Successful Historical Fiction – with Margaret McGoverne

Returning to the notion of successful historical fiction, today we have Margaret McGoverne adding her perspective from both a reader’s and a writer’s point of view. Margaret has recently completed a historical fiction novel set in 1st century AD and concerned with the (imagined) end of Queen Boudicca’s revolt against the Romans. Margaret is fascinated with the rich historical tapestry of Great Britain and enjoys weaving historical facts and fiction with speculative Sci-Fi in her writing.

Q What’s your definition of successful historical fiction?

A – This is such a deceptively simple question! The obvious and simplistic answer would be that historical fiction is fiction that’s set in a historical time frame. But this definition asks more question than it answers. I quickly learned that there’s no agreed definition of what constitutes “historical” in this context.

For instance, one of my works in progress is a novel set in 1970’s Northern Ireland, during the “Troubles”, so the setting is forty or so years ago. My research to determine if this would be classified as historical fiction was inconclusive. The question actually breaks down into two parts; how long ago was the setting, and is the book written from an historical perspective for the characters (and for the author)?

The Historical Novel Society defines a historical fiction novel as one written “at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).”

Applying this definition, my novel wasn’t set far enough in the past, as I was alive at the time (albeit a child). But this isn’t a universally applied definition, and some definitions categorise fiction set more than twenty years in the past as historical. In addition, context is all; to my son, the Troubles are a distant, historical period of Irish/British history; I experienced them as a child, my parents as young adults and my grandparents remember life in Northern Ireland prior to The Troubles; would we all consider a story in that setting as historical? Using the subjective rule, all novels are historical, starting with those written today!

I would dispute the above definition, as although some aspects of this novel are autobiographical, and they happened less than fifty years ago, the events and time period are of key political and historical importance in the recent history of Britain. In addition I’ve had to undertake considerable research on the events and timelines of the period that I wasn’t aware of as a (young) bystander.

Another way we could approach the definition is to ask if the events in the novel are historical for the characters, or contemporary. I have recently published a historical/Science fiction novel, The Battle of Watling Street that reimagines the end of the Celtic Queen Boudicca, following her defeat to the Romans at the Battle of Watling Street. This battle took place in England in AD61, so nearly two thousand years ago. Clearly the setting meets the criteria for historical fiction for most observers, but most of the vents in the novel are contemporary or recent history for the characters; there’s some reference to Britain prior to the Roman occupation, but the bulk of the action is set in AD61. So is this historical fiction? You start to appreciate how slippery it is to pin down a universally acceptable definition of historical fiction!

Q- What attributes are most important to you when designating a novel ‘successful historical fiction’

A – If a novel can be defined as a fictional narrative which describes some aspect of the human experience, then historical fiction has the added challenge of bringing to life aspects of humanity from a different time period, or in other words, to bring to life past events, characters and ways of life. Often as a reader I relish the descriptions of life in another time period, as much as the events and characters inhabited by the world I’m reading about. I want to be fully immersed in the time period, with no jarring hints of modernity or historic anachronisms; I don’t want to read something that’s the written equivalent of the gas tank on the back of the chariot in the film “Gladiator”, which otherwise evoked the Roman world so splendidly!

Of course, different authors will have different perspectives on characters in their novels; if these are well-known historical figures, the reader is often presented with very different interpretations of the character’s actions and motivations; for example the emperor Tiberius is presented as a complex, almost sympathetic figure in Allan Massie’s eponymous novel, and the reader can appreciate the pressures bought to bear on the historical figure of Tiberius. This treatment contrasts with Robert Graves’ more damning assessment in I, Claudius. Both are fine, offering as they do additional dimensions and justifications of historical figures, as long as the known facts tally.

Q – Which authors do you think create the most successful historical fiction, and what makes these particular authors stand out?

A – Since a school trip to Colchester I have been fascinated with the Romans; unsurprisingly my favourite historical novelists include the above mentioned Robert Graves; I also enjoy the Roman historical fiction of Robert Harris; his Cicero trilogy brings to life famed orator and consul Marcus Tullius Cicero, and offers a grandstand view of the doomed Roman republic, and the rise of the dictators Julius Caesar and Octavian (Augustus). Allan Massie’s Roman emperor (and nearly emperor) novels offer us a glimpse of the all-too-frail humans behind the marble statues and history books that represent what we know about these historical movers and shakers.

Another author who I think isn’t always recognised as a great historical fiction author is Charles Dickens; A Tale of Two Cities set partly in the revolutionary Paris of the late 1770’s and Barnaby Rudge which tells of the London George Gordon riots of 1780 both evoke the period brilliantly, so much so that when I think of these historical events I still imagine the bloodthirsty Tricoteuse, Madame Defarge, who knits her liberty caps as noble heads fall to the guillotine, or the horrific King Mob described so vividly by Dickens.

