Monday’s post included favourite historical fiction authors from 2015 chosen by more than twenty participants. Today’s post expands the list to include those with 10 to 20 mentions.
Lots of possibilities for your TBR pile.
There was no way to differentiate Dumas pere from Dumas fils.
A reminder of the 2015 survey demographics: over 2000 participants, 84% female, covering ages from under 20 to over 70 and from all over the world with 59% US, almost 17% UK, 10% Canada, 6.6% Australia. The main survey report can be found here.
PS – M.K. Tod received 9 mentions 🙂
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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, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.
I am extremely pleased that Sharon Kay Penman is here today talking about writing historical fiction. This spring’s survey placed Ms. Penman in the number one position with readers – a truly wonderful accomplishment. I remember being captivated by Here Be Dragons and The Sunne in Splendour and my current read, Time and Chance, her novel about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, is equally captivating.
Why do you write historical fiction? I always wanted to write, scribbled my first story at age six. In my teens, I did a novel that mercifully has vanished from the earth, for I am sure it would be very embarrassing to read. But I didn’t have a story burning to be told, and so my writing efforts were sporadic and random. Then I stumbled onto the history of Richard III, and my life changed—literally. I felt compelled to write his story, if only because my friends quickly grew tired of listening to me preach to them about the terrible injustice done to this long-dead medieval king. The end result was The Sunne in Splendour, my first novel. By that time, I’d spent twelve years in the fifteenth century with Richard, so it never even occurred to me to write of another time period. And I’ve been happily ensconced in the Middle Ages ever since.
You are clearly very skilled at writing historical fiction. What do you think attracts readers to your books? I wonder that myself at times. I feel very fortunate to have such amazing, devoted readers. From what they’ve told me, they appreciate my efforts to be as historically accurate as humanly possible. Obviously, any novel is a work of the imagination, but I believe very strongly that it needs a strong factual foundation, and this is what I strive for when writing. If I do take any liberties with known facts, I clear my conscience by reporting that in my Author’s Note. My readers also seem to like that I am writing of people who actually lived and events that really happened, for there are very few purely fictional characters in my novels.
Do you have a particular approach to research and writing? I research on two levels, general and specific. For example, I researched the life and reign of King Richard I before beginning the first of my two novels about him. This enabled me to know what I would need to dramatize. I also do specific research as I write, usually about a particular battle or castle, etc. I am now following that pattern in the sequel to Lionheart, A King’s Ransom, which entails doing considerable research about Austria and Germany, where Richard was held prisoner on his way home from the Holy Land. I love researching, so my concern is to rein my enthusiasm in. I became so fascinated with medieval Sicily and Cyprus in Lionheart that I probably went overboard with my research of their societies, and I am trying to show a bit more self-discipline with A King’s Ransom.
Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you? I don’t think I have been influenced by other historical writers. There are many writers I admire, of course—Anya Seton comes at once to mind. Among my contemporaries, I am a fan of Bernard Cornwell, Margaret George, Elizabeth Chadwick, C.W. Gortner, and Steven Saylor, just to name a few. I also enjoy historical mysteries very much, my favorites including Priscilla Royal, Margaret Frazer, and Sharan Newman.
What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author? Do you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing? Truthfully, I have no idea! I can tell you what I look for as a reader. Historical accuracy is very important to me, both as a reader and a writer. I also believe that we owe a debt to the people we are writing about. My fellow writer, Laurel Corona, expressed this perfectly when she said, “Do not defame the dead.” I think that ought to be the First Commandment for all writers of historical fiction!
How do you select new stories to tell? I usually have ideas marinating in my brain for years before I actually begin to write. If I did not have another novel in mind as I came to the end of one, I’d probably panic. I tend to write trilogies, so that makes life much easier for me. What my readers call my Welsh trilogy is set in the 13th century, and dramatizes the clash of cultures between the Welsh princes and the English kings. I then did what was to be a trilogy about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. But as I finished the final book, Devil’s Brood, I realized there was still so much of their story to be told, and the result was Lionheart and now A King’s Ransom; so my trilogy turned into a quintet.
