Reader Interview Series – Kris H.

Woman Reading - Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Woman Reading – Pierre-Auguste Renoir

A Writer of History is hosting a series of interviews with readers, particularly those who enjoy historical fiction. I hope these interviews will augment the survey data I’ve collected. Please welcome Kris, one of my Facebook friends as she tells us about her reading.

Tell us a little about yourself.     I was born in 1944, the illegitimate daughter of a divorced German soldier and a young Norwegian woman. Whether my mother left to follow her lover, or was forced by circumstances beyond her control is not clear, but 14 months later she gave birth to yet another daughter (by the same man), whom she left with her older, married half-sister. I had been left with her parents, then in their late 50’s. Having sold their farm (Holtan South) due to ill health, we lived in a small whaling village near Larvik.

I spent my first 5+ years with my grandparents who adored and spoiled me, especially my grandfather who read to me and told me all the old stories. By the time I was 4, my grandmother taught me to read, using the local newspaper and the older children in the village often would drag me around the shop windows and marvel at my ability to read the text on the advertisement. (Normally children did not start school until age seven).

When I was 5 or so, my mother returned and soon married a Norwegian whaler and my life in a home with no books began. Fortunately my grandparents lived nearby and I was able to visit almost daily to read (with my grandmother’s encouragement) despite my mother’s frustration at her failure to keep me home.

Throughout the school years I visited the local library, which was open every Wednesday, taking home as many books as I could carry. The woman who ran the little circulating library eventually learned to keep some goodies aside for me and did not restrict me from any book that struck my fancy.

I have never stopped reading since and thank my grandparents for this gift.

In 1964, following a unhappy love affair (no doubt a failure because it didn’t live up to my expectations based on my reading), I decided that Norway was too small and too small minded to contain my rebellious self. I left Norway for the US and, having lived on both coasts as well as in Ontario CA and the Midwest, I am currently living near Seattle, WA working full time as bookkeeper. Aside from spending time with my two adult sons when possible, my main interests are reading, travel and Fabric Arts.

Please tell us about your reading habits and preferences.     Based on my Kindle history for the past year, I can say I read between 3 and 5 books a week. I read in bed, on the couch while pretending to watch TV and while at lunch. I read Hard Covers in bed (prefer cheap paperbacks in the bubble bath); read my Kindle at lunch (and sometimes at work) and while travelling.

Since I am a fairly fast reader, I prefer longer tomes and usually read one book at a time.

Historical Fiction and what I like to call Crime Noir (Nordic Noir and Icelandic Noir) and the Police Procedurals set in the UK are my preferred escape from the sometimes emotionally gutting Historical Fiction I adore. Occasionally I will mix in some Contemporary Fiction (most recently The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin).

How do you decide which books to buy? What influences your purchases?    I use any avenue open to me: haunting libraries, Big Box Bookstores (not so much anymore), Independent Book Sellers, and, of course I visit numerous Literary Facebook Pages as often as I can, for example: Historical Novel Society, The Review and Before The Norman Invasion. In addition, I follow my favorite, old and new, authors’ FB Pages and Twitter accounts.

Before the Internet, I relied on the cover attracting my attention, Goldleaf and Reds rarely failed, then I read the inside cover. Once I find an author whose words speak to me and whose characters engage me emotionally (i. e. break my heart) I will track down every one of his/her published works.

What do you like about historical fiction? What don’t you like?    I like that a well written historical fiction takes me to the time and place described and makes me fall in love with the characters, real or fictional. I am not so fond of the hybrid historical fiction that incorporates Sci-Fi and/or Super Natural Elements (though I have been known to read them).

What types of historical fiction do you prefer?    My favorites are the ones that shed light on a time of importance in history, and flesh out the people of the era, especially when all the old myths and romantic notions are stripped away to show a very human side of a romanticised/vilified/mythicized figure.

Do you have historical fiction books or authors you would recommend to other readers? Can you tell us why?

Should not embarrass you but I have to list M. K. Tod’s Unravelled – because it is the first novel set in this time that I have read and I loved it. Loved it so much it led me to Charles Todd’s The Inspector Rutledge Series. [MKTod – I did not pay Kris to say this!!! Thanks for your very kind words, Kris. I’m honoured to be on your list.]

