Successful Historical Fiction with Chris O’Neill

Chris O’Neill took on the challenge of discussing successful historical fiction. Chris is a published author in healthcare research, and is on the threshold of publishing his first historical fiction novel.He’s an avid reader and a fan of historical fiction. Many thanks for participating, Chris.

What’s your definition of successful historical fiction?

Focusing on the novel rather than marketing, I’d say a blend of very interesting story with historical detail that both sets the past apart but also links with contemporary issues and problems.

What attributes are most important to you when designating a novel ‘successful historical fiction’.

The same as above combined with a series. I like series because the characters can grow with the conflicts they experience.  Of course, not every novel will fit well with a series.  And in some series I like (e.g., Saxon Tales) the character development stalls or levels out (middle age, perhaps???) and it’s pretty much the action surrounding a familiar character (Uhtred) that pulls me to the next installment.

Which authors do you think create the most successful historical fiction? (please restrict yourself to a small number of authors!)

The two that stand out in the last year or so are J. Tullos Hennig (who revisions Robin Hood mythically) and Bernard Cornwell (both the Grail series and the Saxon Tales with Uhtred).  I think BBC has developed a fine character and WWII ambience with Christopher Foyle (“Foyle’s War” written by Anthony Horowitz), and the series has the attribute of emphasizing virtue over expedience—a healthy contrast to modern cynicism.

What makes these particular authors stand out?

Well, returning to my opening thoughts about the definition of successful historical fiction, a great blending of historical detail with contemporary issues (Foyle re: modern-day cynicism; Robin Hood as gay, mystical and embodying resistance).  In the Saxon Tales, Uhtred has such a Shakespearean presence that the story captures your attention from beginning to end—with relentless action between.

In your opinion, what aspects prevent a novel from being designated successful historical fiction?

I have no idea.  So much of art is in taste and marketing.  I know what I like and seek it out through online reviews like Goodreads and author interviews.

Are famous people essential to successful historical fiction?

Of course, not.

Does successful historical fiction have to say something relevant to today’s conditions?

It inevitably does, so I’m not sure that’s the right question.  With the concept of erasure (human experience that is not mentioned or described or explored) it seems impossible that a story not be relevant when an author doesn’t address a critical feature of the historical era or culture.  Not describing the servant experience, the homophobia, the unjust circumstances, for example, is a statement by its absence.  It’s something I notice—not that a book can deal with every issue in equal depth.  As I see it, the problem and opportunity is how to explore what hasn’t been recorded (except for perhaps an archeological record).  The author is left with personal insight into human experience—something that surrounds the writing every day.  Lots to discuss about the writer’s license and imagination here, but this is a brief response.  For the reader it comes down to: is the story engaging and believable?

What role does research play in successful historical fiction?

Research is essential if it’s historical fiction or fantasy.  For me, it sets out features of a broad landscape and adds detail.  But the human drama is what interests me most, not the number of cannons stuck on a muddy road and late to the battle.  Still, “All the Light We Cannot See” (Anthony Doerr) was riveting with the occasional data overloads!

What can I say?  One gives an answer and can immediately find the exception … again and again!

Do you judge historical fiction differently from contemporary fiction?

Yes.  All my expectations of “contemporary fiction” apply with the added requirement that “history” be present in the story and active in some way that matters to the characters and plot.

Many thanks, Chris. And best wishes for your writing journey.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING 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, 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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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