Successful Historical Fiction with Nicole Evelina

Thanks for your indulgence while I enjoyed a brief hiatus from blogging in the lead up to our son’s wedding. I’m delighted to tell you that all went well!

Today, I have Nicole Evelina on the blog discussing the topic of successful historical fiction. Nicole writes stories of strong women from history and today. She also appeared on A Writer of History in 2016. Many thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nicole.


What’s your definition of successful historical fiction?

Successful historical fiction transports you to another time and place without you realizing it. It is great fiction in general, according to the rules of writing you’d apply to any genre. And the very best helps you learn something about human nature, the time period, a famous historical personage, and/or yourself.

What attributes are most important to you when designating a novel ‘successful historical fiction’.

Historical accuracy and a good story.

Which authors do you think create the most successful historical fiction?

Patricia Bracewell, Geraldine Brooks, Anne Fortier, MJ Rose, and Susanna Kearsley.

What makes these particular authors stand out?

They all paint rich pictures and tell stories that stay with you long after you are done reading.

In your opinion, what aspects prevent a novel from being designated successful historical fiction?

Anything that takes you out of the time and place, feels forced or anachronistic. Even when words are historically correct, if they feel too modern, it can be jarring. For example, I read a book that takes place in the 1920s that used the term “mixologist” for a bartender. I looked it up and it is technically correct for the period, but that word has become so synonymous with recent years that it tripped me up. Lack of research/lazy research goes along with this. Also, forcing modern viewpoints on historical characters.

Are famous people essential to successful historical fiction?

Not at all. I think the unknowns are even more fun because then you learn something about a  real person at the same time you are entertained. Fictional characters are often a good way to see a different POV of an event/time period.

Does successful historical fiction have to say something relevant to today’s conditions?

Yes. I think every book has to say something relevant to readers. If it doesn’t, we can’t relate to the book, characters, etc. and are not inclined to continue reading. Luckily, the basics of the human condition don’t really change. So even though slavery is illegal in most places now, we can still read stories of the US pre-Civil War south or the Roman Empire and emphasize with struggle of the slave because it’s part of human nature to not want to be in forced servitude. In the same way, we can read about times when women didn’t have any rights because it shows us how far we have come and how far we still have to go.

What role does research play in successful historical fiction?

Aside from the basic skills of any storyteller, research is everything. It’s what makes historical fiction what it is; it’s what enables writers to convincingly time travel to a period they can never actually visit; it’s what makes a book feel authentic, and these things are key to a good reading experience.

In your opinion, how are these elements critical to successful historical fiction? Characters. Setting. Plot. Conflict. Dialogue. World building. Themes.

Characters, world building and setting must be authentic to the period for a reader to take them seriously, hence the role of research. Plot must be well-written and realistic and conflict must make us want to keep reading – just as in any other kind of book. Dialogue must sound like it is right for the period – no modern language, yet also not so historically accurate that a modern reader can’t understand it. Themes are what make the books relevant to modern readers.

Do you judge historical fiction differently from contemporary fiction?

Yes. I hold it to a higher standard because of all the work that goes into creating it. Having written both, I can confidently say there is so much you don’t have to think about when writing contemporary fiction because it is second nature to you and to your readers. Those very same things are part of what makes successful historical fiction shine – the very fact that you don’t notice how different they are from today because the author has done their research and convinced you they are part of the everyday life of the characters you are reading.

Many thanks for adding to the discussion, Nicole.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

Open Request Revisited – Part 2

History+FictionFurther to last week’s post on the ‘magic ingredients” of historical fiction, let’s hear from a few more write-in comments. Several of these are from readers who put their thoughts in an email.

Olga Walker: “I think they [the best historical fiction authors] weave the ‘facts of the time’ in with the story so that it is a wonderfully merged creation and you are not aware of when this is happening.”

Nicole Evelina: “You have to make the reader feel like the slang is on the tip of their tongue, too, the stench of the streets is something they can actually smell, and the political or cultural views are their own. You have to take them back in time in as many ways as possible.”

Sorayabxl: “reading a historical novel adds the extra satisfaction of quenching your thirst of knowledge and curiosity for a certain time period. When I pick a historical novel, I want to enjoy myself and live another life but I also want to find out at the same time “How was it really like to live back then?”

Ellie Stevenson: “Evoke a sense of place and time that’s so authentic you can almost touch it and smell it.”

