2015 Favourite Historical Fiction Authors

No doubt you were anxiously waiting for the 2015 favourite historical fiction authors list. First, an apology. Since publishing 2015’s favourite fiction list, I’ve been heads down finishing Time & Regret and only surfaced a few weeks ago. Fortunately, compiling the numbers was not as arduous this time.

2015 Favourite historical fiction authorsA few observations:

  • the top 5 remain the top 5 three years in a row. Kudos to Diana Gabaldon, Sharon Kay Penman, Philippa Gregory, Elizabeth Chadwick and Bernard Cornwell.
  • Men and women differ in their top choices. Tabulating male responses exclusively, the top 8 are: Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O’Brian, Conn Iggulden, Sharon Kay Penman, Ken Follett, C.J. Sansom, Hilary Mantel and James Michener.
  • Country choices also vary. For example, the top 5 choices in the UK are: Elizabeth Chadwick, Bernard Cornwell, Philippa Gregory, Sharon Kay Penman, and Hilary Mantel. Interesting to see Sharon Kay Penman remain in the top groups across gender and country.
  • Authors tend to receive a higher portion of their support from their own country participants. For example, 75% of Diana Gabaldon’s popularity rests in the US.
  • Not surprisingly, deceased authors receive more mentions from older participants.
  • Every author in these two groups received more than 20 mentions.

2015 favourite historical fiction authors 2I hope to cross-tabulate favourite authors against a few other factors and to look at age breakdowns in more detail. I will also publish a list of authors with 10 to 20 mentions.

One further statistic of interest: over 900 authors were mentioned as favourites. Wow.

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, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

7 Elements of Historical Fiction

Inside HFAll writers of fiction have to consider seven critical elements: character, dialogue, setting, theme, plot, conflict, and world building. While every story succeeds or disappoints on the basis of these elements, historical fiction has the added challenge of bringing the past to life.

Since I work best by example, I’m developing an explanation of the seven elements in the context of historical fiction.

Character – whether real or imagined, characters behave in keeping with the era they inhabit, even if they push the boundaries. And that means discovering the norms, attitudes, beliefs and expectations of their time and station in life. A Roman slave differs from a Roman centurion, as does an innkeeper from an aristocrat in the 18th century. Your mission as writer is to reveal the people of the past.

Dialogue – dialogue that is cumbersome and difficult to understand detracts from readers’ enjoyment of historical fiction. Dip occasionally into the vocabulary and grammatical structures of the past by inserting select words and phrases so that a reader knows s/he is in another time period. Don’t weigh the manuscript down or slow the reader’s pace with too many such instances. And be careful. Many words have changed their meanings over time and could be misinterpreted.

Setting – setting is time and place. More than 75% of participants in a 2013 reader survey selected ‘to bring the past to life’ as the primary reason for reading historical fiction. Your job as a writer is to do just that. Even more critically, you need to transport your readers into the past in the first few paragraphs. Consider these opening sentences.

“I could hear a roll of muffled drums. But I could see nothing but the lacing on the bodice of the lady standing in front of me, blocking my view of the scaffold.” Philippa Gregory The Other Boleyn Girl

“Alienor woke at dawn. The tall candle that had been left to burn all night was almost a stub, and even through the closed shutters she could hear the cockerels on roosts, walls and dung heaps, crowing the city of Poitiers awake.” Elizabeth Chadwick The Summer Queen

“Cambridge in the fourth winter of the war. A ceaseless Siberian wind with nothing to blunt its edge whipped off the North Sea and swept low across the Fens. It rattled the signs to the air-raid shelters in Trinity New Court and battered on the boarded up windows of King’s College Chapel.” Robert Harris Enigma

Straightaway you’re in the past. Of course, many more details of setting are revealed throughout the novel in costume, food, furniture, housing, toiletries, entertainment, landscape, architecture, conveyances, sounds, smells, tastes, and a hundred other aspects.

Theme – most themes transcend history. And yet, theme must still be interpreted within the context of a novel’s time period. Myfanwy Cook’s book Historical Fiction Writing: A Practical Guide and Toolkit contains a long list of potential themes: “ambition, madness, loyalty, deception, revenge, all is not what it appears to be, love, temptation, guilt, power, fate/destiny, heroism, hope, coming of age, death, loss, friendship, patriotism.” What is loyalty in 5th century China? How does coming of age change from the perspective of ancient Egypt to that of the early twentieth century? What constitutes madness when supposed witches were burned at the stake.

Plot – the plot has to make sense for the time period. And plot will often be shaped around or by the historical events taking place at that time. This is particularly true when writing about famous historical figures. When considering those historical events, remember that you are telling a story not writing history.

Conflict – the problems faced by the characters in your story. As with theme and plot, conflict must be realistic for the chosen time and place. Readers will want to understand the reasons for the conflicts you present. An unmarried woman in the 15th century might be forced into marriage with a difficult man or the taking of religious vows. Both choices lead to conflict.

World Building – you are building a world for your readers, hence the customs, social arrangements, family environment, governments, religious structures, international alliances, military actions, physical geography, layouts of towns and cities, and politics of the time are relevant. As Harry Sidebottom, author of Warrior of Rome series said: “The past is another country, they not only do things differently there, they think about things differently.”