Q – Are famous people essential to successful historical fiction?

A – To answer this we need to explore the difference between historic and historical fiction; if we suggest a definition of Historic as referring to an event or person that was historically important, as opposed to Historical, meaning something that took place in the past, irrespective of whether it was significant, then strictly speaking, historical fiction doesn’t need to feature famous people (or events) to be judged successful, and fiction that DID feature significant figures should be termed “historic fiction”.

But again I’d suggest these are not hard and fast rules; for me, historical events are only interesting in the context of the conflicts, developments and characters of that time period. A novel that described the way of life in 1st century AD Britain might interest me, but if it features historic figures such as Queen Boudicca and the emperor Nero, I can then place in context the events and their importance in the subsequent history of Britain. History is concerned primarily with conflicts, winners and losers, and what historical fiction adds to a dry retelling of history is where it imbues the events of the past with characters that reach back in time to make it happen again for me, the reader.

Q – Does successful historical fiction have to say something relevant to today’s conditions?

A – I think that all quality fiction has to have something to say about the human condition, and we as readers will always relate that to the world of today; historical fiction is no different and I believe that the genre offers a unique opportunity to its readers to present the events of the past for consideration; if we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past we are doomed to repeat them, and I think this is a powerful tool in the arsenal of historical fiction authors, to comment on contemporary issues. A very topical issue might be the rise of nationalism in Western Europe, which for many has worrying parallels with international events leading up to World War II. The themes and tropes that interest, inspire or worry us are timeless; although historical fiction may offer them for our consideration from a less enlightened time period, the challenges for humanity remain fairly constant.

Q – What role does research play in successful historical fiction?

A – Research is absolutely key to ensure your story has an intellectual and emotional sense of its time and place, that there are no jarring anachronisms in plot or language, but also that your story doesn’t wear its research too heavily. “Research” can be a daunting word for the would-be writer of historical fiction, and at times it can be a slog; I’ve had seven or eight internet tabs and a pile of physical books open to fact check one minor detail, but research isn’t just reading up on a subject. For my novel The Battle of Watling Street, I visited the Verulamium Museum in Saint Albans, the Museum of London, and the Chiltern Open Air Museum in Buckinghamshire; all three were invaluable in helping me not just with historical facts, but with the costumes, buildings and décor, sights, sounds and tastes of 1st century AD Roman Britain. I undertook some research on Celtic names for those characters in my story whose names weren’t passed down to history, such as the daughters of Boudicca, and discovered a database of Celtic name elements maintained by The University of Cambridge. It was important to me that every character, from Boudicca’s (fictional) chief advisor, to the protagonist’s mule, had name that was historically accurate!

In addition, there is a wealth of near-contemporary, public domain material for the period I was writing about in the annals of Tacitus, and of course my love of Roman historical fiction as written by such stars of the genre as Robert Graves and Robert Harris were an enormous inspiration, and helped me prepare and perfect my writing voice for the novel.

My aim was to accurately capture the events and flavour of the period I was writing in, but also to give an authentic voice to my non-famous (fictional) characters, as they represented ordinary people caught up in very momentous times and events. One other thing I did was to get out and about; I walked the routes and regions I was writing about, and tried to imbue my writing with these real places, the only concrete things left to me here in the 21st century that I could lay my hands and feet on, and reconnect with that distant past.

Q – Do you judge historical fiction differently from contemporary fiction?

A – Ultimately, historical fiction faces the same challenges as contemporary fiction; to entertain, inform, engage the reader, and to say something about an aspect of the human condition, all within the structure of a narrative that holds our attention and provides a satisfactory reading experience. Historical fiction must meet additional criteria as noted above; the research must be meticulous, and the writing must take us to that time, but these are merely temporal differences. My favourite authors display the same skills; they bring a story alive for me, using place, events and mostly, characters that I may adore or despise, but that I can understand, and believe in. Successful fiction gets under the skin of its readers and lodges there, hopefully to bloom in an increased awareness of our world; the successful historical fiction author offers a glimpse into the past, and has something to say about the ever-present.

Many thanks, Margaret, for adding to the discussion. You’ve given us lots to think about particularly the challenge as to what constitutes historical fiction!

The Battle of Watling Street: A historical science fiction mystery set in 1st century AD Roman-occupied Britain.

Britannia, AD61. Following her disgrace at the hands of the occupying Roman forces, the Iceni Queen Boudicca rouses her own and neighbouring tribes against the Romans, laying waste to Londinium and slaughtering tens of thousands.

Boudicca’s forces clash with the legionary might of the Roman governor at the decisive Battle of Watling Street. Her Iceni warriors utterly defeated, Boudicca flees with the tattered survivors of her bodyguard.

Historians still dispute the end of Boudicca and the Iceni; did they escape to Wales or Ireland? Or did they stumble across a very different kind of deadly foreign occupier of their native lands?