Tam May: I try to use a variety of resources, including resources published at the time (like newspapers, conduct books, pictures, etc.) and those that are analyzing what happened in the past. I think having both sources that were “in the moment” as well as those that have a perspective on the past give a good variety of sources.

Brendan Hodge: I like to read novels set in other times and places (whether conscious “historicals” or novels actually written near the time and place they portray) because they allow you to see how the universal aspects of the human experience play out in a very different setting.

Historical fiction is certainly a powerful genre.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

Author Nicole Evelina on Writing Historical Fiction

Daughter-of-Destiny-CoverIn December, Nicole Evelina responded to my open request for thoughts on the topic ‘inside historical fiction’. After a few email exchanges, I invited her to bring her ideas together for a post. Nicole is the author of Daughter of Destiny and three – not one, not two, but three – soon to release novels. Now that’s productivity!

MKT: What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable and irresistible?

Nicole Evelina: The most magical thing a historical fiction writer can do is transport me to their time period and location. I’m reading a book right now that takes place in Manhattan in the 1930s and I feel like I’m there with the corrupt politicians and cops, the dizzy Broadway chorus girls who double as molls and the menacing gangsters. But that’s not just a matter of saying your book takes place in the past and throwing in some pretty dresses and a few words of slang. You have to make the reader feel like the slang is on the tip of their tongue, too, the stench of the streets is something they can actually smell, and the political or cultural views are their own. You have to take them back in time in as many ways as possible.

In your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

For me, it’s a combination of things: a transporting setting as I mentioned above, characters that I care about and a plot that I can’t wait to see how it ends. Now, that is probably the same answer I’d give for the best contemporary fiction, but historicals are special because they are showing you a different viewpoint on life. If the author does his or her job, you’re seeing what it was like to live when kingdoms were constantly at war, slavery was accepted, women couldn’t vote or hold a job, or people didn’t know where their next meal would come from. The best authors help you live the lives of the characters in their novels.

Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

Yes, because, like fantasy, they put their readers in another world. Having written both historical (four novels) and contemporary (one), I can state firsthand that there is so much as both a writer and a reader that you take for granted when reading/writing contemporary. It can be as simple as having a character text someone or speaking current slang – you do it without thinking. When you write historical, you may want your character to have the same communication or say the same basic thing, but you have to stop and think (and maybe research) how they would have done so. No texting, so would they have written a letter/telegram and how was it delivered – bike messenger, pony express, carrier pigeon, by a trusted friend? Or would they have had to find the person and tell them face to face? What would that have entailed? As for slang, you have to consider what it is you are really trying to say and then find out how they would have said it during your time period. Some periods are rife with slang (like 19th century America) and others we just don’t know (like pre-Conquest Britain). If we don’t know, what’s the plainest way you can have your character say it and still get your message across? And those are just two examples of the extra considerations that come with writing historicals.

As a reader, I’ve found that those same details make me stop and think (and sometimes marvel) at how much life has changed (or how much it hasn’t.) There’s a certain introspection that comes with reading a historical because you find yourself wondering how you would have reacted in that situation or if you could have survived in that time, things you can’t do with contemporary novels – at least not to the same extent.

Do you see any particular trends in historical fiction?

Well, the traditional publishing industry still seems to like Tudors and WWII, and books mostly set in Europe (especially England). Interestingly, I’m seeing the indie market turn those on their ears by publishing a lot more ancient and early medieval history and exploring new geographic areas like Asia and Africa. Indies are also not afraid of American history, which I’ve heard some agents and editors say they don’t think sells.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?

I always immerse myself in the culture by doing copious research before I write. I examine the political atmosphere, the way law worked (and who was oppressed and privileged by it and how), the familial dynamic, transportation, food, clothing, daily life, geography and weather patterns, religious beliefs, technology, etc. Because I write primarily about women, I pay special attention to their rights under law, family responsibilities and expectations, and what those who were considered subversive were doing. Most of that ends up on my blog because it’s just too much to put in the story, but it’s important for me to know, because my character would know it.

As for what makes it into the final novel, I try to give a flavor of the location and time and an accurate picture of daily life no matter what the story is. The rest depends on particular characters and plot. Using the five senses to build your world is a must, as is showing the beliefs (cultural, religious, political, scientific, philosophic, what have you) that motivate your characters’ actions.

