Writing historical fiction – greatness and great times

Some time ago, Larissa MacFarquhar wrote about Hilary Mantel in The New Yorker. What struck me at the time is the notion that Mantel doesn’t “believe in inventing greatness where none exists” and “feels she can write about greatness only in historical moments that have already proved ripe for its flourishing. She believes that there are no great characters without a great time; ordinary times breed ordinary people”. Mantel implies that our present times are ordinary not great.

Does the favourite authors list from my survey imply that readers like to read about great times? Let’s have a look.

Sharon Kay Penman – Richard III, King John, Henry III, Edward I, Henry II and others

Philippa Gregory – War of the Roses, Katharine of Aragon, Tudor England, 18th C slave trade

Elizabeth Chadwick – knights and crusades, King John, Henry I, Eleanor of Aquitaine

Diana Gabaldon – mid to late 18th C time travel

Bernard Cornwell – Napoleonic Wars, Arthurian times, Alfred the Great, Hundred Years War

Ken Follett – WWI, WWII, Henry I and King Stephen plus contemporary times

Anya Seton – mid 19th C, Aaron Burr, John of Gaunt & Katherine Swynford, 17th C US, Anglo Saxon England

CW Gortner – Elizabeth I, Catherine de Medici, Spanish Queens Isabella and Juana

Alison Weir – Eleanor of Aquitaine, Elizabeth I, Tudor times, Lady Jane Grey, many non-fiction books

Margaret George – Mary Magdalene, Cleopatra, Mary Queen of Scots, Helen of Troy, Elizabeth I

Georgette Heyer – Regency romance, contemporary and historical thrillers, William the Conqueror

Michelle Moran – Napoleonic times, Madame Tussaud, Nerfertiti, Nefertari, Cleopatra’s daughter

Jean Plaidy – Norman times, Plantagenet, Tudor, Stuart, Charles II, Queen Victoria

CJ Sansom – series set in time of Henry VIII

Jane Austen – wrote about her own times so not technically historical fiction

Dorothy Dunnett – 15th and 16th centuries, William the Conqueror

Ellis Peters – 12th century Cadfael series, English murder mysteries

Susan Higginbotham – Edward II, Edward III, Henry VI, Henry VIII, War of the Roses

Tracy Chevalier – eclectic mix of periods and subject matter

Jacqueline Winspear – aftermath of WWI

Patrick O’Brian – Napoleonic Wars

Deanna Raybourn – mysteries set in Victorian times

My conclusion is that readers enjoy reading about greatness and great times. What do you think?

Advice From Top Historical Fiction Authors

When I interviewed some of the top 20 historical fiction authors, I asked each one what advice they would offer to other writers. Here’s what they said.

  • Find a story you are really committed to; write the story that’s in your heart; write what you want (Hilary Mantel, Susan Higginbotham, Helen Hollick)
  • Find an agent if at all possible (Sharon Key Penman)
  • Read and research widely and diligently, then let it simmer (Hilary Mantel, Elizabeth Chadwick)
  • Educate yourself on the world of e-books and self-publishing (Sharon Kay Penman)
  • Trust your gut (CW Gortner)
  • Find your unique voice (CW Gortner)
  • Master your craft (CW Gortner)
  • Shape your drama around history (Hilary Mantel)
  • Don’t bend the facts (Hilary Mantel)
  • Treat historical figures with respect (Susan Higginbotham, Elizabeth Chadwick)
  • Enjoy yourself (Elizabeth Chadwick)
  • Be proud of what you do (Margaret George)
  • Never give up; keep writing (CW Gortner, Michelle Moran)

So, if you are feeling daunted by feedback from your agent, uncertain of plot direction, distracted by Facebook, Twitter and other tools, proud of the day’s word count, disappointed with yet another rejection, exhilarated by some accomplishment, envious of a fellow author’s progress, pleased that you survived NaNoWriMo, or struggling for exactly the right turn of phrase – think of these writers who trod the same path and achieved success.

Listen to their advice, allow it to permeate your writer’s soul.

Books, books, books

After conducting the historical fiction survey and discovering a bunch of favourite authors, I decided that I should read as many of them as possible – not all their work but at least one book each. In some cases – Philippa Gregory is an example – I had already experienced the author but others, like CW Gortner or Deanna Raybourn, were unknown to me. So here’s my progress on the top 40, by the way, I’m concentrating on living authors.

READ OR READING

  • Sharon Kay Penman – Time and Chance
  • Philippa Gregory – the latest was Fallen Skies (an early work set in post-WWI times)
  • Elizabeth Chadwick – The Running Vixen
  • Bernard Cornwell – Sword Song
  • Ken Follett – Fall of Giants
  • CW Gortner – The Last Queen and The Queen’s Vow
  • Michelle Moran – Cleopatra’s Daughter
  • Susan Higginbotham – Traitor’s Wife
  • Helen Hollick – Forever Queen
  • Anne Perry – The Sheen on the Silk
  • Geraldine Brooks – People of the Book
  • Jacqueline Winspear – Maisie Dobbs
  • Deanna Raybourn – Silent in the Sanctuary and Silent in the Grave

TO BE READ

  • Diana Gabaldon – one of her Lord John Grey series (since I’ve read almost all of Outlander)
  • Alison Weir – Mistress of the Monarchy (a new author for me)
  • Margaret George – Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles (such a tragic figure)
  • CJ Sansom – Heartstone (one of his Matthew Shardlake series)
  • Tracy Chevalier – The Virgin Blue (interweaving present and past)
  • Hilary Mantel – Bring up the Bodies (completing the Wolf Hall story)
  • Sarah Dunant – Sacred Hearts (set in a 16th Italian convent)
  • Colleen McCullough – The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet (haven’t read this Australian author since The Thorn Birds)
  • Lindsey Davis – The Course of Honour (another new author)
  • Edward Rutherfurd – Dublin (who can resist Dublin?)
  • Sarah Waters – The Night Watch (WWII is up my alley)
  • Jean Auel – I’ve read them all (no pun intended)
  • John Jakes – On Secret Service (because I enjoy spies)

I have my work cut out for me. I’ll be trying to figure out what makes them such favourites.

PS – I’ve also read The Mathematics of Love by Emma Darwin, Fire in the East by Harry Sidebottom and The King’s Daughter by Barbara Kyle.