The State of Historical Fiction #HNS2019

Elizabeth Mahon author of Scandalous Women moderated a lively discussion with this year’s agents and editors panel on the state of historical fiction in the marketplace. The conference was wonderful!! I wrote furiously to capture their insights and advice.

Photo courtesy of Janna G. Noelle historical fiction author

On the topic of whether this is a golden age for historical fiction (see this NYTimes article for reference), one panel member reflected on readers’ desires to look back at earlier times to gain an understanding of today’s cultural and political difficulties. Others spoke of growing interest in hearing from voices across the spectrum, seeking to appreciate experiences of previously marginalized groups, and of a desire to read about extraordinary women in extraordinary times, particularly in light of the #metoo movement.

Diversity in historical fiction was another topic. Agents and editors spoke of their desire to discover stories reflecting the trauma, accomplishments, and joys of different groups and countries. With publishing still being “monolithically white”, there is a feeling that the industry—agents, publishers, retailers, and readers—needs to be more proactive about finding these stories and fighting the view that such stories serve niche markets.

On manuscript wish lists, #MSWL, the advice for authors is that it’s hard to pivot based on today’s wish lists because it takes so long to complete a novel. While authors should be aware of market interests and successes, authors should still be guided by their passions. One editor commented that she “doesn’t know what she wants” until she sees it. Another said that themes are important and often transcend specific wish lists.

On the topic of book club fiction, panel members said that personal transformation is an important ingredient and that sisterhood—both narrow and broad definitions of sisterhood—is a topic of interest. Book club selections need to be thought provoking and capable of generating discussion and of attracting as wide an audience as possible.

What are the biggest mistakes new historical fiction authors make?

  • Providing an info-dump of all the wonderful historical research at the beginning of a novel.
  • Building characters with modern sensibilities, instead of the sensibilities of their time, immediately signals a problem.

Elizabeth asked each panel member to provide a recent novel that stood out. My TBR pile will soon reach the ceiling if I add all these to it!

  • Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  • The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
  • The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati
  • Lady Sherlock books by Sherry Thomas
  • Summer Country by Lauren Willig
  • Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly
  • A Memory of Violets by Hazel Gaynor
  • The Alienist by Caleb Carr
  • A Fire Sparkling by Julianne MacLean
  • Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  • Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Elizabeth Mahon opened the session up to questions:

How has the changed bookstore landscape affected business? Discoverability has changed as a result. Social media plays a much more prominent role and publishers are targeting influencers on various platforms. The new landscape expands the “democracy of readership” and changes the word-of-mouth dynamic.

When will the interest in WWII end? The opinion of one panel member was that it will never end, especially the unique stories, fresh perspectives, and unique characters of WWII. For example, stories of the Pacific front have not been well explored. The panel reassured authors that they continue to look at other periods as well.

What periods are a hard sell? One panel member said that ancient history is difficult to sell, another added that stories beyond 500 years ago are difficult. A third said that the Tudor period is saturated. And a fourth said that in the early 2000s, there was an interest in biographical fiction, but that today the interest is more about extraordinary people in extraordinary times.

What about male protagonists? Panel members reflected that readership of historical fiction skews female and that women’s stories are more revelatory given today’s world (by which I think she was referring to issues dominating the media like #metoo, abortion and others). Editors are always open to great stories with male characters.

I hope these highlights are useful!


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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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35 Responses

  1. Great summary, Mary. Thanks. Had I known you would be there, I’d have driven up for the day to meet you and have a chat–I love about 140 miles form Washington Harbor. Maybe next time.

    Jeff Walker


  2. “Ancient history is a hard sell” – not so much – my series built around Alexander the Great is doing fine, and there are some best sellers set in ancient times – maybe there are not as many of them, but they are there are doing well. 🙂

  3. Very well written and very interesting. I’m self-published, so it’s interesting to me to see what trends and ideas traditional publishing is predicting. It doesn’t make me want to not write my Gilded Age family dramas or my turn-of-the-century (pre WWI) fiction, though :-D.


  4. Thanks so much for the run-down! I missed this year’s conference in order to be in Croatia and Italy—and of course it’s over 100 here right now! Yikes. But it’s good to read about what agents think about the business, and thanks for posting it, M.K.

  5. A wonderful post, Mary, and thank you.
    It was interesting to read what the mainstream gatekeepers maintain as trends.
    I think that indie authors might differ a little because they write what sings for them and find readers in the process. Although I may sound a little too glib when I say that.
    It might also be helpful to somehow catch readers thoughts on what they’d like to read rather than what the mainstream publishing machine thinks they should read.
    And as to male vs female protagonists, as a reader, I’m neither for or against one or the other. I’ll read all and it has absolutely nothing to do with #metoo. It’s all about an enthralling story.

    1. Many thanks, Prue! My surveys catch a bit of what readers want … however, the participants skew to those who love reading and historical fiction.

  6. Hallo, Hallo Ms Tod,

    One interesting side note – one of my *favourite!* sub-niches of Historical Fiction *is!* the Biographical Historical Fiction novel – in fact, outside of war dramas, those are the stories I am connecting with the most often and frequently as a book blogger. I hadn’t even discovered that sub-niche until I blogged though as I was reading different sub-interests prior to blogging. In effect, as a book blogger I’ve been able to increase and enlarge the stories I am finding, reading and devouring whilst socially being interactive via my blog and through Twitter.

    Also, I did previously read Wench myself – of the others on your list, the Lady Sherlock series and The Widows of Malabar Hill are on my own TBR. The latter I bought the audiobook via Audible over a year ago – it is one of the stories I hope to get to eventually.

    In regards to Wench directly, you can view my thoughts as I read Wench and Balm back to back for a blog tour in 2015. I spoke about both novels and expressed my honest thoughts about both of them as to me they were a duology.

    I’m also slowly finding stories which are set beyond the Renaissance and/or are within the early Celts / Picts / Anglo-Saxons timeline of influence; I also enjoy earlier historical narratives – either Egyptian, Biblical History or Ancient Civilisations – though my readings in those timelines is a bit slower going as I sort out which authors are penning them which spark an interest to be read. Overall, though – I’ve happily resided in the Picts/Anglo-Saxon world for a few years now as I’ve been reading after canon Historical Fiction stories about Guinevere, King Arthur and Camelot. It started with Nicole Evelina’s trilogy – this year, I discovered two new series in this timescape of thought: Chris Thorndycroft’s “Sign of the White Foal” delving into the origins through Arthur’s POV (which is reviewed on my blog) and Jon Black’s “Bel Nemeton” which carries this from Merlin’s POV (a forthcoming review). The interesting bit is how much I’ve learnt about the Picts, Celts and Anglo-Saxons – which technically carries forward from reading “Avelynn” (also reviewed).

    I didn’t link to the reviews as I know WP blocks comments with too many links, so I only shared the one. I have a search box on my blog (upper right) and my Story Vault (all reviews) are under #JorieReads (top menu).

    I simply wanted to say that as a reader of HistFic, what I love most is the diversity of stories being offered – how you can time jump and travel through different aspects of the historical past and how sometimes you find these curious sub-niches of interest which really hold your eye in those stories.

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