What do readers love about historical fiction? On Goodreads one can find a list of just about any kind of reading including an interesting list of ‘Best Historical Fiction’. The top four on this list have more than 25,000 votes.
Here’s a question for your consideration: what contributes to a novel being on such a list? What style of writing? What themes and time periods? Can we conclude anything about settings or types of characters readers prefer?
Let’s look at the top ten from Goodreads.
- The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (1989) – a twelfth century monk dedicates himself to building a great cathedral; a story of betrayal, revenge, and love
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2006) – according to one reader, “a gripping, haunting, utterly poetic and beautiful tale of life and death and love in a time (WWII) of horror and insanity”
- Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936) – Scarlet O’Hara, Rhett Butler, Ashley Wilkes, and Melanie Hamilton face death, loss and poverty in this Civil War saga
- Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991) – the heroine of this novel time travels from 1945 to 1743 Scotland which is torn by war and raiding border clans; full of action, tension, romance, and always the looming possibility of death
- Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (1997) – 1930 Japan, a world where a girl’s virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder; where women are trained to beguile powerful men; and where love is scorned as illusion.
- The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (1997) – told in Dinah’s voice, this novel reveals the traditions and turmoils of ancient womanhood, and a new view of biblical women’s society.
- The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel (1980) – a saga about people, relationships, and the boundaries of love during the dawn of modern humans and the ancient people known as the Clan of the Cave Bear.
- Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (1999) – this story centers on Vermeer’s prosperous Delft household during the 1660s, when a young servant girl (the subject of the Vermeer’s famous painting) is hired and turmoil follows.
- World Without End by Ken Follett (2007 – a sequel to Pillars) – the cathedral and the priory are again at the center of a web of love and hate, greed and pride, ambition and revenge, and at a crossroads of new ideas—about medicine, commerce, architecture, and justice.
- The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (1980) – in 1327 the Benedictines of a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective.
I’ve read them all. Loved some more than others. But this isn’t about my preferences. It’s about the preferences of thousands and thousands of readers.
It’s clear that popular novels published thirty or more years ago – Gone With the Wind is the oldest – stand a better chance of being in the top ten because the years have allowed them to gather a much larger audience. However, what stands out for me is the world building of the time periods involved – biblical, ice age, 12th century, 14th century and so on. The authors have built long-ago worlds for readers to inhabit, worlds of power and danger and turmoil, worlds that are unfamiliar in their customs and politics and values. In the case of Memoirs of a Geisha, although the time period of 1930 is more recent, the author builds the exotic world of the Japanese geisha for us. And in The Book Thief, it’s the terrifying and soul-destroying world of 1939 Nazi Germany.
Another aspect of note is the high stakes involved: death, passion, revenge, reputation, survival, and characters that experience major setbacks, great turmoil and significant personal risk.
I’m reminded of Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers by James W. Hall. After examining many bestsellers, Hall provides twelve features these novels have in common. Please note, Hall’s twelve include a few decidedly American features.
- An Offer You Can’t Refuse – tricks of the trade that create a highly compelling story
- Raise the controversy of the day
- Colossal characters doing magnificent things on a sweeping stage
- America as paradise
- An abundance of facts and information
- Expose the inner workings of at least one secret society
- Bumpkins versus slickers
- God sells
- Americans delight in reenactments of our national myths
- Rebels, Loners, Misfits and Mavericks
- Fractured Families
I’ll leave you with two questions. If you’ve read any of these, what do you think makes them so popular? And, what novels would be on your list?
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, 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.