What advantages do you think come from concentrating on a period of time or creating a series like you have done? Any disadvantages? I feel so comfortable in the Middle Ages that it would feel strange to write about another time period. After so many years, I am familiar with medieval customs, beliefs, superstitions, and the details of daily life. So I would find it somewhat daunting to start from scratch in writing of another era, ancient Rome, for example. I know some writers who do shift from one time to another and do it very well; Margaret George certainly does, writing about the Tudors, Cleopatra, and Helen of Troy, just to mention some of her books. But I’ve put my roots down in the Middle Ages for thirty years now, and have no plans to move.
What techniques do you employ to write productively? I have an established routine by now. I begin with an outline of the novel, and then I do a chapter at a time, staying with it until I am satisfied. Some of my writer friends do several drafts, but I’ve never tried that approach. Of course I always do some last-minute pruning and polishing, but once I’ve completed the novel, that is the final version. I don’t do any rewriting unless my editor requests it.
Do you think of yourself as having a brand? No, I do not think of myself as a brand.
What do you do to connect to readers? I have always responded to letters and then to e-mails, but social networking sites like Facebook have made it so much easier for writers and readers to interact. I confess that I was hesitant about venturing onto Facebook at first, but I soon became addicted. In addition to my personal Facebook page, my readers have set up three Facebook fan clubs, and I try to stop by as often as I can. I had formed friendships with readers via snail and e-mail, but Facebook makes it so much easier. This past week I had a phone chat with my Australian Fan Club, who were holding their annual meeting, and it was so much fun. I feel as if I know them all by now, and I have moved a visit to Australia to the top of my Bucket List as a result. So far I have avoided Twitter, but writer friends tell me I should give it a try, so that will probably be next on the agenda. I have also formed friendships because of my blogs, for blogs are inter-active, too. And websites like Goodreads and LibraryThings are another way for writers to meet with readers.
What do you know about your readers? Well, they have good taste in books! They are also well educated and, to judge from their letters and Facebook comments, quite articulate and often very funny. They share my passion for the past. And my publishers have told me that I am unusual in that my readers are split about evenly between men and women; apparently most of historical novel readers are women. But I’ve always had a fair share of male readers, too.
What data do you collect about your readers? I do not collect any data about my readers. I am not that organized!
What strategies guide your writing career? Truthfully, I’ve never had a strategy. I was just following my passion, the need to write. This led to The Sunne in Splendour and after that, the dominos seemed to fall naturally into place.
What would you do differently if you were starting again? I have been so fortunate in my writing career that I don’t think I would change anything. I love writing and still feel blessed to be able to do it. I have a wonderful editor, who has been my editor for all twelve of my books, which is almost unheard-of in publishing. I have very gifted agents on both sides of the Atlantic. And I have never been required to meet a word quota, as some of my writer friends are. This is both remarkable and rare and I feel so lucky.
Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction? If at all possible, I would try to find an agent. I know that can be quite a challenge, but I think it is well worth the effort. And of course publishing is very different now than it was when I first began my career. Writers today have options that writers never even dreamed of in the past. E-books are becoming more and more important, so I would advise writers to educate themselves about this phenomenon. Some writers are choosing to bypass publishers altogether and to publish their books themselves. This was once a high-risk venture, and it still can be a bumpy road. But in the era of e-books, it can be an enticing option and I think it is one worth exploring for those just starting out, as long as they remember how time-consuming it can be.
Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked? Actually, there is one. What are your favorite research sources?
That would be the medieval chronicles, which are a fascinating mix of the foreign and the familiar. The chronicler will be complaining about high prices, bad roads, and corrupt sheriffs, stories that could be found in any of today’s newspapers. And then I will come across an account of green children found in Kent! The chronicles cannot be taken as gospel, for the chroniclers often pass on rumors and gossip. I also have to take personal bias into account. The vast majority of chroniclers were monks, so they tended to look upon women with a skeptical eye, as daughters of Eve. Nor were they free of nationalism; French chroniclers were highly critical of English kings and vice versa, and the English were hostile to the Welsh, who returned the favor. But the chronicles open a window to these distant times and offer us personal glimpses of people dead for centuries. This was especially true for my last novel, Lionheart, much of which was set during the Third Crusade. The Lionheart of legend smolders like a torch, glowering, dour, and dangerous. But the chroniclers who accompanied Richard I to the Holy Land and the Saracen chroniclers give us a very different man—sardonic, playful, unpredictable. I worry that Lionheart has spoiled me for future books, as I will never have such a rich treasure-trove to draw upon again. I had eye-witness accounts of the battles fought between the crusaders and Saracens, told from both sides, and for a novelist, that is beyond wonderful. For those interested in reading them, too, I list them all in the Acknowledgments of Lionheart.
