2015 Favourite Historical Fiction Authors

No doubt you were anxiously waiting for the 2015 favourite historical fiction authors list. First, an apology. Since publishing 2015’s favourite fiction list, I’ve been heads down finishing Time & Regret and only surfaced a few weeks ago. Fortunately, compiling the numbers was not as arduous this time.

2015 Favourite historical fiction authorsA few observations:

  • the top 5 remain the top 5 three years in a row. Kudos to Diana Gabaldon, Sharon Kay Penman, Philippa Gregory, Elizabeth Chadwick and Bernard Cornwell.
  • Men and women differ in their top choices. Tabulating male responses exclusively, the top 8 are: Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O’Brian, Conn Iggulden, Sharon Kay Penman, Ken Follett, C.J. Sansom, Hilary Mantel and James Michener.
  • Country choices also vary. For example, the top 5 choices in the UK are: Elizabeth Chadwick, Bernard Cornwell, Philippa Gregory, Sharon Kay Penman, and Hilary Mantel. Interesting to see Sharon Kay Penman remain in the top groups across gender and country.
  • Authors tend to receive a higher portion of their support from their own country participants. For example, 75% of Diana Gabaldon’s popularity rests in the US.
  • Not surprisingly, deceased authors receive more mentions from older participants.
  • Every author in these two groups received more than 20 mentions.

2015 favourite historical fiction authors 2I hope to cross-tabulate favourite authors against a few other factors and to look at age breakdowns in more detail. I will also publish a list of authors with 10 to 20 mentions.

One further statistic of interest: over 900 authors were mentioned as favourites. Wow.

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.

7 Elements of Historical Fiction

Inside HFAll writers of fiction have to consider seven critical elements: character, dialogue, setting, theme, plot, conflict, and world building. While every story succeeds or disappoints on the basis of these elements, historical fiction has the added challenge of bringing the past to life.

Since I work best by example, I’m developing an explanation of the seven elements in the context of historical fiction.

Character – whether real or imagined, characters behave in keeping with the era they inhabit, even if they push the boundaries. And that means discovering the norms, attitudes, beliefs and expectations of their time and station in life. A Roman slave differs from a Roman centurion, as does an innkeeper from an aristocrat in the 18th century. Your mission as writer is to reveal the people of the past.

Dialogue – dialogue that is cumbersome and difficult to understand detracts from readers’ enjoyment of historical fiction. Dip occasionally into the vocabulary and grammatical structures of the past by inserting select words and phrases so that a reader knows s/he is in another time period. Don’t weigh the manuscript down or slow the reader’s pace with too many such instances. And be careful. Many words have changed their meanings over time and could be misinterpreted.

Setting – setting is time and place. More than 75% of participants in a 2013 reader survey selected ‘to bring the past to life’ as the primary reason for reading historical fiction. Your job as a writer is to do just that. Even more critically, you need to transport your readers into the past in the first few paragraphs. Consider these opening sentences.

“I could hear a roll of muffled drums. But I could see nothing but the lacing on the bodice of the lady standing in front of me, blocking my view of the scaffold.” Philippa Gregory The Other Boleyn Girl

“Alienor woke at dawn. The tall candle that had been left to burn all night was almost a stub, and even through the closed shutters she could hear the cockerels on roosts, walls and dung heaps, crowing the city of Poitiers awake.” Elizabeth Chadwick The Summer Queen

“Cambridge in the fourth winter of the war. A ceaseless Siberian wind with nothing to blunt its edge whipped off the North Sea and swept low across the Fens. It rattled the signs to the air-raid shelters in Trinity New Court and battered on the boarded up windows of King’s College Chapel.” Robert Harris Enigma

Straightaway you’re in the past. Of course, many more details of setting are revealed throughout the novel in costume, food, furniture, housing, toiletries, entertainment, landscape, architecture, conveyances, sounds, smells, tastes, and a hundred other aspects.

Theme – most themes transcend history. And yet, theme must still be interpreted within the context of a novel’s time period. Myfanwy Cook’s book Historical Fiction Writing: A Practical Guide and Toolkit contains a long list of potential themes: “ambition, madness, loyalty, deception, revenge, all is not what it appears to be, love, temptation, guilt, power, fate/destiny, heroism, hope, coming of age, death, loss, friendship, patriotism.” What is loyalty in 5th century China? How does coming of age change from the perspective of ancient Egypt to that of the early twentieth century? What constitutes madness when supposed witches were burned at the stake.

Plot – 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.

Conflict – the problems faced by the characters in your story. As with theme and plot, conflict must be realistic for the chosen time and place. Readers will want to understand the reasons for the conflicts you present. An unmarried woman in the 15th century might be forced into marriage with a difficult man or the taking of religious vows. Both choices lead to conflict.

World Building – you are building a world for your readers, hence the customs, social arrangements, family environment, governments, religious structures, international alliances, military actions, physical geography, layouts of towns and cities, and politics of the time are relevant. As Harry Sidebottom, author of Warrior of Rome series said: “The past is another country, they not only do things differently there, they think about things differently.”

As you research, here’s a list of topics to consider: attitudes, language and idiom, household matters, material culture, everyday life, historical timelines, occupations, diversions, regulations, vehicles, travel, food, clothing and fashion, manners and mannerisms, beliefs, morality, the mindset of the time, politics, social attitudes, wars, revolutions, prominent people, major events, news of the day, neighbourhoods, gossip, scandals, international trade, travel, how much things cost, worries and cares, highways and byways, conveyances, landscape, sounds, tastes, smells, class divisions, architecture, social preoccupations, religious norms, cataclysmic events, legal system, laws, regulations, weather, military organization, cooking, sex, death, disease. I’m sure you can – and hopefully will — add more.

