Sarah Johnson on Current trends in Historical Fiction

Sarah Johnson is a long time blogger and book reviewer at Reading the Past. Her blog was chosen as one of the favourite historical fiction blogs. In 2012, I asked Sarah if she would help me get the word out about a reader survey designed to understand why people read historical fiction. We’ve been friends ever since.

Sarah has graciously agreed to give us an update on trends in historical fiction.

~~~

Thanks to M. K. (Mary) Tod for giving me the opportunity to revisit the topic of current trends in historical fiction.  It’s amusing to read the answer I provided to her interview question back in 2012, when the Tudors’ popularity was fading, Titanic fiction was hot, and World War II was the newest big thing. 

As fans of the genre know, WWII settings and themes are still very much with us. For some readers, the timeframe is fertile ground for bringing forth undiscovered stories, while for readers and authors anxious to move on to something new, WWII feels like a persistent houseguest they’d like to nudge out the door but can’t.  

Based on agents’ comments at the 2021 Historical Novel Society conference and publishing deals I’ve seen in Publishers Marketplace, WWII will be sticking around for a while. Many authors are keeping the setting exciting by focusing on characters, stories, events, and parts of the world that haven’t received adequate attention in fiction.  Examples include Hazel Gaynor’s When We Were Young and Brave (US/Canadian title) / The Bird in the Bamboo Cage, centered on students and teachers at a British-run missionary school in 1941 China, and Kaia Alderson’s Sisters in Arms, about the accomplished Black American women serving overseas with the the Six Triple Eight battalion of the Women’s Army Corps. 

At the same time, I’m seeing many stories with familiar plots, such as a younger woman discovering her grandmother’s WWII diary, told in both timelines. Although I’ve always enjoyed this trope, it has gotten repetitive. Also, Holocaust novels in which authors haven’t done adequate research (or which include the heroine’s romance with a Nazi officer) make me cringe.

Image from Good Housekeeping magazine

Moving on, and forward: the 20th century as a whole is still extremely popular, up to and including the early 1970s, if we use the fifty-years-in-the-past guideline for defining what’s historical fiction. I’m looking forward to reading Emma Brodie’s Songs in Ursa Major, about a couple in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s folk music scene (and I dig its retro cover). There are others that look nostalgically back on music at the time, and some that examine the trauma of Vietnam either there or back home. Real-life 20th-century women with little-known stories have a strong pull.  Especially those about spies or women with other heroic accomplishments. 

Back in 2012, I’d written: “Multi-time novels are popular, as these books appeal to readers of both contemporary and historical fiction.” This is still very much true. With novels incorporating parallel narratives, the later timeline is usually present-day, but it doesn’t have to be. While WWII is a common setting for the earlier thread, some authors juxtapose a modern setting against one that’s set much further back in time.  Examples include Melodie Winawer’s upcoming Anticipation, a time-slip novel set partly in 13th-century Mystras, Greece, and Laura Morelli’s bestselling The Stolen Lady, focusing on the Mona Lisa and shifting between WWII France and Leonardo da Vinci’s Florence. For mainstream publishers, medieval and Renaissance settings may not be trending these days (alas), but by adding a second thread in a more familiar era, authors can get around these constraints, and readers can too.

As a librarian, I’m thrilled that historical novels about librarians and booksellers are thriving. The stereotype of the mousy, reclusive librarian is passé; instead, we have novels emphasizing the value of books and reading in difficult times, and librarians depicted as the saviors of the written word.  Three of my favorites include Janie Chang’s The Library of Legends, set in 1930s China; Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray’s The Personal Librarian, about Belle da Costa Greene at the Morgan Library; and Madeline Martin’s The Last Bookshop in London, set during the Blitz.

Madeline Miller’s Circe spurred a trend about female-oriented retellings of Greek myths. Ancient stories have been interpreted over and over throughout history, and looking at them from a female viewpoint provides fresh insight.  See: Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and its sequel The Women of Troy; Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne and Zenobia Neil’s Ariadne Unraveled; and Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships, to name a few. According to The Bookseller, Costanza Casati’s novel about Clytemnestra, sister of Helen of Troy, will be out in 2023, and Jennifer Saint’s second novel, Elektra, taking its title from the name of Clytemnestra’s youngest daughter, will appear in 2022.

Myths aren’t the only familiar stories getting a reboot: classic novels are as well. Jillian Cantor’s Beautiful Little Fools revisits the women from The Great Gatsby, and Publishers Marketplace just reported a deal for E. C. France’s Daughter Dalloway, retelling Virginia Woolf’s classic from the perspective of the title character’s daughter.

Another noteworthy trend: orphans. Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train may have started this off. These tend to be heartwarming stories about children escaping hard times.  I collected many of these books in a post on my blog last year, and more have appeared since, including Dianna Rostad’s You Belong Here Now, about a trio of orphans heading west to Montana via train in the early 20th century.

Finally, it’s worth remarking on two recent developments with historical fiction that I’ve heard described as trends, although this isn’t technically correct. Rather, these are directions that are here to stay. Authors from underrepresented groups are finally gaining more opportunities to tell their own stories and to write about historical characters who share their identities.  In addition, indie publishing is hardly a passing fad. The industry’s decisions on what they perceive to be the most commercially viable historical settings are causing many authors – including those with previous success in mainstream publishing – to go indie.  Both of these directions should be embraced by readers, since they’re necessary for the genre to stay relevant, diverse, and vibrant.

Wow, Sarah. Thank you for this fascinating perspective. I think my next novel will be a dual timeline, featuring WWII orphans in one timeline (one of whom is a librarian), and mythological characters in the other! Just kidding. To be serious, I truly appreciate your insights and I know I speak for many in our appreciation for your dedication to historical fiction and to the Historical Novel Society.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

14 thoughts on “Sarah Johnson on Current trends in Historical Fiction”

    1. Thanks for your comments, Sharon, and that’s OK about the Ursa Major book! People enjoy different things, and I’m still curious to read it, mainly because I’m a fan of the folk music from that time. Plus I was too young to remember most of the ’70s very well.

    1. I’m in a similar boat, Barbara. Not too long ago, I was asked to review an historical novel set in the 50s and 60s …. as someone who was born in the 50s and went to high school in the 60s, it was intriguing to see these decades being interpreted for story purposes by an author in her thirties. Sigh.

      1. Hi, Mary, I write Renaissance Italy. I just signed a contract for the publication of a revised edition of “The Sign of the Weeping Virgin” and for the next book in the series to be published shortly thereafter…:)

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