I also mine for gold in the Pipe Rolls and other government records. There we learn that Lady Neville had to pay King John a fine of 200 shillings “to lie one night with her husband.” What I wouldn’t give to know the story behind that cryptic entry! Another favorite entry captures a royal temper tantrum for all time, reporting the cost of repairing the crown of Edward I, noting that it was damaged “when it pleased the king to throw it into the fire.”
As you can tell, Mary, I love researching! To be able to spend time studying the Middle Ages and then to write about it and actually get paid for doing so—well, it does not get any better than that.
Thank you so much for inviting me to visit your blog.
Thank you, Sharon. Your responses offer a fascinating peak at the life of a favourite author. And thanks for telling us about the medieval chronicles and pipe rolls. The fact that you spent twelve years researching Richard III shows us all what passion and perseverance can do!
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I am delighted that Susan Higginbotham joins the Top Historical Fiction Author series today. She brings fresh insight to the dialogue about writing historical fiction and I know that readers and writers alike will enjoy her views. Two of her books that I can personally recommend as wonderful reads are The Traitor’s Wife and The Stolen Crown.
Why do you write historical fiction? I sort of blundered into writing historical fiction a few years back when I re-read Christopher Marlowe’s Edward the Second online and became intrigued by the history behind the play. I began reading everything I could about Edward II, and when I read the story of his niece, Eleanor de Clare, it occurred to me that she would make a wonderful subject for a novel. In the process of telling her story, I found that I really enjoyed writing this sort of fiction, and it had the added bonus of giving me ready-made plots, as plotting has never been my strong point.
You are clearly very skilled at writing historical fiction. What do you think attracts readers to your books? I think a lot of readers enjoy the fact that I tell my stories through fresh viewpoints—the story of Richard III’s seizure of power through the Duke of Buckingham and his wife, for instance, instead of through better-known characters such as Richard III himself or Elizabeth Woodville. I believe readers also like the fact that I treat the historical figures I write about with respect and try to avoid black-or-white characters and clichéd characters, like the dreaded bride “sold into marriage” to a mean old man with bad breath.
Do you have a particular approach to research and writing? For research, I use primary sources as far as possible, even when that means I have to pay someone to transcribe and/or translate sources for me. (Fortunately, so many printed primary sources are available online now, that’s not as daunting as it sounds.) I also rely heavily on journal articles, which are often neglected by authors—there are some lovely nuggets of information in them. I love research and never really stop doing it while I’m writing, because there’s always a scene that will trigger a question and send me to my sources.
Since I write about actual historical figures, I know how my story is going to turn out, so I don’t always write my story in a strict linear fashion, but write a scene as it occurs to me and incorporate it into the story later. Except for the natural outline that the known historical facts provide, I don’t write according to a strict outline, so there are always some surprises along the way and changes in focus. For instance, my last novel, Her Highness, the Traitor, was supposed to be just about Frances Grey until I read a letter by Jane Dudley and decided that she needed a starring role as well.
Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you? I’ve learned a great deal about how to construct a good historical novel from authors such as Sharon Penman, Jean Plaidy, and Margaret George. I’ve also learned from my own reading of historical novels what I don’t like as a reader, and therefore what to avoid.
What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author? Do you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing? I think the primary ingredients are good writing, good storytelling, and, above all, the ability to create memorable, well-rounded characters. I plan for these elements in my writing in that I try to write the sort of novels that I would like to read, but I’m not really one of those writers who thinks a great deal about the writing process.