Margaret McGoverne blogs about writing at You can connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

Inside Historical Fiction with author Jennifer Robson

Beyond writing historical fiction, Jennifer Robson and I share Toronto as our home town and I was delighted to meet her in person two months ago. Goodnight From London, Jennifer’s latest novel, was inspired by her grandmother’s wartime experiences in WWII. Jennifer’s debut novel – Somewhere in France – received accolades for its story of a woman who breaks away from her aristocratic upbringing to serve in World War One. Clearly Jennifer enjoys wartime settings! Today, she discusses the factors that make historical fiction tick.

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

I think it’s the promise of a glimpse into the past that makes historical fiction so appealing to its fans. Until scientists succeed in inventing a working time machine, historical fiction is the best means we have of sinking into vanished worlds and gaining a sense of what it must have been like to live in another time.

Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways? 

Many years ago I asked this exact question of Margaret Atwood, and I was surprised when she insisted that fiction was simply fiction – she didn’t like adding the term “historical” to it. I have to (respectfully) disagree, if only because the recent past and the distant past are such different animals in terms of research and the author’s imagination. Yes, technically, the 1990s belong to the past, but I experienced them directly and have clear memories of the decade; it isn’t terribly hard for me to establish a believable setting for a book set in 1992, for instance. It’s also the case that there are plenty of living witnesses to interview, and with their contributions I can enrich the narrative I’m creating.

But as soon as you go back a hundred, five hundred, or a thousand years, you are on your own. You can’t ask any questions – you can only read the answers that people have left behind. Resources dwindle, and you’re at the mercy of your own preconceptions and assumptions about how people thought and spoke, what they believed, how they looked, and even what they found funny or moving.

I know I make mistakes in my books, and I know they present an incomplete picture, at best, of the past. But the point is that I try. We all try, and when we get it right the results can be magical.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novels?

It’s the details of ordinary life that fascinate me – how people got through a typical day, and the ways in which it was different from an ordinary day for any of us. I want my readers to feel they can almost smell the world I’ve created, which of course isn’t always a good thing! The idea of writing ‘wallpaper’ history, where people are dressed in vaguely old-fashioned clothes, and there are horses instead of cars, and otherwise not much else is different – that is the sort of historical fiction I find profoundly uninteresting. I really want to discover what life was like a hundred years ago, the good and the bad, and I want my readers to learn along with me.

In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

My books have all been set in the first half of the twentieth century, which makes world-building considerably easier for me than for, say, someone writing about Imperial Rome. I rely on the same sources that any other historian would use, beginning with secondary sources and digging down to the primary source stage. I also augment my research with sources that surprised my peers when I was at Oxford – I used to get no end of strange looks in the Bodleian when fellow students noticed I was combing through old issues of British Vogue or Women’s Weekly. I also turn to newsreel footage – British Pathé has a very extensive online collection – as well as movies, tapes of radio broadcasts, commercial fiction from the period I’m researching, commercial art such as advertisements and posters…I could go on and on!

What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?

It’s crucial that you get the setting right in any work of historical fiction, but the characters themselves need to be true to their time. This is where a lot of writers, myself included, often have difficulties. I do my very best to ensure that my characters belong to their era, and aren’t burdened by apocryphal attitudes or beliefs, but it’s hard. I write commercial fiction, and my readers have a certain expectation that my heroines will be people they find engaging and interesting, if not always likeable. To that end I often err on the side of caution – my heroines are more independent than is typical of their female contemporaries, for instance, or are more liberal in their world view than would be typical of the average person. That is not to say that a woman living in 1916, for instance, couldn’t be brave and resourceful and lacking in prejudice towards others – she absolutely could be all of those things. But it does make her rather more of an outlier, as it were, and I have to be careful not to turn the entire book into a fairy tale in which the past has been prettied and sanitized beyond recognition.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

Goodnight From London is the story of Ruby Sutton, an American working for a British weekly newsmagazine in London during the Second World War. Ruby ends up staying in Britain for the duration, and her experiences – of enduring the horrors of the Blitz, of traveling to France after D-Day – are based on those of other journalists of the time. I was inspired to write Goodnight From London by the experiences of my late grandmother, Nikki Moir, who was a newspaperwoman in Vancouver from the 1930s onwards, and who worked throughout the war. I was always so proud of her, and after she died I decided I wanted to use her example as an inspiration. In my dedication to the book I say that Grandma was the woman who led me to Ruby, and I can only hope that she would be happy with the book I wrote.

