Noodling on theme

I attended Surrey International Writers’ Conference this year – a first for me and the first virtual conference for them. They did a superb job of offering interesting and inspiring content to writers at all stages in their writing careers. Although circumstances prevented me from attended more than a few live sessions, I’ve seen several recorded sessions and enjoyed them as well. Of particular interest for me:

  • Crafting a Page Turner with Hallie Ephron
  • Building the Character Network with Maria Reva
  • Embracing Conflict with Eileen Cook
  • Refining Your Theme with Susanna Kearsley

In Refining Your Theme, Susanna Kearsley said that a lot of writers keep trying to work out the same issue in their novels. Her own issue centres on the meaning of home: Where is home? Where do I belong? Who are my people? Kearsley doesn’t begin with theme. Rather, she finds the theme grows organically as she writes, often emerging unexpectedly in dialogue–what Kearsley refers to as an ‘aha moment’. Susanna Kearsley believes that her subconscious is at work while she writes, which is why her characters often reveal the theme through dialogue.

This session got me thinking about theme as it relates to historical fiction. Theme is one of the seven elements of historical fiction, but to my way of thinking themes are universal; they transcend time and place. Themes like the one Susanna explores are just as relevant now as they were hundreds of years ago.

Popular themes addressed in today’s fiction include: love, death, good vs. evil, coming of age, power and corruption, survival, courage and heroism, prejudice, individual vs. society, and war. While the historical context and events surrounding these themes vary depending on the time period, I would suggest that the way people react, cope, and change is the same.

My own novels – Time and Regret, Unravelled, Lies Told in Silence and the soon to be published, Paris in Ruins – address war, courage, and love. They feature ordinary people in extraordinary times, a theme that asks each of us what we would be willing to do to defend our country and those we love. The Admiral’s Wife – as yet unpublished – deals with love and prejudice. The story behind You Don’t Know Me, a contemporary novel currently in my editor’s hands, considers power and corruption as well as survival.

At one point in her talk, Susanna Kearsley advised attendees to “let your story be what it wants to be.” Good advice.


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

#HNS2017 – Weaving the Twin-Stranded Storyline

Susanna Kearsley shared insights on what she called twin-stranded – or dual timeline – stories at #HNS2017 in Portland, Oregon. I remember reading Kearsley’s novel, The Winter Sea, a number of years ago and being enchanted by the story of an author writing about her long ago ancestors and suddenly finding herself transported back into the very time and setting of her novel. Having written my own dual-timeline story – Time and Regret – this was definitely a session I wanted to attend.

Kearsley feels this type of story is an “easier entry point for readers into historical fiction” because of the way it uses the present day to explain some of the history. Another feature of these novels is the ability to use foreshadowing to create suspense for the storyline set in the past. An author can also cut from one thread to another at a suspenseful moment – thus extending the suspense until returning to the earlier thread.

Kearsley used the image of a river and a boat to describe how she works her twin-stranded stories. The past is usually the river having more power, suspense and action while the present-day story is the boat bobbing along the river. Keeping readers oriented in both stories and avoiding confusion is critical.

When developing her novels, Susanna mirrors one story with the other in terms of themes although her characters often make different choices when faced with similar circumstances which allows her – and her readers – to explore these themes more deeply.

Helpfully, Susanna provided us with a handout. One section called Making the Switch: Techniques is a description of seven ways to switch from one storyline to the other.

  1. Start a New Chapter or Section
  2. Use a Line Break with a Clear Lead-in
  3. Change from 1st to 2nd and/or 3rd Person
  4. Change the Narrator
  5. Protagonist Tells Us Where We Are
  6. Author Tells Us Where We Are – usually with a date line
  7. Change the Font

The second section of the handout offered novels and films illustrating six types of twin-stranded stories.

MEMORY – The Shell Seekers by Rosamund Pilcher, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, the film Titanic

STORYTELLING – A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute, Every Secret Thing by Susanna Kearsley, the film Definitely, Maybe

CONSCIOUS ACTION – like time travel – The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier, Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson, the film The Two Worlds of Jennie Logan

UNCONCIOUS MEMORY – time slip or ancestral memory – The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley, Before I Wake by Robert Wiersema, the film Sliding Doors

ONLY THE READER KNOWS – often suspense fiction – Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett, Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart, the film Day of the Jackal

RESEARCH/LETTERS – a very common approach – Possession by A.S.Byatt, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig, the film The Words

The audience paid close attention throughout the session – with more than fifty in attendance I suspect we’ll soon be seeing more twin-stranded stories! At the airport on Sunday, I discovered Susanna Kearsley waiting for the same flight back to Toronto and we had a lovely time talking about writing and historical fiction.

For further thoughts on twin-stranded or dual-timeline stories, have a look at The Mapmaker’s Children – A Dual Timeline Mystery or 8 Tips on Writing Dual Timeline Mysteries.

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

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