How do you select new stories to tell? I look for a historical figure who catches my interest or who appeals to my sympathies. If if I start researching a certain character when I’m supposed to be working on something else, it’s a sign to me that I ought to write about him or her at some point.
What advantages do you think come from writing within a particular time period? Any disadvantages? There are definitely some historical periods that are more in vogue with readers than others, such as the Tudor period, and there are always going to be those who suspect a writer of attempting to cash in if she writes about that period, although for me, it was a natural progression from the fourteenth to the fifteenth to the sixteenth century. On the other hand, a writer who sets a novel in a less popular period risks having a wonderful story go unnoticed because readers simply don’t seek out stories set in that period. In the end, I think a writer should tell the story she wants to tell, but anyone who’s writing for a commercial publisher can’t afford to ignore the market altogether. Sometimes you have to tell the story you want to tell that will also sell.
What techniques do you employ to write productively? I often have a hard time buckling down to the keyboard, because I have a full-time job summarizing legal cases and by the end of the day, writing a coherent sentence is the last thing I want to do. Fortunately, I have a home office and a flexible work schedule, so I can rush to the computer when the mood strikes. When I’m on deadline, I just have to discipline myself.
Do you think of yourself as having a brand? If so, how would you describe it and how do you reinforce it? I think of my “brand” as writing well-researched historical fiction from a less-traveled point of view. I like to write about figures who haven’t featured much in historical fiction or about figures who haven’t met with much sympathy from other novelists. I reinforce my brand with my blog posts, which focus on the facts behind my fiction.
What do you do to connect with readers? I’ve been blogging for about seven years now, and I’m also active on Facebook. (I’m on Twitter too, but I send out links to my blog posts more than anything else—I just can’t be active there and be productive.) I post about my research and about topics that happen to catch my fancy, and I also let my sense of humor have full play there too. In addition, I run a reader-oriented bulletin board, Historical Fiction Online. I started doing these things to market my first novel, which was originally self-published, but I’ve made some wonderful friends through these sites and have had some great discussions about books and history. My blog and my Facebook pages also help to keep me connected with readers in between novels. At this point, I’d be on social networking sites even if I wasn’t an author, because they’re fun.
What do you know about your readers? I know they have a high regard for historical accuracy, and I know that many of them like the same authors I do. And I know they have excellent taste!
What data do you collect about your readers? I don’t collect data about them, though I read surveys about readers’ preferences and tastes, such as the one you did, with interest.
What strategies guide your writing career? I don’t really have one, except to try to write consistently good books so my readers won’t be disappointed.
What would you do differently if you were starting again? I’d start writing historical fiction earlier. I’d have a lot more novels under my belt now!
Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction? Too many writers get paralyzed with worrying over what they should or shouldn’t do—Should I join a critique group? Should I hire an editor? Should I pick a “marquee name”? Should I write about someone who’s been written about already?—that they end up not writing! I say just write the story that’s in your heart and take it from there.
I also think that writers of historical fiction need to be prepared to “walk the talk.” If you bill yourself as someone who’s concerned with historical accuracy, you have to be prepared for the fact that readers will expect you to be able to back up what you say with sources. I also think you have an ethical obligation to treat the historical figures you’re writing about with respect, even those historical figures you dislike, and not to smear a person’s reputation just to spice up your story or to make your protagonist look better in comparison. For at least some of your readers, you will be shaping their view of history.
But while novelists should take their responsibilities seriously, they shouldn’t take themselves too seriously, and should cultivate a sense of perspective. A good sign that you are in need of a reality check is when you start comparing someone who gives your book a bad review to someone who tells you that your newborn baby is hideous. Your book is not a human being. It’s a product, just as the shoes you’re wearing and the car you’re driving are products, and not everyone is going to like the same products. If you realize that from day one, you’ll be a lot happier, and so will those around you.
Many thanks for your very interesting perspective, Susan. Some of the many aspects that stand out for me are: (1) writing about well-known historical figures offers a ready made plot structure which also allows you to write in a non-linear fashion, (2) “write the story that’s in your heart”, (3) that you run an online historical fiction forum – where on earth do you find time?, and (4) by the end of the day, writing a coherent sentence is the last thing you want to do – and yet you do it so beautifully!