Dorothy DunnettThe Lymond Chronicles and King Hereafter are my favorites – because of her painstaking research, exquisite character development, intricate plotlines and luminous language.

Sharon Kay PenmanSunne in Splendor * The Welsh Trilogy -Because of her (again) meticulous research, believable character development of real historical figures and their relationships, and (again) flawless language and plot development.

Mary StewartThe Arthurian Saga – because she doesn’t fall into the mythology trap regarding Merlin and the Arthurian Legend.

Cindy Brandner The Exit Unicorn Series –   for her lyrical prose, excellent characters and riveting historical setting.

Sara Donati (Rosina Lippi)’s Wilderness Series – because of the fresh look on the almost unreadable James Fenimore Cooper originals.

Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter – because it was my first historical fiction, read in the original Norwegian as a teenager. This book opened my eyes to other worlds and other times.

Elizabeth ChadwickShadow on the Crown – for shining the spotlight on an influential woman of her time who has been long neglected in fiction.

Gillian BradshawThe Horses of Heaven – for its unusual setting.

Morgan LlywellynThe Horse Goddess & Grania– Wonderful look at Irish History/Legend

Then there is phenomenon that is Diana Gabaldon and the Outlander Series (with Auxiliary Novellas and Short Stories). I resisted picking this up for a long time because I was leery of the Time Travel element. When I finally (accidentally) picked up Dragonfly in Amber at the library I was captivated enough to buy the entire Series. For about a year and half I was a rabid fan. Unfortunately for Dr. Gabaldon the bloom is off the rose for me. I feel more and more like a victim of an evil marketing genius and do not like the feeling of being sucked into cult-like following. That is not to say she is not a wonderfully imaginative writer. The first three books are unforgettable … but after that I prefer the Lord John Gray Stories.

In today’s world, there are so many opportunities to talk and learn about books – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, book clubs – can you tell us about your experiences, where you go to talk or learn about books, why you enjoy discussions about books?    I am pretty much on my own here; I do “lurk” on a lot of Facebook Literary Group sites, also follow many authors, and make occasional comments. I am somewhat less enamored with Goodreads. I must say I would really like to find a group or book club where I might find likeminded book lovers who actually read the books.

What advice do you have for writers of historical fiction?    OMG … I couldn’t presume, but first of all do your research, don’t filter morals of another time through a 21st Century lens, and do not insert sex scenes a la 50 Shades, rather evoke emotional suspense.

Is there anything else about reading historical fiction that you’d like to comment on?

Read, read and read.
WOW, Kris. What a great interview to kickoff this series. Your childhood could form the basis for a novel on its own! And you’ve given so many wonderful recommendations for other readers. 500 books in one year – that’s an incredible amount of reading. Many, many thanks!

2013 Favourite Historical Fiction Authors

Drum roll … here’s the 2013 list of favourite historical fiction authors.

Favourite HF Authors 1Of 2440 survey participants, 2075 people responded with one, two or three favourite authors. And a total of 1017 different authors were mentioned as favourites.

Trust me, that’s a lot of data to sort through particularly when you think of misspellings, use of initials or not, given name or surname written first! Names like Philippa, Iggulden and McCullough have many spellings – just to mention a few! And then I had to count them – well, actually, Excel counted them for me after my son-in-law showed me how to use the ‘countifs’ feature. Grateful thanks go out to him.

Favourite HF authors 2You will notice that we have 43 authors since five authors all had 21 mentions. A HUGE round of applause for these favourite authors.

Caveats: as I pointed out in the main report, the survey was initially publicized through the Historical Novel Society, a number of book review bloggers and my own efforts on Facebook and Twitter. From those original sources people then passed the survey link along all around the world. After about a week, in an effort to continue spreading the word, I posted on the Facebook pages of the 2012 top ten authors. As you can see from the results, Diana Gabaldon’s fans are incredibly enthusiastic about her writing and they came out in droves to vote!

