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.

The Limits of Limelight

I’ve known Margaret Porter for several years and have admired her writing as well as her kindness and support to other writers in the historical fiction community.

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of reading her latest novel The Limits of Limelight. Like Margaret’s earlier novel Beautiful Invention, the story of Hedy Lamarr, The Limits of Limelight transports the reader to the Golden Age of Hollywood, a world of glamour and glitter where the stars were beholden to their studio bosses and wannabe stars struggled to be discovered.

I asked Margaret several questions about her novels and her writing.

  • What fascinates you about the golden age of Hollywood?

It’s my father’s fault. He was a massive fan of cinema, and never stopped watching the classic black and white movies of his youth. So I was very familiar with them as well, and all the great stars of the era, female and male. When I took a break from my stage career to earn my M.A. in Radio-Television-Film, my course work included classes and seminars and writing papers on film history. And I was regularly seeing movies at the big city art house cinema and the one on campus. 

But many years went by before my early interest and my later acquired knowledge transferred to my writing career.

  • You’ve chosen women like Hedy Lamarr, Ginger Rogers, and Phyllis Fraser. What is their appeal? Why did they stand out for you?

Their appeal can be summed up in this phrase: “More than meets the eye.” Each one of them had to make their way in a Hollywood that placed a premium on feminine beauty, and a studio system that created stars and controlled them. But these women managed to break through and/or break out of the mold, in different ways. 

Hedy used her intelligence and information about innovations in munitions development, obtained in Austria during her first marriage, to collaborate on the invention of frequency-hopping and spread spectrum technology. Her motivation was to create an undetectable torpedo that could evade Hitler’s U-Boats, which were bombing transport ships carrying children and women across the Atlantic from England to Canada. She wanted the Allies to have a secret advantage in the war.

Ginger left high school at fourteen to become a performer on stage, and eventually the screen. But she wasn’t content to simply dance and sing in musical comedies. A great reader, she educated herself through books, fiction and nonfiction, and she read dictionaries, memorizing words and definitions. As her fame increased, she not only fought for better contract terms and a higher salary, she also insisted on more challenging, dramatic roles. She stepped away from her iconic partnership with Fred Astaire, and by doing so earned her only Oscar for Kitty Foyle. She was also an artist, a sculptor, and an avid photographer.

Phyllis went along with her Cousin Ginger’s plan to turn her into a movie actress. But ultimately realized that her heart wasn’t in it. Her first love was writing. That led to scripting and producing radio drama, then becoming an author of children’s books. And her editorial career reaches its apex in her collaboration with Dr. Seuss as co-founder of Beginner Books. You can thank Phyllis, in part, for The Cat in the Hat, and many of the Seuss books that followed.

  • How does writing in this era affect your research process?

It certainly adds to the research workload! Unlike the centuries I previously inhabited, the 17th and 18th, there is an almost terrifying wealth of information available to the author of 20th century celebrity biographical fiction. Movies, newsreels, newspaper interviews, movie fan magazines, and all the many photographs, candid and promotional. I create multiple timelines: Hollywood history, character history, and fictional storyline. Then I weave it all together into a single unit, selecting and discarding incidents that either serve to create conflict or bust long-held myths or to highlight an unknown aspect of the individual and her life choices and their repercussions.

My mantra is supposed to be “I only need to know what I need to know to write the novel.” But if it weren’t for a rabbit hole I fell into when writing Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr, I wouldn’t have discovered the fascinating story of Ginger Roger’s cousin Phyllis Fraser. So the wide-ranging research process, time-consuming as it can be, often produces buried treasure.

  • Why do you write under two author names?

I don’t, not really. My first eleven novels were published as romantic historical fiction, as Margaret Evans Porter, and those backlist titles are still available and some have been re-published in various formats and languages over the years. But when I finally realized my adolescent ambition of writing historical biographical fiction, I wanted to differentiate from my earlier pen name. So—with my parents’ understanding—I dropped my maiden name. Margaret Porter fits a bit better on a book cover! And whether or not future projects are biographical in nature, I think that’s the one I’ll keep.

  • You’ve written novels in other eras. What different challenges do these eras represent?

I do miss the 17th and 18th centuries, which is why I’m going back in time. I’m starting a wholly fictional story set in 17th century France, in a region familiar to me. I suspect this is a product of nostalgia and longing, stemming from my inability to return there due to restricted travel during the pandemic. Although a significant character happens to be a real historical woman, and an amazing one, the main characters come from a different source, which I’m not ready to reveal. I’m having lots of fun letting my imagination run without having to conform so much to known history. And already in progress is a historical biographical novel set in the theatrical realm of 18th century London. It is extremely research-intensive. Fortunately, I completed all my on-site investigations in England before the pandemic! For quite a long time I had been gathering material from primary sources in the British Library and the Folger Library and other collections. 

Researching people and events and locations from two or three centuries in the past has its own challenges. Tracking down documents, portraits, memoirs and letters (not necessarily in English, which means translating, often in archives or private collections), is a mammoth task. And the more famous the character, especially if he or she inspires diverse opinions, the harder I dig in order to determine the best way to present him or her. In so many cases, the records of female lives are either deeply buried, lost or discarded, or simply nonexistent. That is a curse, in that curiosity can never be completely satisfied. But also a blessing, because it leaves enough of a void to be filled in by the author’s imagination and creativity.

I’m not sure yet exactly how I’ll juggle these two very different books, in terms of my writing schedule. For a little while longer I’ll continue working on them simultaneously.

