Ten Ingredients of Favourite Historical Fiction

What are the ingredients of favourite historical fiction? This post from 2012 may be worth revisiting …

In his book Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers, James W. Hall sets out twelve ingredients that drive bestsellers to the top of the charts. I’ve written about Hit Lit in three separate posts: Thoughts from Hit Lit, More Features of Hit Lit, and Hit Lit – the Final Six Features. According to Hall, best sellers incorporate the following: (1) an offer you can’t refuse, (2) controversy of the day, (3) colossal characters doing magnificent things on a sweeping stage, (4) America as paradise, (5) an abundance of facts and information, (6) inner workings of a secret society, (7) bumpkins versus city slickers, (8) God sells, (9) re-enactment of American national myths, (10) rebels, loners, misfits and mavericks, (11) fractured families and (12) sex.

favourite historical fiction

Do the same ingredients apply to historical fiction?

This is the question I’ve been deliberating for the last two weeks and I have some preliminary thoughts. I would be grateful for your feedback.

To come up with this list, I’ve analyzed interviews with top historical fiction authors (my own and others) and looked at reviews of their works in a number of forums. I’ve also looked for materials discussing the ‘popularity of historical fiction’. The survey I conducted last spring showed that the top three reasons people read historical fiction are to bring the past to life, to enjoy a great story and to understand and learn. [That 2012 survey can be found in the SURVEY REPORTS tab.] Not surprisingly, these reasons are reflected in the ingredients that distinguish favourite authors and best selling historical fiction.

My analysis suggests the following critical ingredients.

  1. Superb writing. Similar to Hall’s first feature – an offer you can’t refuse – this ingredient covers prose, pacing, emotional resonance, plot twists and entertainment value. Table stakes for high quality fiction of any genre.
  2. Dramatic arc of historical events. In essence, successful authors are masters at finding and selecting what Hilary Mantel calls ‘the dramatic shape in real events’.
  3. Characters both heroic and human. Readers want to experience famous figures as believable characters complete with doubts and flaws. Readers also seek stories showing every day people accomplishing heroic tasks in times so different from today.
  4. Immersed in time and place. Activating all senses, authors like Sharon Kay Penman, Bernard Cornwell, Margaret George and others transport readers to another era from the very first paragraphs of their novels.
  5. Corridors of power. Whether ancient Rome, Tudor England or the American Civil War, best selling novels expose the structure, corruption and machinations of monarchy, military, religion, law, nobility, and upper-class society.
  6. Authentic and educational. Readers love to learn. The hallmark of a top historical fiction author is meticulous research followed by carefully chosen information to create a seamless blend of history and story.
  7. Ageless themes. Instead of Hall’s ‘controversy of the day’, favourite historical fiction dramatizes thought-provoking themes that are as important today as they were long ago.
  8. High stakes. Life, kingdoms, epic battles, fortunes, marriage, family. In historical fiction, characters risk on a grand scale.
  9. Sex and love. Men and women from long ago rarely chose their partners. Love was often thwarted. Women were pawns. Favourite authors incorporate this type of conflict. In addition, sex is frequently depicted as a turning point in the lives of heroes and heroines.
  10. Dysfunctional families. Kings beheading their queens, brothers killing brothers, daughters betrothed at the age of six, incest, rivalry between father and son, wives banished or locked away – merely a few examples of dysfunctional family life that are the subjects of successful historical fiction.

So … that’s my take at the top ten ingredients of favourite historical fiction authors. As mentioned above, I would truly appreciate your thoughts.


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 AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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8 Responses

  1. Very helpful information, and I love the idea of rereading “the best of the best” from your long history of blogging. Even if I have read it before, my level of retention won’t last more than a year or two before I’m ready to read and absorb the advice again.

    1. Thanks, Katherine. As David Murphy said, likely not a good idea to try to incorporate all of them!

  2. I’m sure there’s a lot of truth in those concepts. However, if you set out to incorporate them all in a work of fiction, I reckon you’d be completely confused!

  3. I was thinking further on those concepts – esp the one about ‘brothers killing brothers.’ It reminded me about a radio interview I heard years ago with an author, Michael Korda. He was interested in the idea of whether a brother ever sacrificed his brother for money and he came across a case in point where one actually did!
    It happened during WWII (surprise surprise!) between two Hungarian Jewish men. From an aristocratic family, one of them pulled out of Budapest with his money and made it to Switzerland. His brother, not so fortunate, was captured by the Nazis who demanded payment of all monies from the first brother who refused and kept the money!
    Korda wrote a book inspired by the story called ‘Worldly Goods.’ I read it years ago but don’t remember much except that it was an entertaining read.
    I suppose if you wanted to incorporate a number of those concepts in your novel, the best approach might be to centre on one, build your story around that and work in some of the other ideas into other parts of the story.

    1. Many thanks for your comment and insight, David. As someone else said, you can’t bring all these ingredients into a novel with equal weight! All best wishes … Mary

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