Comparing to last year: (click here for the 2012 list)

  • The top 6 remain the top 6!
  • 31 authors are on both 2013 and 2012 lists
  • 12 authors are new to the top 40 list
  • 9 authors slipped off the list

Is the methodology statistically accurate?

As I mentioned in the main survey report, I am not a statistician and I’m sure some will argue that the results are skewed based on how those responding heard about it. But don’t forget, 2075 took the time to offer the names of their favourite authors.

In addition, many authors are on both lists (2012 and 2013) and of those authors who slipped off the list, most are not far behind the cutoff point. In addition, some who are new to the 2013 list were not far behind the cutoff for last year’s list.

Let me repeat what I said earlier in this post, a huge round of applause for these terrific authors.

Do men and women have different favourites? Is geography or age a factor in choosing favourite authors? Does it make a difference if you’ve recently released a new novel? I’ll return with some thoughts on these and other aspects when time permits.

Comments welcome as well as any thoughts on further analysis and the popularity of these authors.

P.S. For a look at gender differences in favourite authors, check here.

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is available in paperback from Amazon (USCanada and elsewhere), and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and on iTunes.

Top Historical Fiction Author – Elizabeth Chadwick

I am very pleased to announce Elizabeth Chadwick as the fourth interview in the Top Historical Fiction Author Series. In a recent survey of 805 individuals, readers ranked Ms. Chadwick third in the list of favourite authors. A wonderful accomplishment.

I’ve read several of Ms. Chadwick’s books, the most recent being The Running Vixen. Originally published in 1991, the reprint clearly shows that Elizabeth Chadwick’s writing stands the test of time. I was immediately transported to 1126 and immersed in the tale of Adam de Lacey, Heulwen FitzMiles and England in the time of Henry I and his daughter Matilda.

Please use the comments feature if you have questions or comments for Elizabeth.

Why do you write historical fiction?   It began with teenage hormones and falling in love firstly with Keith Michelle when he played Henry VIII in the BBC series about his six wives, and secondly with a French actor called André Lawrence in a series about a handsome French knight living in the holy land in the 12th century. I had told myself stories from earliest memory, always verbal never written down and usually inspired by things that had fired my imagination – frequently cowboys and Indians, horsey stories, or traditional fairytales with a dash of excitement. While on my French actor crush, I began writing my own tale about a 12th century knight who had been born in Syria of Anglo Arab parentage, and decided to return to Europe. I had to research the period because I knew nothing about it. The more I researched the more interested I became and the more the story grew. By the time I arrived at page 500, I knew that what I wanted to do for a living was write historical fiction with strong themes of adventure and romance.  In the decades since then, I have continued to research and the mediaeval period still holds its fascination for me, as does writing about it.

You are clearly very skilled at writing historical fiction. What do you think attracts readers to your books?    I have always written for myself. That was how it began – stories to entertain me, but once they were written and I entered the adult world, I began to wonder if I could write historical fiction for a career for other people to enjoy.  Going from what readers tell me when they write to me, or talk to me on Facebook and Twitter, they love feeling as if they are there in the moment with the characters. They really appreciate that the characters are of their time, believable and not anachronistic, but also accessible. They enjoy the vividness, the colour and also the emotional and historical integrity.

Do you have a particular approach to research and writing?    Once I have decided who or what I am going to write about, my first task is to write a synopsis and the first three chapters that will sell the novel to my agent and editor.  That means a lot of polishing on the thinking and writing front over a short space of time and concentrated area. At this stage I will do preliminary research – enough to know the broad brush strokes and the major points I’m going to be using to dramatise the novel.  Once it’s a done deal, I do the writing and the research alongside each other.There are two  aspects to my research.  One is the must-have detail.  What do I have to know in order to write this novel? That is obviously a primary concern. The other aspect is ‘What might be interesting to know to deepen my awareness of the period I’m writing about and to help develop my characters and their situations?’   In other words I research both specifically and in a more random fashion.  Since I’ve been studying the 11th to 13th centuries for 40 years now, I  have a reasonable working knowledge base, but I’m still aware how much more I don’t know.