I’m excited to hear about these future novels, Margaret. And equally excited that The Limits of Limelight is ‘out there’ for readers. Ginger and Phyllis are deeply fascinating characters. The story has wonderful twists and turns, and the world of Hollywood truly comes alive.

The Limits of Limelight by Margaret Porter ~~ Hollywood turned Ginger Rogers into a star. What will it do for her cousin?

Pretty Oklahoma teenager Helen Nichols accepts an invitation from her cousin, rising movie actress Ginger Rogers, and her Aunt Lela, to try her luck in motion pictures. Her relatives, convinced that her looks and personality will ensure success, provide her with a new name and help her land a contract with RKO. As Phyllis Fraser, she swiftly discovers that Depression-era Hollywood’s surface glamor and glitter obscure the ceaseless struggle of the hopeful starlet.

Lela Rogers, intensely devoted to her daughter and her niece, outwardly accepting of her stage mother label, is nonetheless determined to establish her reputation as screenwriter, stage director, and studio talent scout. For Phyllis, she’s an inspiring model of grit and persistence in an industry run by men.

While Ginger soars to the heights of stardom in musicals with Fred Astaire, Phyllis is tempted by a career more fulfilling than the one she was thrust into. Should she continue working in films, or devote herself to the profession she’s dreamed about since childhood? Which choice might lead her to the lasting love that seems so elusive?

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.

Essex – Tudor Rebel by Tony Riches

Since his first novel, Owen – Book One of the Tudor Trilogy, Tony Riches has written many stories related to the Tudor dynasty. Of that novel, Tony said: “The idea for the Tudor Trilogy occurred to me when I realised Henry Tudor could be born in book one, ‘come of age’ in book two, and rule England in book three, so there would be plenty of scope to explore his life and times.”

Tony didn’t stop with one trilogy. He went on to write other novels featuring members of the Tudor family as well as novels featuring other historical times. His latest trilogy returns to the Tudor era – more specifically the reign of Elizabeth I and famous figures like Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. I’ve just finished reading Essex – Tudor Rebel and can tell you that it’s one of those wonderful novels that transports you in time and place.

And what a time it was! Wars, spies, palace intrigue, lovers, family feuds, conspiracies, and a monarch who capriciously alternates between approval and disapproval – the drama increases as Robert Devereux’s life unfolds. I highly recommend the story.

I asked Tony a few questions, beginning with why he’s fascinated with the Tudors.

Tony: I was born in Pembroke, South West Wales, a town dominated by the castle where Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII, was born in 1457.

I began researching his life and realised I’d gathered enough material for three books, which would cover his birth, coming of age, and becoming King of England. I’m pleased to say the resulting Tudor trilogy has become an international best seller.

Henry’s youngest daughter, Mary Tudor, cared for him in his last months, and I became intrigued by the story of how her brother (Henry VIII) married her off to the aging King of France. I decided to write Mary’s story as a ‘sequel’, continuing the story of the Tudors, and this became the Brandon trilogy, after she married the king’s best friend, champion jouster Charles Brandon. The third book in the trilogy is about Charles Brandon’s fascinating last wife, Katherine Willoughby, which took me right up to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Why these three men (Drake, Essex and Raleigh)?
 
I decided it would be fun to tell the story of the last Tudor through the eyes of her favourites. As a sailor myself, I’ve always been interested in Drake’s adventures, and I really enjoyed sailing around the world with him on the Golden Hind. (I was able to visit the impressive replica on the Thames in London, which gave me a real sense of what it must have been like.)
Replica of the Golden Hind

Drake worked his way up, against the odds, and had no time for arrogant nobles, so was appalled when Robert Devereux, the dashing young Earl of Essex, commandeers a warship from his fleet to sail in the ‘English Armada’ and attack Lisbon.

Francis Drake knew Queen Elizabeth had forbidden Essex to join the expedition – and he had no experience of naval command or fighting at sea. With typical bravado, Essex leapt from his ship into deep water, causing many of his followers to drown in their attempt to do the same. He then led the forty-mile march to Lisbon, without waiting for supplies, and many soldiers died from hunger, heat exhaustion and thirst. The whole enterprise proved a costly disaster, and set the tone for Robert’s later adventures.

I was intrigued to understand how the queen’s favourite got away with such behaviour, then turned against the queen with his ill-fated ‘rebellion’.  

Walter Raleigh was Robert Devereux’s rival for the attention of the queen, and was the obvious candidate for the third book, which I’m currently researching. I visited Raleigh’s cell at the Tower of London (where he was imprisoned three times!) and am looking for a new angle on his life. (Outside his cell is a herb garden, which was originally planted by Raleigh.)

What did you learn about Elizabeth I from your research?

Although her father tried to control the use of his image, Queen Elizabeth was ahead of her time with her strictly controlled branding as ‘Gloriana’. I found a troubled woman beneath  the thin veneer, who could be manipulative and vengeful. A skilled politician and diplomat, she managed her parliament and even the most ambitious men of her court. I’ve developed my research on Elizabeth into a series of three podcasts, which can be found here:

  • Queen Elizabeth Part I – the first of a series of three looking at the life of Queen Elizabeth the first, and is an introduction to the key events of Elizabeth’s life and challenging childhood
  • Queen Elizabeth Part II – the second podcast explores the myths and rumours surrounding the life of Queen Elizabeth I
  • Queen Elizabeth Part III – further explorations of Elizabeth I’s life

Many thanks, Tony. Wishing you all the best for Essex – Tudor Rebel. Other conversations with Tony Riches include:

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 for pre-order 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.