It’s interesting to me that basic human relationships (the need for love, the importance of family and friends) don’t change over time even if what is socially acceptable does (i.e. the acceptance of spousal abuse, marriages of convenience, the warmth between parents and children, etc.)

What research sources and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

If I can afford it, I love to travel to the place where my books take place. I was lucky enough to do that twice for my Guinevere trilogy. There’s an energy that you can’t get any other way. The light looks a certain way, the water tastes a certain way, etc. Being there even in contemporary times is helpful because you can stand in the place your character was and peel back the layers of time. Imagining the car park when it was a forest or the ruins of a castle in its heyday is so much easier when you’re there than if you’re just looking at a photo. Talking to locals is priceless as well (which you can do on the internet if you can’t be in your setting).

I am a big fan of books in research because they are vetted much more strongly than web pages are. I use Amazon as a way of seeing what all is out there, then I get what I can from my local library or through inter-library loan. If I know I’ll need to use a book over and over, I’ll buy it, used if possible, to keep expenses down. Also, the bibliographies of book are goldmines that lead to others or to expert authors I can talk with. For me, web pages are a last ditch effort, fine to get a basic overview or do a quick fact check (but only if it appears in multiple sources). For anything more in-depth, I refer to books and experts.

If my characters have a skill or expertise I don’t possess, I talk to the experts, either by email, online message boards/Facebook groups or in person. Never underestimate the power of re-enactment groups. Those people take their detail and accuracy VERY seriously. Taking lessons (even if only once) gives you a first-hand experience of what shooting a gun or an arrow or riding a horse is really like. There is no substitute for experience.

For language and dialogue, talking to actors and voice coaches (in addition to people who have the accent) can be very enlightening. I honestly think every writer should have to take acting classes because they teach you a lot about what’s realistic in dialogue and blocking, not to mention bolstering your self-confidence for readings and workshops.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

Daughter of Destiny is the first book in a trilogy that tells Arthurian legend from Guinevere’s point of view. Set in the war-torn world of fifth century Britain, it’s basically her life story beginning when she is 11 and going into her 50s.

The first book deals with her early life from the ages of 11 to 15, the “hidden” time before she married King Arthur. Though raised to govern and wield a sword, Guinevere had no idea she’d become queen. She had other plans, other dreams for her life, and a love before Arthur that he can never replace. As a priestess of Avalon, she has the sight, but cannot foretell her own future, one in which both the love and rivalry that began in Avalon will haunt her future and spell her doom…and possibly that of all of Camelot. Here’s the back cover copy:

Before queenship and Camelot, Guinevere was a priestess of Avalon. She loved another before Arthur, a warrior who would one day betray her.

In the war-torn world of late fifth century Britain, young Guinevere faces a choice: stay with her family to defend her home at Northgallis from the Irish, or go to Avalon to seek help for the horrific visions that haunt her. The Sight calls her to Avalon, where she meets Morgan, a woman of questionable parentage who is destined to become her rival. As Guinevere matures to womanhood, she gains the powers of a priestess, and falls in love with a man who will be both her deepest love and her greatest mistake.

Just when Guinevere is able to envision a future in Avalon, tragedy forces her back home, into a world she barely recognizes, one in which her pagan faith, outspokenness, and proficiency in the magical and military arts are liabilities. When a chance reunion with her lover leads to disaster, she is cast out of Northgallis and into an uncertain future. As a new High King comes to power, Guinevere must navigate a world of political intrigue where unmarried women are valuable commodities and seemingly innocent actions can have life-altering consequences.

You may think you know the story of Guinevere, but you’ve never heard it like this: in her own words. Listen and you will hear the true story of Camelot and its queen.

Fans of Arthurian legend and The Mists of Avalon will love Daughter of Destiny, the first book in a historical fantasy trilogy that gives Guinevere back her voice and traces her life from an uncertain eleven year old girl to a wise queen in her fifth decade of life.

This book has been short-listed for the 2015 Chaucer Award for Historical Fiction.

The second book in the series, Camelot’s Queen (available April 12), covers Guinevere’s time as Queen, as well as her affair with Lancelot and the finding of the Holy Grail. Book three, Mistress of Legend (early 2017), encompasses the fall of Camelot and Guinevere’s life after Arthur, which most certainly did not end in a convent!