As you research, here’s a list of topics to consider: attitudes, language and idiom, household matters, material culture, everyday life, historical timelines, occupations, diversions, regulations, vehicles, travel, food, clothing and fashion, manners and mannerisms, beliefs, morality, the mindset of the time, politics, social attitudes, wars, revolutions, prominent people, major events, news of the day, neighbourhoods, gossip, scandals, international trade, travel, how much things cost, worries and cares, highways and byways, conveyances, landscape, sounds, tastes, smells, class divisions, architecture, social preoccupations, religious norms, cataclysmic events, legal system, laws, regulations, weather, military organization, cooking, sex, death, disease. I’m sure you can – and hopefully will — add more.

Ultimately you are seeking to immerse yourself in a past world then judiciously select the best ways to bring that world to life as you tell your story.

A closing thought from well-known historical fiction author Bernard Cornwell: “The most important thing, the all important thing, is to get the story right. Write, rewrite, rewrite again, and do not worry about anything except story. It is story, story, story. That is your business. Your job is not to educate readers on the finer points of Elizabethan diplomacy or Napoleonic warfare, your job is to divert and amuse people who have had a hard day at work. What will get you published? Not style, not research, but story. Once the story is right, everything else will follow.”

You might also enjoy:

10 Thoughts on the Purpose of Historical Fiction

Historical Fiction – Readers Have Their Say

Author Tips on Writing Historical Fiction

FOR MORE ON WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION, SUBSCRIBE TO A WRITER OF HISTORY (check the left hand margin for details).

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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick

The Summer QueenWhen I began THE SUMMER QUEEN by Elizabeth Chadwick – a signed copy, I might add – I promised myself I would read it purely for pleasure rather than with pen in hand to take notes or mark passages for further examination. And I did just that. However, since my mind is still humming with the pleasure of Chadwick’s story, I thought I would use the top attributes of favourite historical fiction from the 2013 historical fiction survey to explain my enthusiasm for this novel.

(1) Feeling immersed in time and place – As a reader of historical novels, I expect to be transported to another world and in this case I was ready to dwell in the early 12th century the moment I opened The Summer Queen. In the very first chapter, descriptions of household activities, garments worn, food served and a pilgrimage to Compostela set the scene immediately. Ancient terms enter the text, dialogue reflects a time of very different customs and manners, we progress from place to place feeling the ache of long hours on horseback and the dust of the road, a gyrfalcon marks Alienor’s power and position.

“The bed itself was blessed with much sprinkling of holy water, and then Louis was guided to the left side of the bed and Alienor to the right, the better to ensure the conception of a son.”

This was a time when men had all the power and the church influenced so many decisions. Women were pawns in marriages that served only to bring land or curtail the influence of some enemy. Despite being a mere female, Alienor discovers and nurtures her own power base – sexuality, intellect, fierce determination, and the steadfast loyalties of her people.

(2) Superb writing – Chadwick’s prose effortlessly blends narration, description and dialogue. Each chapter advances the story with tension and drama, never with superfluous detail or tangential storylines. Dialogue reflects the time and circumstances of the characters and yet is easy for today’s readers to understand. In terms of emotional resonance, I identified with Alienor’s desire to protect Aquitaine, understood her efforts to support Louis and others who depended on her. My heart ached when hers did and I could appreciate how Louis’s disdain and behind-the-scenes maneuvering undermined their marriage. The plot offered many twists and turns – in that era no woman of substance and fortune could take her life’s path for granted.

“Swords of sunlight cleft the clouds and illuminated the pilgrim church of the Madeleine crowing the hill of Vezelay … as if the fingertips of God were reaching down to touch the abbey in benediction.”

(3) Characters both heroic and human – Alienor, Louis, Geoffrey de Rancon, Henry, Geoffrey of Anjou, are examples of characters both heroic and human. Chadwick is careful to let us see their strengths as well as their flaws. Each character comes alive through description, action and dialogue. Alienor, in particular, is magnificently drawn – shining in tempestuous energy and heartfelt longing. And we can readily understand, and even sympathize with, Louis’s flawed personality. Towards the end, Henry bursts on the scene and I am eager to know more about him in The Winter Crown.

(4) Authentic and educational – Chadwick delivers on historical fact without overwhelming the story, concentrating events on people who are critical to understanding Alienor’s life and times. We learn about food, fashion, political strategies, royal tensions, border disputes, the second crusade, the role of the church and so much more. Language of the time is used sparingly, allowing the reader to appreciate unfamiliar terms without being confused.

“the servants spread a trestle under the rich blue sky”

“wrapped in a warm mantle lined with the pelts of Russian squirrels”

“Louis took a mouthful of wine, swilled it around his mouth, and leaned over his destrier’s withers to spit it out.”

(5) Dramatic arc of historical events – as the first novel in the trilogy, The Summer Queen gives us Alienor from the age of thirteen to the dissolution of her marriage to Louis VII and the first few years with Henry II. Chapter by chapter, Elizabeth Chadwick selects only the important characters and events of that time, never burdening the story with too much historical detail. Drama stalks every scene. The stakes are high. Alienors future is uncertain from the time of her father’s death; her position frequently threatened. She leaves her child to accompany Louis on crusade and loves a man she cannot have. Powerful men attempt to thwart her at every turn. Happiness is never a certainty. Death lurks and quickly overcomes. Throughout, tension was palpable and the pages flew by.

The Summer Queen is truly superb. Bravo, Elizabeth Chadwick.