Maggie Scott should know a thing or two about historical fiction – she edits historical novels and is a professor of history. Let’s see what she has to say about writing it.
What’s your definition of successful historical fiction?
The shortest possible definition: A seamless blend of rigorously researched history and a compelling story populated with characters who reflect the true sensibilities and environment of their era and who live in and of a time that is clearly theirs and no one else’s.
What attributes are most important to you when designating a novel as ‘successful historical fiction’.
I suppose the story itself is the most critical aspect, because without a tale that captures one’s attention—and holds it—other aspects such as proper research fall by the wayside. Therefore, I’ll consider a book to be successful if a) it promises a tale that will engage me; b) delivers on that promise; c) doesn’t pummel me with obvious signs of the author’s research in paragraphs rife with extraneous details parachuted in just to amaze me with her/his erudition; and d) doesn’t show on the first page that the author is clueless about the perod s/he has chosen as the setting for the story.
I’m a diligent reader and a critic. And I admit that often my training in archival research and historiography, degrees in history, and experience in writing historical stuff—the objective kind, with a plethora of endnotes and weighty bibliographies that about twelve people ever read, get in the way of a smooth and effortless romp through historical fiction. Sigh…
Which authors do you think create the most successful historical fiction? (please restrict yourself to a small number of authors!)
Two authors who have successfully navigated the perilous waters of my favorite historical period are Sandra Gulland for her brilliant Josephine Bonaparte trilogy and Susanne Alleyn for the Aristide Ravel mysteries set in revolutionary Paris. Both demonstrate the perfect melding of history, culture, society, language, and compelling plots and characters. Elisabeth Kostova for The Historian, a wild ride through pre-WWII Europe and the deliciously darkly plausible side of Vlad Dracul. Elizabeth Loupas for her amazingly evocative portraits of Renaissance Ferrara and Florence with characters beyond the ordinary and a sensual banquet of sights, smells, and sounds on every page.
Of course, I think there are other writers who produce good historical fiction, but for me, these ladies knocked it out of the park.
What makes these particular authors stand out?
I don’t want to repeat myself, but the authors I cited have done their due diligence, not only into the realms of dates and facts and names of Big Important People but also into the often ignored world of food, décor, clothes, dances, jewelry, building materials, proper names of streets, churches, and public buildings, and all the other minutia of daily life in 1485, for example, or 1793.
These authors are also judicious in the use of their research; it appears when it should, and fades into the background until needed again.
And these authors do not—repeat, do not—use anachronisms.
In your opinion, what aspects prevent a novel from being designated successful historical fiction?
Everything that runs counter to the points I just raised, of course.
But to elaborate, I find that authors who believe it is perfectly acceptable to dress their characters in lovely “period” costumes and then turn them into blatantly 21st century people, complete with their modern attitudes and speech patterns, much like the abysmal TV series “Reign” will never write so much as a paragraph of successful historical fiction, much less an entire novel.
Authors whose main female characters are thinly-veiled Mary Sues, loved by every male within miles of Edward II’s or Henry V III’s court and able to overcome obstacles completely unknown or even imagined in the 13th or 16th centuries.
Authors who brag that they have conducted “deep research” but whose books reveal they have less knowledge of the period than a Wikipedia entry.
Authors who write the equivalent of fan fiction, saturating an already overly-filled era with yet another tired trope that offers not so much as a scintilla of originality. The Tudors certainly come to mind—how many tales of ladies in waiting to Queen Fill-in-the-Blank can one read?—and Austenland, where there are more spinoffs of Pride and Prejudice than there were of the Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Are famous people essential to successful historical fiction?
Not at all. Sometimes “famous” folks are a detriment, especially if they are well-known or controversial. I know of a few instances when readers have figuratively tossed a book against the wall when their personal view of a famous person conflicted with the one portrayed in the book. Often it’s enough to have a famous person pop up for a cameo role, and then fade gracefully away to allow the main and usually fictional characters have their moments in the historical sun.
Does successful historical fiction have to say something relevant to today’s conditions?
I sincerely hope not! I want to read a novel set in Mughal India or Georgian England that has nothing in it but the sounds, scents, language, culture, and social norms of that milieu, where the protagonists reflect in everything they do, think, and say their world, and not ours. If I want to read about today’s conditions, there is quite enough contemporary fiction to choose from, thank you very much.
And should an author decides to have Lady Anne, a beautifully coiffed, gowned, and bejeweled ornament of George III’s court spout 20th-century feminist sentiments, for example, then I will be leaving a caustic one-star review as a reward for such a travesty.
What role does research play in successful historical fiction?
Research is the glue that holds the elements of historical fiction together. Neglect proper research, or think a casual foray through relevant Wikipedia entries will suffice, and one’s novel is already doomed.