My work in progress is set in London in 1947 and has three women as its central characters. They are embroiderers, working for Norman Hartnell at his salon on Bruton Street in Mayfair, and are among those who worked to create Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress. In the course of my research, I saw the wedding gown on display at Buckingham Palace and I met and interviewed the last surviving seamstress who worked on the gown. I also spent a day at Hand and Lock, a famed embroidery studio celebrating its 250th anniversary this year, so I might learn what it was like to do the sort of very fine embroidery and beadwork that embellished Norman Hartnell’s designs. It is set for publication in late 2018 and the working title – one I hope I’ll get to keep – is The Gown.

Many thanks for offering your perspectives on writing historical fiction, Jennifer. I’ve read Moonlight Over Paris and I’m sure readers are in for a treat with your latest novel!

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

What Makes Historical Fiction Tick – with Donna Russo Morin

Today is release day for The Competition, Donna Russo Morin‘s second novel in the Da Vinci’s Disciples trilogy. And today I’m delighted to have Donna on the blog discussing what makes historical fiction tick. Over to you, Donna.

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable or irresistible to readers?

Stir together characters that are recognizable and relatable no matter that they lived hundreds of years ago, a fascinating/traumatic/life-changing moment in history, and a perfectly recreated setting.

As a top historical fiction writer, what techniques do you employ to create that magic?

First, thank you for such a complimentary status. When a story unfolds in my mind, it’s as if I’m watching a movie, and I put everything I see down on paper. There’s a fine line between enough description and too much. The key, for me, is to weave all the historical events, lifestyle particulars, and period appropriate character behavior seamlessly into the narrative via dialogue, internal monologues, and action, anything but simple plops of description. The most powerful insertion of historical information comes when it is disguised as something else; it’s what I strive for in each and every book.

How are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels?

Mark Twain said, “The difference between history and fiction is that fiction has to be believed.’ A truer statement has never been spoken. It’s a greater challenge for the historical novelist to suspend the disbelief of their readers as the people and their lives are so far removed from modern day life. Consequently, the historical novelist needs to make the past so alive that today’s reader can relate, can immerse themselves so deeply in the work, it becomes inconsequential that it took place hundreds of years ago.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novels?

It has been a recurring theme in all of my books (six so far) to highlight strong women who dare to break the constraints imposed by the social mores of their time period. My Da Vinci’s Disciples trilogy (PORTRAIT OF A CONSPIRACY, May 2016; THE COMPETITION, April 25, 2017; BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, Spring 2018) is the story of a secret society of women artists, under the tutelage of the great Leonardo da Vinci, who must navigate the treacherous life of 15th century Florence while trying to bring their artistry to the world. Every one of the women in this society is based on real women in my life, including myself. I try to shine a light on the fact that the struggles of gender are as true today as they were in centuries past…and that we still have a long road to travel.

In writing historical fiction, what techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

I need to know the period as if I’ve lived it. In addition to months of academic research, I read novels written in the period, contemporary novels of the era. For example, if a writer a hundred years from now wants to write about this time period, they may want to read Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. One book of distinction for me has been Il Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier) written by Baldassare Castiglione in 1507. It’s an extraordinary glimpse into Renaissance life. It is a series of fictional conversation between factual personages, such as the Duke of Urbino and other nobles. Over the course of four evenings, members of the court try to describe the perfect courtly gentleman. They debate the nature of nobility, humor, women, and love. The truth of the time is all there. Though the archaic language can be difficult to plow through, the benefits are more than worth the time.

Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how?

I cut my teeth on Margaret Mitchell, James Michener, John Jakes, Rosalind Laker, and most recently, Diana Gabaldon. In all instances, these authors wrote epic sagas. Their world building is impeccable and with every book I write, I strive to match that authority. I still write ‘big’ books, as they did, which are no longer as popular as they once were. My agent and editor are constantly asking for cuts; a terrible wound for a writer. It is my challenge to world-build as successfully as the writers mentioned above, but with far less words.

If I’ve learned one thing from these writers more than any other, it’s that it is the function of the non-fiction history book writer to tell us what happened and where; it is the goal of every historical novelist to tell us how it felt.

Many thanks, Donna. You write in a time period and setting that many would find very difficult! Congratulations and best wishes for your latest novel.

The Competition by Donna Russo Morin – In a studiolo behind a church, six women gather to perform an act that is, at once, restorative, powerful, and illegal: they paint.
Under the tutelage of Leonardo da Vinci, these six show talent and drive equal to that of any man, but in Renaissance Florence, they must hide their skills, or risk the scorn of the church, the city, and the law.
A commission to paint a fresco in the church of Santo Spirito is about to be announced and Florence’s countless artists each seek the fame and glory this lucrative job will provide. Viviana, a noblewoman freed from a terrible marriage, and now able to pursue her artistic passions, sees a potential life-altering opportunity for herself and her fellow artists. The women first speak to Lorenzo de Medici himself, and finally, they submit a bid for the right to paint it. And they win. The very public commission belongs to them.
But with the victory comes a powerful cost. The church will not stand for women painting, especially not in a house of worship