Ultimately you are seeking to immerse yourself in a past world then judiciously select the best ways to bring that world to life as you tell your story.

A closing thought from well-known historical fiction author Bernard Cornwell: “The most important thing, the all important thing, is to get the story right. Write, rewrite, rewrite again, and do not worry about anything except story. It is story, story, story. That is your business. Your job is not to educate readers on the finer points of Elizabethan diplomacy or Napoleonic warfare, your job is to divert and amuse people who have had a hard day at work. What will get you published? Not style, not research, but story. Once the story is right, everything else will follow.”

You might also enjoy:

10 Thoughts on the Purpose of Historical Fiction

Historical Fiction – Readers Have Their Say

Author Tips on Writing Historical Fiction


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.

C. Westcott writes about Ancient Rome

Today, Chris Westcott, author of In the Shadow of Tyranny – A Novel of Ancient Rome, has agreed to answer a few questions about his writing. Many thanks, Chris.

What is it about ancient Rome that fascinated you enough to write a book on it?    When I was about five years old my parents gave me a book that had belonged to my Dad, it was a children’s book describing the history of Romans in Britain.  The illustrations were incredible and, as children tend to do, I read the book a hundred times.  Agricola, a key character in my novel, was prominent in this children’s book and I guess this must have stayed buried at the back of my mind.  In 2005 I read Conn Iggulden’s Emperor series and it was literally a life changing event, from that moment I wanted to understand as much as I could about every element of life in ancient Rome.  Later as my new found passion lead me to history books I learned about the incredible events in Judea and I realised I wanted more people to know about that often overlooked piece of Roman history, when I discovered I could combine that with telling some of Agricola’s story I couldn’t grab my laptop quick enough!

How much of the book is based on fact and how much is fiction?    All the key events in the book and the majority of the major characters are based on real people albeit I have imposed my own take on their personality and character.  The main character is a fictional creation that I have placed in that world to tell the story.

Tell us something surprising about ancient Rome.    I have always been fascinated by how much ancient Roman history impacts on us today – the calendar we use, the names of the months of the year, the legacy of Roman architecture and engineering, the influence on our political and legal systems to name but a few examples.  Learning about ancient Rome has allowed me to view the world around me today with a fresh pair of eyes.

Tell us about the main character.    The main character is fundamentally a good man who is caught up in the events around him.  I deliberately gave the character an unusual upbringing as I wanted him to view Rome and the Empire with a naivety that would both endear him to the reader and to allow me to describe the emotion of someone faced with loss, love and achievement.  As much as possible I wanted to create a character a reader could engage with albeit in the context of a story set 2000 years ago.

How do you research your novels?    Initially my research consisted of reading as many fictional and non-fictional books on the time period as possible.  As the story began to solidify in my head I started to target the research to the specific time periods and geographical locations.   I find it challenging to tread the fine line between having enough detail to create the world of ancient Rome for the reader and disrupting the pace of the story with description so my research tends not to be overly detailed.

Do you write about any other periods of history?    Not at present but I am fascinated by the idea of a series of novels based around the exploits and achievements of Sir Francis Drake , Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Richard Grenville.  It was an age of exploration, conquest, heroic military achievement and political intrigue – in short all the ingredients that make for great historical fiction.

Who are your favourite historical fiction authors? Who is your work influenced by?    There are a few but the legend that is Bernard Cornwell for me stands head and shoulders above all others.  His ability to educate on a specific time period while creating the most captivating characters and storylines is nothing short of genius.  With regards to ancient Rome, Conn Iggulden, Simon Scarrow and Steven Saylor are the real standouts.  It was Conn Iggulden’s Emperor series that first sparked my interest in Rome and from there I haven’t looked back.  I must also make mention of David Gemmell.  Although primarily known as a fantasy writer his trilogy based around the stories of Troy were some of the finest historical fiction novels I have ever read.

What are you working on next?    I am currently finishing another novel set in ancient Rome. This will be the first in a two-part story of brothers caught in opposing factions in the ‘year of four Emperors’.  The time period is similar to my first novel but this new series allows me to really explore the incredible events that took place in what is arguably the most eventful year in the entire history of the Roman Empire.

Inspiring thoughts, Chris. I wish you lots of success with In the Shadow of Tyranny. Your research process must be so much more difficult than mine which focuses primarily on WWI.

In the Shadow of Tyranny by Chris WestcottWhen the Emperor Nero causes the death of his parents, Gaius sees his future dreams and aspirations brutally shattered. Unexpectedly thrown a lifeline by Vespasian, his father’s closest friend and a celebrated military leader, an offer of a role in the campaign for Judea, finds him playing a pivotal role in the epic battle for Jerusalem. Summoned back to Rome by Domitian, the new Emperor and his lifelong friend, Gaius finds his friend a changed man, a man capable of cold-blooded murder, and Gaius is swiftly dispatched to distant Britannia with orders for the island’s legendary governor, Agricola. 
Forming a mutual respect with Agricola, Gaius embarks on a campaign that will end in triumph and terror, as with the opportunity to expand the Empire within their grasp, Gaius will find himself facing a choice on which the lives of his family and the fate of an Empire will hang.

Available on Amazon.