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.

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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.

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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 Whirl of Launching a Novel

TodMK-TimeandRegret-22790-CV-FTLaunching a new novel is a very exciting time in any author’s life. In preparation I booked two virtual tours, one with Amy Bruno’s HFVBT and the second with Emma Cazabonne’s France Book Tours (starting Sept 1). Beyond the book tours, many friends  helped publicize Time and Regret on blogs, Twitter and Facebook – I am very grateful for their support!

Several bloggers agreed to host a guest post, which meant that during the month prior to launch I was busier than the proverbial one-armed paper hanger writing articles. I thought I would gather them together here. Many thanks to these wonderful bloggers and authors.

Tony RichesThe Writing DeskWriting a mystery – more challenging than expected 

… a mystery is a very different beast. Mystery lovers have expectations, specifically the expectation that you will keep them guessing until the last possible moment and equally the expectation that the smart reader should be able to figure it out. They expect clues strategically sprinkled throughout the novel, many red herrings, a few plot twists, and more than one potential culprit. They expect the excitement to build and build, and the protagonist to have his or her own life problems to add depth to the story … to read the article click here

Elisabeth StorrsTricliniumWhy I used a first person narrator

Time and Regret is the first novel I’ve told using a first person narrator. In other words, the operative word is I. According the Elizabeth George in her non-fiction book Write Away, “When a writer uses this, she stays with one narrator throughout the novel. She’s in that character’s head and no one else’s.” To read the article click here

Jaideep Khanduja – life.paperblog.com – Millennial Readers – What do we know about them?

Millennials have demonstrated the tendency to read more—and buy more books—than other generations. In fact, Millennials buy 30% of books, compared to the 24% purchased by Baby Boomers.” To read the article click here 

Meg WessellA Bookish Affair Essentials of a Good Mystery

… Plot is everything. You have to have a great story; one that engages readers from the outset offering twists and turns and unexpected developments. For example, a character your readers expect to be the culprit dies before the novel ends. Or perhaps your heroine loses the very clue that promised to solve the mystery or her lover is revealed to be working against her. To read the article click here

Elizabeth St. John – author blog – Through the Eyes of a Historical Fiction Writer

I look at the sweep of land, the flowers and shrubs that border the roads, the rivers that meander or rush, the cows huddled beneath a tree; I watch the people, noting gestures and the rhythm of speech, facial features, colouring, the slope of someone’s brow, the way their eyes flash or their chins lift. I wander through markets imagining similar cheeses and meats, flowers and vegetables on narrow stalls crammed one against the other in the town squares of one hundred years ago. A small cat twitches her tail, a dog barks, church bells ring, a cock crows. Sounds too are important, as are smells. The intent is to immerse myself as completely as possible in the world that will become my story. To read the article click here

Debra Brown – English Epochs 101 – Bringing One Soldier’s Experience to Life

For the past six or seven years, I’ve been fascinated with World War One. So much so that I’ve written three novels centred on that horrifying world conflict. And still it haunts me. To read the article click here

Elizabeth Spann Craig – author blog – 8 Tips on Writing Dual-Time Mysteries

What do The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig, The Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian, The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro, and The Lost Sisterhood by Anne Fortier have in common? Answer: they are all dual-time mysteries. I love reading stories like these. But writing one proved to be a significant challenge and demanded a different approach from my previous historical novels … to read the article click here

Marie Burton – The Burton Review – Five WWI Novels that Influenced my Writing

… A huge leap is required to turn your life upside down and do something completely different and I had a lot to learn about war. Beyond the usual internet sources and history books about those times, five novels stand out for the beauty of their writing, their evocation of sights and sounds and the tidbits of historical detail that are seamlessly woven into the stories. I’ve read these five, reread them, unlined sections and even marked particularly interesting pages with little yellow stickies. They are my go-to source whenever I need an injection of WWI atmosphere to spark my writing. To read the article click here

Lorna Ferguson – Literascribe – The Making of a Novel

Each author creates and writes in her or his own way. There is no best approach; what matters most is whether in the end the story is compelling from a reader’s point of view. I tend to get an idea and then put flesh on it using a detailed chapter outline before I begin the real writing. The idea for my latest novel, Time and Regret, came while travelling in France with my husband Ian to visit the battlefields, monuments, cemeteries, and museums dedicated to World War One … to read the article click here

I also had the pleasure of being interviewed by Richard Sutton (Saille Tales) Sarah Johnson (Reading the Past) and Colleen Turner (A Literary Vacation)

To all of these wonderfully supportive individuals a VERY BIG THANK YOU.

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, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. 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 www.mktod.com.