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.

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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.

Sisters of the Great War – Women in WWI

Suzanne Feldman and I connected during an animated discussion of the World Wars at this year’s historical novel society conference. With Suzanne’s new novel set during WWI and my three novels set during that time period, we immediately had a common bond.

Here’s Suzanne to talk about the inspiration for her latest novel Sisters of the Great War.

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In the fall of 2016, I was looking for my next writing project. My debut novel, Absalom’s Daughters, had come out in July, and I was casting around for The Next Thing. I was in my last year of teaching high school, and as I walked into my empty classroom at about seven in the morning, it came to me that I wanted to write something epic, yet intimate, and what could be a better topic than war?

I knew I didn’t want to write about WWII. My father was a Holocaust survivor, and I’d heard all the stories I ever wanted to hear, from him, around the dinner table when I was growing up. Which left me wondering about WWI. As I looked for source material, I noticed that the vast majority of novels about the Great War were about men. An exception, by Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, is an outstanding memoir about women in the war, but in general, it took place outside the field of battle. The more I researched, the more I realized the battle was what I wanted to write about. 

But how does one go about writing about a war that’s been so beautifully summed up in All Quiet on the Western Front? The answer to that, I discovered, was to write about the women. 

When I started writing Sisters of the Great War, I knew I wanted to explore the lives of the women on the front lines. This led me to look more closely at the medical corps—the nurses and ambulance drivers. The drivers, I discovered, were mostly women, transporting the wounded away from the chaos of the front lines. The nurses, of course, were right there beside them, elbow deep in the conflict.

To keep the book intimate and personal, I began my research with the memoirs and diaries of women who served in the medical corps. Some of the diaries were incredibly compelling. Anne Powell’s Women in the War Zone: Hospital Service in the First World War, is a compilation of the diaries and journals of women from all over the wartime map. I found narratives from the European theater as well as from Serbia and Poland. The ones I was looking for, from France, Belgium and other locations along the Western Front, were there as well, in vivid detail. 

One book in particular, really informed my novel, and that was a slender volume entitled ‘Not So Quiet…Stepdaughters of War,’ by Helen Zenna Smith (Feminist Press 1989). The author, a British woman and a veteran of the Ambulance Corps, outlines the day-by-day horrors of picking up wounded soldiers and transporting them to the Casualty Clearing Stations (Hospitals). Her story is unwavering, blunt, and gripping, but what really struck me was the ending. The war, having been won, was over. Everyone was sent home, and Ms. Smith went home to London where her experiences and contributions were unacknowledged. Despite the celebrations, victory touched the women who had been at the Front differently than the men. The men were hailed as returning heroes—survivors. The women, as made obvious in Ms. Smith’s final passages, were left out in the cold to mull the differences in their roles in war and society, and to reach their own conclusions about each. Ms. Smith’s own conclusions are made evident in her title. 

Unlike Ms. Smith’s memoir, my novel, Sisters of the Great War returns the main characters to lives transformed. The two naïve young women from Baltimore, who fled their controlling father and their limited futures to volunteer in a war zone, find that their wartime roles provide them with an independence rarely granted to women. In the midst of bombings, heartache, and loss, they come to understand their own capabilities and worth. This hard-won sense of self will guide them through the challenges yet to come. 

Sisters of the Great War by Suzanne Feldman ~~ August 1914. While Europe enters a brutal conflict unlike any waged before, the Duncan household in Baltimore, Maryland, is the setting for a different struggle. Ruth and Elise Duncan long to escape the roles that society, and their controlling father, demand they play. Together, the sisters volunteer for the war effort—Ruth as a nurse, Elise as a driver.

Stationed at a makeshift hospital in Ypres, Belgium, Ruth soon confronts war’s harshest lesson: not everyone can be saved. Rising above the appalling conditions, she seizes an opportunity to realize her dream to practice medicine as a doctor. Elise, an accomplished mechanic, finds purpose and an unexpected kinship within the all-female Ambulance Corps. Through bombings, heartache and loss, Ruth and Elise cherish an independence rarely granted to women, unaware that their greatest challenges are still to come.

Sisters of the Great War releases today! Many thanks for sharing the story behind Sisters of the Great War, Suzanne. I love WWI novels and have already added yours to my TBR list. Best wishes for success.

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.

The Plot Thickens

Plot is one of the 7 elements of historical fiction. In the original post outlining these seven elements, I wrote:

… the plot has to make sense for the time period. And plot will often be shaped around or by the historical events taking place at that time. This is particularly true when writing about famous historical figures. When considering those historical events, remember that you are telling a story not writing history.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

When you’re plotting, you are essentially devising the sequence of events that link your scenes and chapters and your character arcs into a compelling story for readers. Christopher Booker took 34 years to write his book The Seven Basic Plots. Wikipedia describes each plot type briefly and, if you’re interested, the New York Times has reviewed Booker’s book.

Booker’s seven plots are:

  • Overcoming the monster
  • Rags to riches
  • The quest
  • Voyage and return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

Which of these plots fits the story you want to tell and its historical context?

According to Elizabeth George in her book Write Away (a resource I consult frequently), “plot is what the characters do [George’s emphasis] to deal with the situation they’re in.” Elizabeth George builds on this:

  • “To have a plot … you must have characters … you also must have conflict.”
  • “But you must also have events that occur as the conflict unfolds, and these events must be organized with an emphasis on causality.”
  • As she explores causality, George introduces the notion of “dramatic dominoes” – essentially scenes that trigger an event that follows.
  • To this she adds: “… your plot has to have high points of drama” that deeply involve your readers.

So, what does this mean for historical fiction? I’m sure someone could write a thesis on this topic, but let me offer two points:

If you’re writing historical fiction based on a real person’s life, then history provides all – well, almost all – the details you will need. The challenges are (1) to pick the true events in that persona’s life that will actually make a story worth reading bearing in mind the need for tension, conflict, causality, dramatic dominoes, and high points of drama, (2) to leave out the bits that are tedious or don’t advance the plot, and (3) to judiciously insert the scenes and characters that are plausible and will add those extra bits of drama and sparkle. Remember, you’re writing fiction not biography.

Do we know what Eleanor of Aquitaine said to Henry II on their wedding night? No, but with the right research a good author can imagine it.

Do we know whether J. P. Morgan had an affair with his personal librarian Belle da Costa Greene? No, but Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray do a wonderful job of imagining the dynamic between these two individuals in their novel The Personal Librarian.

If you’re writing historical fiction with fictional characters, then choose the historical events that frame the story, drive the plot, are inherently dramatic, and can realistically involve your characters. If your character is a captain in the British army during WWI, choose a suitable regiment and research where that regiment was during the war and therefore what battles, what losses, what victories and so on could have shaped your captain’s life. If you need your fictional captain to have met Winston Churchill, there has to be a plausible reason and accurate regimental specifics for him to have done so. More than that, the meeting with Churchill should advance the main character’s arc while adding tension and conflict and laying down another dramatic domino for the story.

In Robert McKee’s book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, he also defines plot:

To PLOT means to navigate through the dangerous terrain of story and when confronted with a dozen branching possibilities to choose the correct path. Plot is the writer’s choice of events and their design in time.

What are the branching possibilities your plot faces? What events will you choose? How will they unfold in the timeline you’ve chosen?

McKee’s notion of navigating the correct path makes me thing of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken:

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

I should keep that in mind as I devise my next plot.

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.