Research requires more than a superficial knowledge of dates, ruling houses, a few foreign words to toss about like annoying confetti, and some key political events to serve as some sort of loose backdrop. Research requires the author to know the value of a guinea in 1811—and even if a guinea existed then!—as well as the kinds of food served and eaten among various social strata; whether streets were dirt or cobblestone; the types of furnishings one would find in a merchant’s house in Leeds or a vicar’s manse in Wiltshire; the layout of London in 1816; the fabrics used for ladies’ morning dresses and dinner gowns; and all the little details of daily life one’s characters are living.
Think you can wing it? Think again.
I have three examples of sloppy research—or simple failure—by the author to fully grasp the major points as well as the nuances of the period that are my favorites. The first unfortunate—and hilarious—gaffe is claiming that the Hotel de Ville in 1803 Paris was a seedy establishment renting cheap rooms in a disreputable part of town. Even second-year French students know that “Hotel de Ville” is the name used everywhere in France for the city hall. And the building referenced in this howlingly awful novel had been on that spot and called the Hotel de Ville since about 1357.
The second example is the amazingly uninformed decision to write that there was in Europe in 1803—a banner year apparently for Really Bad Books—something called the European Tribunal, which had Inspectors that would snoop around for violations of some unnamed laws and then haul the miscreants before this August Tribunal for sentencing. Of course, since the mid 18th century, this “European Tribunal” was the accepted reference to what was really “the court of public—or diplomatic—opinion.” The opinion might be acerbic, but it certainly did not have the corporeal body or legal acumen to sentence anyone for anything. No inspectors in fancy uniforms, either.
The last example featured a wedding in late 15th century Bohemia, where the author delighted in regaling the reader by quoting chunks of the Catholic liturgy for a Nuptial Mass, copied painstakingly from the post-Vatican II Roman Missal. The mind boggles—again.
Proper research is equally necessary to avoid peppering one’s historical fiction with appalling anachronisms. Unfortunately, some authors think if they write in 21st-century slang it will somehow magically make their tales “relevant.” It does no such thing. Anachronisms show me that the author couldn’t bother to research his/her period, was too lazy to do more than the minimum, or worse, thought no one would notice. I notice. I make lists of award-winning anachronisms and commit many of the best of them to memory. A woman having a “tropical-themed party” in 1799 Paris must be read to be believed, and that was only one of scores of what I began to call “Tweet-Speak.”.
A good, conscientious writer will invest in some of the fairly decent on-line etymology dictionaries. A serious writer of historical fiction will invest in a subscription to the OED.
And conscientious writers who do proper research would never, ever commit the cardinal sin of giving their characters names wildly inappropriate to their historical period. They would never burden readers with a Regency heroine named Whitney, or an Egyptian general from the time of Ramses II named Alistair. Well, there was the real winner of the Bad Names Contest: Talleyrand sipping tea in his Paris garden with a man named Tyrone.
So, historical fiction is nothing more than a Hot Mess without good, solid, all-encompassing research.
Please comment on how these elements are critical to successful historical fiction? Characters. Setting. Plot. Conflict. Dialogue. World building. Themes.
The answers to these points are really the same as they would be for any fictional genre. The only distinctions I’d make are the ones I’ve mentioned earlier: the setting must be spot on—if you are writing about Renaissance Florence, I don’t want to feel for so much as a nanosecond that I’m in 20th century Chicago; the characters in Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court in Poitiers better speak in the cadence and language—or approximation in English of—12th century langue d’oc; the world built in historical fiction is not that of YA dystopian vistas but the very specific period the author chooses, and it had better reflect the feeling of medieval Paris and not that of District 12.
I have no real opinion on the use of “themes” in historical fiction, unless they are ineptly disguised attempts to advance the theme of feminism, class warfare, emancipation, or similar movements and mindsets that did not exist in full flower before the dawn of the 19th century. Woe betide the unwitting author whose 16th century hero feels compassion for [fill in the blank] and works tirelessly for [fill in the blank that did not appear until 1921.
Do you judge historical fiction differently from contemporary fiction?
Obviously I do. Historical fiction must have history—political, cultural, social, religious, economic—from eras prior to 1960, I believe. Scary, that, since I remember 1960 in excruciating detail. Historical fiction must also have the essential elements of contemporary fiction: believable characters, good, solid plot elements, easy, natural dialogue, and other stylistic elements such as showing rather than telling to a greater or lesser degree.
I read historical fiction because I want to immerse myself in another world; I read contemporary fiction, almost exclusively mysteries, thrillers, and really scary stories, as an escape.
Maggie, you certainly delivered on your promise of pointed, honest and acerbic responses! Your thoughts are great guidance to anyone writing historical fiction. I love your examples of flawed historical fiction and your succinct definition of the genre. Many thanks for participating.
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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.