
Q: Does successful historical fiction have to say something relevant to today’s conditions?
It is certainly a bonus, but I don’t like being clobbered with the author’s agenda, so I like subtle hints and thought-provoking ideas in historical narratives. Pure entertainment (if such a thing really exist) is perfectly fine with me as long as it’s engaging.
Q: What role does research play in successful historical fiction?
Research plays a big role, but how research is used is probably more important. What I mean is that what sells me the book is not the bibliography or the years the author spent researching events and historical characters. I appreciate that a lot, granted, but it’s the way in which the author weaves facts and fiction to bring a time and place alive that is really critical. And that can be achieved by economically using small details.
Q: Please comment on how these elements are critical to successful historical fiction? Characters. Setting. Plot. Conflict. Dialogue. World building. Themes.
Characters are critical because they must belong to the time and at the same time appeal to a modern reader like me, and act as my guides through the time period. It’s a delicate balancing act.
The setting is probably what brought me to the book in the first place, so it has to be vivid, believable and historically correct.
Plot is critical because it is what keeps me reading. It can be clichéd (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl meets Napoleon…) or even predictable (… Napoleon turns out to be a self-centered egomaniac), but it must be engaging, have rhythm.
Conflict and Dialogue must be lively and carry their part of the story. Period accuracy in dialogue is appreciated but once again, I don’t like being clobbered with it (I’m staring at you, The Name of the Rose!), conflict has to be believable or, failing that, amusing.
World building is absolutely essential, and it is probably the deal breaker as far as I am concerned. I come to the book for the setting, I enjoy plot and characters, but if the world does not come alive for me as I read, I consider it a big let down.
Themes are fun, but not really essential for me. I think they can work in making the narrative more textured, but I do not normally read historical fiction for the underlying themes.
Q: Do you judge historical fiction differently from contemporary fiction?
I never thought about this point, but probably not: vivid worldbuilding, engaging and believable characters, good dialog in the service of a fun plot… the parameters are the same. In contemporary fiction the author has to capture me with a sense of place, and not with a sense of place and time, but that’s probably the only difference I perceive.
Many thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights, Davide. For those who are wondering, Karavansara is an ancient Persian word meaning caravanseray, a place of rest along the road. I invite you to have a look at Davide’s very interesting blog.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.