Historical Fiction Without the Famous

I had the pleasure of being included on a panel at the HNS Denver conference that took place from June 26 to 28, 2015. The panel topic was Recreating the Past: Historical Fiction Without the Famous. My co-presenters were Jenny Quinlan of Historical Editorial and Let The Read Books and Beatriz Williams, author of The Secret Life of Violet Grant and other novels. Jenny explored the contribution stories with fictional historical characters can make and why we so enjoy reading about them. Beatriz brought the marketing perspective, explaining how agents and editors look at fiction without the famous.

My role was to discuss relevant reader data and provide a writer’s perspective on creating fictional characters.

First the data about readers.

Readers characters and settingsIn the 2015 survey, 84% of readers selected ‘fictional characters within a backdrop of great historical events’. This is reflected in the favourite titles mentioned by readers where only 23% of favourite fiction mentioned concerns famous historical figures. As mentioned in the main report, these numbers are good news for authors who prefer to write about fictional characters.


After showing other survey data I summarized the challenge for authors: you need to bring the past to life with a great story that helps readers learn using superb writing so that they feel immersed in time and place. Furthermore, make sure your historical details are accurate and make sure you create interesting and complex characters who behave realistically to their time period.

A tall order. And what about developing characters?

Harry Sidebottom, author of Warrior of Rome series, offered this comment: “The past is another country, they not only do things differently there, they think about things differently.” Authors have to subtly immerse readers in those differences using characters, dialogue, plot, conflict, setting, theme and world-building.

What elements go into that? To make your characters come alive you need to investigate an enormous range of topics – some in more detail than others depending on your story.Creating Fictional Characters in Historical Fiction

Needless to say this list is incomplete.

Dialogue should suit the times without being cumbersome to read or difficult to understand. Authors can do this by dipping occasionally into vocabulary and grammatical structures of the past. Someone uttering the phrase “dog’s breath” is clearly not of modern times. Plot, of course, will be enhanced by including upheavals and major events of the time period. Readers expect such events to have a bearing on the twists and turns of the story. And although you could argue that conflict transcends time, characters must still experience conflict in the context of their time.

Research is absolutely critical and, as Deanna Raybourn, author of A Curious Beginning, said, “Research brings colour and texture, and a well placed detail can anchor a story in its time – but the novel should not be so fact-heavy that it is like a text book.”

Emma Darwinauthor of A Secret Alchemy, has been writing a book on writing historical fiction. She says the worst is when you write with a history book in hand and “The best is when your characters and their points of view are so alive to you that of course you write what they see and how they see it: their voices filling that panelled room or smoky alehouse. Story is king: it just happens that the stuff of your story comes from the past.”

It was a pleasure to be included on the panel and to attend the HNS conference where I met so many wonderful people and attended great sessions on many aspects of writing historical fiction.

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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.

Killing my darlings

Kill your darlingsThe first time I heard this phrase, I had no idea what it meant. And now I can toss it around like any other seasoned writer.

Time & Regret is my third novel and having paid attention to some advice Emma Darwin offered on her blog, This Itch Of Writing, I’m in the midst of deleting the first eleven chapters of the story. Let me tell you, friends, eleven chapters represents a lot of time and effort, a lot of imagining, a lot of phrasing and rephrasing. But it has to be done.

Emma said the following:

One of the very first bits of clear writerly advice I ever came across was the short-story writer’s dictum of “Start as near the end as possible”. Later, I encountered the thriller-writer’s “Get in late and get out early”, which is a double-ended version of the same idea.


Emma’s advice came at just the right moment. With so many life events going on, I haven’t had time to write for months, but the niggling thought in the back of my mind whenever I considered Time & Regret was the need to pump up the drama. I had a few ideas but nothing had seemed right. With Emma’s post a lightbulb went on. She had nailed the problem.

So now I’m going through the first eleven chapters looking for bits that need to be woven into some other scene – character details, essential facts, a few lovely bits of description. The rest, I’m killing off. Rather invigorating I might add.

Thanks, Emma.

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 in paperback from Amazon and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

Reader Interview Series – Sue from East Anglia

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

Sue from East Anglia is the 9th interview in this reader series. I, for one, am enjoying hearing from readers about their personal preferences and backgrounds. Definitely an eclectic mix of viewpoints!

Tell us a little about yourself.   I am female, and 51 years of age.  My education has included studying for two history degrees and a postgraduate course in library and information studies. Now living in East Anglia, in England, I am a historical researcher and librarian (I do wear the spectacles, but don’t have the bun of the stereotype!).  Pastimes include walking in the countryside, visiting art galleries and museums, and making pasta.

Please tell us about your reading habits and preferences.    I’ve never actually counted the number of books I read per year, maybe I ought to start… It is usual for me to have several books on the go at once, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction and also a mix of print and e-book.  Although initially skeptical, I do enjoy reading my Kindle (which is especially convenient when travelling).

How do you decide which books to buy? What influences your purchases?    The cover of the book has to appeal to me and reading the publisher’s blurb will help with the decision when buying. Nowadays a tagline on an author’s website can also grab my attention, such as ‘two people who should never have met – not when she was born three hundred years after him’ (Anna Belfrage),  and ‘JF Penn – Thrillers on the edge’ . If I’ve read a book on the Kindle which I’ve particularly enjoyed, I will buy the print version.

What do you like about historical fiction? What don’t you like?    I enjoy being immersed in another world – set in time and place, believable characters, and a strong story. I’m not keen on the ‘alternate history’ subgenre of historical fiction.

What types of historical fiction do you prefer?    I thought I tended to gravitate towards the seventeenth century in historical fiction, though a quick analysis of a few favourite books shows a wider range (see below). From the examples below it also seems that I have predilection for novels set in the present and the past, which is quite a surprise. I prefer books which are set in a real place.

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

  • The Children’s Crusade by Henry Treece, which I loved as a child (13th century)
  • The Marsh King’s Daughter by Elizabeth Chadwick (13th century)
  • Possession by A.S. Byatt (Present/Victorian)
  • Earthly Joys by Philippa Gregory (17th century)
  • Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin (12th century)
  • A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin (Present/15th century)
  • Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott (Present/17th century)
  • Time’s Echo by Pamela Hartshorne (Present/16th century)

All the authors are great writers and storytellers.

In today’s world, there are so many opportunities to talk and learn about books – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, book clubscan you tell us about your experiences, where you go to talk or learn about books, why you enjoy discussions about books?    I haven’t ventured into the world of social media as yet, nor onto Goodreads. Though as a Historical Novel Society member, I rely on the society website, newsletter and quarterly magazine to learn about new historical fiction. Individual author blogs and websites, and other blogs such as http://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.co.uk/http://the-history-girls.blogspot.co.uk/ and http://writinghistoricalnovels.com/ now also feature in my reading habits.

What advice do you have for writers of historical fiction?    Not really advice – but I relish knowing what inspired the author to write about a particular subject.  I like to know which characters are based on real people and which are purely fictional. The inclusion of author’s notes, genealogies, maps, sources, timelines and even bibliographies are a definite bonus for me in a work of historical fiction. (I note that the majority of the books mentioned above do include author’s notes)

Is there anything else about reading historical fiction that you’d like to comment on?    Historical fiction (from both traditional and indie publishers) seems to be in a healthy position at the moment, long may it continue.

I agree, Sue. Long may it continue! And many thanks for adding your perspective to the mix.