I also research in a multidisciplinary way. I research the primary sources to get a general idea of mindset, and by primary sources, I include archaeology and living history. I re-enact with early mediaeval living history Society Regia Anglorum to get a flavour of the life and times and to learn and experiment with the crafts and artefacts of the period. Re-enactment and archaeology bring history off the page and into the  three-dimensional which make all he difference to the writing when my knowledge is filtered through those mediums and returns to the page in novel form.  I go to locations to walk around and get a feel for atmospheres and a closer look at the local history of the area.  Of course one should never ever splurge one’s research into the novel as info dump.  It’s one of the fastest ways to send the poor reader to sleep. However, the more one knows about one’s chosen historical period, the easier it becomes to walk around within that period and the more the characters will be of their time.

Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you?    Several in my early days and for various reasons, not least that all do their research in depth. There are others beyond the three below, but these ladies were probably my major influences when I was starting out.

Roberta Gellis – Among her oeuvre, she has written several very strong romantic historicals set in the Middle Ages. I picked them up during my late teens and early 20s.  Bond of Blood, Knight’s  Honour, The Sword And The Swan, and the famous  Rosalynde Chronicles where I fell head over heels in love with Ian de Vipont – a tall, dark, handsome hero who could have been the generic romance novel cardboard cutout, but proved in Gellis’ hands to be so real that I swear I could see him standing in my room. Roberta Gellis showed me that it was possible to write strong historical romances where the characters were of their time and not modern people in fancy dress.

Sharon Kay Penman.  With The Sunne in Splendor and Here Be Dragons, Sharon showed me the other side of the coin to Roberta Gellis.  i.e. that it was possible to write deeply engaging and romantic (in the best possible use of the phrase) novels about real people and make you utterly bereft that you had to leave them behind when you came to the end of the novel. That you could weave the research into a fantastic story without warping the historical fabric out of true.

Dorothy Dunnett. Whenever I wanted to raise my game, I would read Dorothy Dunnett. Not that I ever have or will raise my game to her level. She was in a league of her own and still is. She taught me a great deal about the imaginative and fearless use of language.

What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author? Do you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing?    A top historical fiction author will be someone who can tell a story that brings the past to life while maintaining the historical integrity.  There should be sufficient drama, history, entertainment and food for thought to keep the reader busy from beginning to end, and perhaps go away wanting to know more about the subject, and to read more of the author’s books! I don’t deliberately plan these ingredients, but hope that they happen as a matter of course.

How do you select new stories to tell?    Usually something will spark my interest when I am reading a primary source chronicle. I will think ‘Hmmm, I want to know more about this incident, or this person’. So I will go and find out more, and if that more is interesting and has a full story behind it, then it becomes a viable subject for future work. With William Marshal and The Greatest Knight, I kept coming across him whenever I was doing research on my earlier novels. I knew he’d led a full and adventurous life and I thought it would be interesting to explore in fiction. With the Eleanor of Aquitaine novels which are my work in progress, I know she has been written about before, but there is so much left to find out and to say, that I think my novels will bring a whole new set of facets to her life story.

What advantages do you think come from writing trilogies as you have done? Any disadvantages?    One advantage is a nice long publishing contract, so I can plan a couple of years in advance!  I have time for the characters to develop and change as they would in real life and to flow through the scenes like turning seasons.  Readers become invested in the lives of these characters and are keen to engage with the next instalment. Disadvantages – not so much a disadvantage, but something to be aware of, is keeping it fresh. You can’t suddenly decide you want to write something completely different in the middle of book two. You are in it for the long haul.  It is also better to make sure that your novels stand alone even while being part of a trilogy, so that a reader who picks up book 3 will not be bewildered, and will be encouraged to go back and read books one and two.

