Today, I have Nicole Evelina on the blog discussing the topic of successful historical fiction. Nicole writes stories of strong women from history and today. She also appeared on A Writer of History in 2016. Many thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nicole.
What’s your definition of successful historical fiction?
Successful historical fiction transports you to another time and place without you realizing it. It is great fiction in general, according to the rules of writing you’d apply to any genre. And the very best helps you learn something about human nature, the time period, a famous historical personage, and/or yourself.
What attributes are most important to you when designating a novel ‘successful historical fiction’.
Historical accuracy and a good story.
Which authors do you think create the most successful historical fiction?
Patricia Bracewell, Geraldine Brooks, Anne Fortier, MJ Rose, and Susanna Kearsley.
What makes these particular authors stand out?
They all paint rich pictures and tell stories that stay with you long after you are done reading.
In your opinion, what aspects prevent a novel from being designated successful historical fiction?
Anything that takes you out of the time and place, feels forced or anachronistic. Even when words are historically correct, if they feel too modern, it can be jarring. For example, I read a book that takes place in the 1920s that used the term “mixologist” for a bartender. I looked it up and it is technically correct for the period, but that word has become so synonymous with recent years that it tripped me up. Lack of research/lazy research goes along with this. Also, forcing modern viewpoints on historical characters.
Are famous people essential to successful historical fiction?
Not at all. I think the unknowns are even more fun because then you learn something about a real person at the same time you are entertained. Fictional characters are often a good way to see a different POV of an event/time period.
Does successful historical fiction have to say something relevant to today’s conditions?
Yes. I think every book has to say something relevant to readers. If it doesn’t, we can’t relate to the book, characters, etc. and are not inclined to continue reading. Luckily, the basics of the human condition don’t really change. So even though slavery is illegal in most places now, we can still read stories of the US pre-Civil War south or the Roman Empire and emphasize with struggle of the slave because it’s part of human nature to not want to be in forced servitude. In the same way, we can read about times when women didn’t have any rights because it shows us how far we have come and how far we still have to go.
What role does research play in successful historical fiction?
Aside from the basic skills of any storyteller, research is everything. It’s what makes historical fiction what it is; it’s what enables writers to convincingly time travel to a period they can never actually visit; it’s what makes a book feel authentic, and these things are key to a good reading experience.
In your opinion, how are these elements critical to successful historical fiction? Characters. Setting. Plot. Conflict. Dialogue. World building. Themes.
Characters, world building and setting must be authentic to the period for a reader to take them seriously, hence the role of research. Plot must be well-written and realistic and conflict must make us want to keep reading – just as in any other kind of book. Dialogue must sound like it is right for the period – no modern language, yet also not so historically accurate that a modern reader can’t understand it. Themes are what make the books relevant to modern readers.
Do you judge historical fiction differently from contemporary fiction?
Yes. I hold it to a higher standard because of all the work that goes into creating it. Having written both, I can confidently say there is so much you don’t have to think about when writing contemporary fiction because it is second nature to you and to your readers. Those very same things are part of what makes successful historical fiction shine – the very fact that you don’t notice how different they are from today because the author has done their research and convinced you they are part of the everyday life of the characters you are reading.
Many thanks for adding to the discussion, Nicole.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. 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.