What techniques do you employ to write productively?    Backside on seat basically! I set myself a word count of at least 1000 words a day, seven days a week when I’m writing fresh material.  I don’t have a problem with writer’s block, but should the words be flowing more slowly, then I will write my scene as a rough sketch and come back to it later to fill in the colour.  Even though I am writing 1000 words a day, I give myself regular breaks. Some of these breaks will be of the go for a walk, make a cup of coffee type of moments.  Others will be dropping in to Twitter or Facebook for a few moments of chat.  This is extremely productive as it’s engaging with readers and with interested and interesting people. I have to stress that I can do this because it’s the way I work. I’m an extreme multitasker. if you’re someone who needs to sink into your world for hours on end my particular way of working won’t suit you. But if you can work on several levels at once, then it’s a good method. One of my breaks in the day is to go to the gym and this helped keep up my fitness and energy levels. I think this too is important.  Build some exercise into your routine.

Do you think of yourself as having a brand? If so, how would you describe it and how do you reinforce it?    Loosely I think. I haven’t pro actively gone out to build a brand, but that brand has formed around me by a couple of decades of really strong word-of-mouth recommendations by readers.  The perceived view is historical accuracy married to vivid storytelling that puts the reader there in the moment.  Again it’s what I’m told, and what I have built on from there. I run a blog called Living The History which contains essays on different aspects of the mediaeval period and characters I’m studying. (The most popular post is a mediaeval sexuality!).   I have extra historical information at my website.  On a daily basis, I put up books from my reference library and my historical photo archive at Facebook, and talk further about them in response to reader comments.

What do you do to connect with readers?    Simple. I talk to readers at Facebook, Twitter, Good reads and on blogs, and I just treat them as I would like to be treated myself  when talking to someone about a subject I’m interested in.   I chat.  I sometimes have a giggle.  I keep it good-humoured and I’m just me.  It seems to work. I never ever do it cynically either.  You have to mean it; you have to be yourself; and while it’s okay to put the novels and your success at the forefront every now and again, don’t make it a daily habit. Give the readers added value, and they will value you.

What do you know about your readers?    That they are lovely people from all sorts of different backgrounds round the globe who have a keen interest in history and a love of historical fiction. They want to engage; they want to talk history; they want to know.  But they also want to be entertained.  Age and gender are no obstruction.

What data do you collect about your readers?    If they write to me or openly volunteered information, then that tells me something about them, but I don’t go collecting information or keeping tabs on them.  That smacks too much of cynical marketing, and while cynical marketing will get you so far, it’s not always productive for the long haul and the hearts and minds.  I’ve done very well indeed by just being open and natural and me. Readers can smell the whiff of marketing a mile off.  Sometime being full on works, but you really have to know what you’re doing.  It doesn’t suit me.  I prefer the gentler approach with grace.

What strategies guide your writing career?    Professionalism.  Always hand in a manuscript that is the best you can do and ahead of deadline.  Do everything with a whole heart and to the best of your ability.  Play nice with others but always be true to yourself. Sounds a bit like a mantra for life I guess, but then writing is my life.  Keep an eye on the market, but don’t be it’s slave, and don’t get hung upon self-destructive emotions because someone has given you a snarky review or said something unpleasant about you online.  That’s their problem.  Don’t sweat the stuff you can’t change.  I have seen authors get themselves a bad reputation with readers because they bite back at bad Amazon reviews.  It doesn’t matter, really it doesn’t.  Be professional – as I said.

What would you do differently if you were starting again?     It’s a very different world out there now. I would probably network a lot more, and I would really love to have done a history degree  and learned the nuts and bolts of academic study in a dedicated course rather than having picked it up as I’ve gone along.  As a writer I wouldn’t have done anything differently.

Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction?    Do not defame those who have gone before – maintain the integrity even if your characters are imaginary. You are building a world for your readers and it has to feel real to them, so that means you have to do the research.  You don’t have to dump it into the novel, but you do need it to inform your writing.  It’s like the difference between watching men fight with rubber swords where you can see them bending, and with the real thing with the battle light gleaming off the steel.  C.S. Lewis called it the deep magic, and if you write with that deep magic, audiences will know and appreciate that difference.  I would also add enjoy yourself!

What great insights and information about how you write, Elizabeth. I find the notion of ‘deep magic’ very intriguing. As someone who reached out to contact you for this interview, I can attest to your gentle and graceful approach as well as your professionalism. 

Readers and fellow writers will truly appreciate your candour.