Sarah Johnson on Current trends in Historical Fiction

Sarah Johnson is a long time blogger and book reviewer at Reading the Past. Her blog was chosen as one of the favourite historical fiction blogs. In 2012, I asked Sarah if she would help me get the word out about a reader survey designed to understand why people read historical fiction. We’ve been friends ever since.

Sarah has graciously agreed to give us an update on trends in historical fiction.

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Thanks to M. K. (Mary) Tod for giving me the opportunity to revisit the topic of current trends in historical fiction.  It’s amusing to read the answer I provided to her interview question back in 2012, when the Tudors’ popularity was fading, Titanic fiction was hot, and World War II was the newest big thing. 

As fans of the genre know, WWII settings and themes are still very much with us. For some readers, the timeframe is fertile ground for bringing forth undiscovered stories, while for readers and authors anxious to move on to something new, WWII feels like a persistent houseguest they’d like to nudge out the door but can’t.  

Based on agents’ comments at the 2021 Historical Novel Society conference and publishing deals I’ve seen in Publishers Marketplace, WWII will be sticking around for a while. Many authors are keeping the setting exciting by focusing on characters, stories, events, and parts of the world that haven’t received adequate attention in fiction.  Examples include Hazel Gaynor’s When We Were Young and Brave (US/Canadian title) / The Bird in the Bamboo Cage, centered on students and teachers at a British-run missionary school in 1941 China, and Kaia Alderson’s Sisters in Arms, about the accomplished Black American women serving overseas with the the Six Triple Eight battalion of the Women’s Army Corps. 

At the same time, I’m seeing many stories with familiar plots, such as a younger woman discovering her grandmother’s WWII diary, told in both timelines. Although I’ve always enjoyed this trope, it has gotten repetitive. Also, Holocaust novels in which authors haven’t done adequate research (or which include the heroine’s romance with a Nazi officer) make me cringe.

Image from Good Housekeeping magazine

Moving on, and forward: the 20th century as a whole is still extremely popular, up to and including the early 1970s, if we use the fifty-years-in-the-past guideline for defining what’s historical fiction. I’m looking forward to reading Emma Brodie’s Songs in Ursa Major, about a couple in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s folk music scene (and I dig its retro cover). There are others that look nostalgically back on music at the time, and some that examine the trauma of Vietnam either there or back home. Real-life 20th-century women with little-known stories have a strong pull.  Especially those about spies or women with other heroic accomplishments. 

Back in 2012, I’d written: “Multi-time novels are popular, as these books appeal to readers of both contemporary and historical fiction.” This is still very much true. With novels incorporating parallel narratives, the later timeline is usually present-day, but it doesn’t have to be. While WWII is a common setting for the earlier thread, some authors juxtapose a modern setting against one that’s set much further back in time.  Examples include Melodie Winawer’s upcoming Anticipation, a time-slip novel set partly in 13th-century Mystras, Greece, and Laura Morelli’s bestselling The Stolen Lady, focusing on the Mona Lisa and shifting between WWII France and Leonardo da Vinci’s Florence. For mainstream publishers, medieval and Renaissance settings may not be trending these days (alas), but by adding a second thread in a more familiar era, authors can get around these constraints, and readers can too.

As a librarian, I’m thrilled that historical novels about librarians and booksellers are thriving. The stereotype of the mousy, reclusive librarian is passé; instead, we have novels emphasizing the value of books and reading in difficult times, and librarians depicted as the saviors of the written word.  Three of my favorites include Janie Chang’s The Library of Legends, set in 1930s China; Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray’s The Personal Librarian, about Belle da Costa Greene at the Morgan Library; and Madeline Martin’s The Last Bookshop in London, set during the Blitz.

Madeline Miller’s Circe spurred a trend about female-oriented retellings of Greek myths. Ancient stories have been interpreted over and over throughout history, and looking at them from a female viewpoint provides fresh insight.  See: Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and its sequel The Women of Troy; Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne and Zenobia Neil’s Ariadne Unraveled; and Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships, to name a few. According to The Bookseller, Costanza Casati’s novel about Clytemnestra, sister of Helen of Troy, will be out in 2023, and Jennifer Saint’s second novel, Elektra, taking its title from the name of Clytemnestra’s youngest daughter, will appear in 2022.

Myths aren’t the only familiar stories getting a reboot: classic novels are as well. Jillian Cantor’s Beautiful Little Fools revisits the women from The Great Gatsby, and Publishers Marketplace just reported a deal for E. C. France’s Daughter Dalloway, retelling Virginia Woolf’s classic from the perspective of the title character’s daughter.

Another noteworthy trend: orphans. Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train may have started this off. These tend to be heartwarming stories about children escaping hard times.  I collected many of these books in a post on my blog last year, and more have appeared since, including Dianna Rostad’s You Belong Here Now, about a trio of orphans heading west to Montana via train in the early 20th century.

Finally, it’s worth remarking on two recent developments with historical fiction that I’ve heard described as trends, although this isn’t technically correct. Rather, these are directions that are here to stay. Authors from underrepresented groups are finally gaining more opportunities to tell their own stories and to write about historical characters who share their identities.  In addition, indie publishing is hardly a passing fad. The industry’s decisions on what they perceive to be the most commercially viable historical settings are causing many authors – including those with previous success in mainstream publishing – to go indie.  Both of these directions should be embraced by readers, since they’re necessary for the genre to stay relevant, diverse, and vibrant.

Wow, Sarah. Thank you for this fascinating perspective. I think my next novel will be a dual timeline, featuring WWII orphans in one timeline (one of whom is a librarian), and mythological characters in the other! Just kidding. To be serious, I truly appreciate your insights and I know I speak for many in our appreciation for your dedication to historical fiction and to the Historical Novel Society.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Looking back – and looking forward

Something seems to be happening at A Writer of History. Let me explain. Attracting followers is a slow process. For the longest time, you think no one is interested – or maybe that’s just my own insecurity talking. However, during the past year, new followers have emerged at a higher pace than ever before and the number of daily views is also up. Hmmm.

So … I thought new viewers (as well as those of long standing) might be interested in some of the most popular posts from the past. Today I’m sharing posts from 2012 that attracted a lot of attention. I’ll look at other years over the next week or so and perhaps ultimately create a dedicated page for them.

From the World of Historical Fiction – Readers Share Their Perspectives (2012) … a link to the 2012 reader survey.

Historical Fiction Would Be Better If … 588 readers responded with enthusiasm to the question “what detracts from your enjoyment of historical fiction”

Top Historical Fiction Authors – 2012 Survey Results … 602 survey participants provided their favourite historical fiction authors in the 2012 reader survey. Most of those nominated in 2012 were also on the surveys conducted in 2013 and 2015.

Historical Fiction – Four Top Book Blogs … readers selected their favourite historical fiction blogs/sites. Three of the top four from 2012 are all still going strong.

I interviewed owners/bloggers from each top site. Richard Lee’s interview from the Historical Novel Society captured a lot of attention.

Insights from Hit Lit and Author James W. Hall … I read Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers looking for insights. This is the first of three posts about the book. More Features of Hit Lit is the second post and Hit Lit – the final six features is the third.

Top Ten Ingredients of Historical Fiction … Having read Hit Lit, I then analyzed interviews with and reviews of top historical fiction authors, looked at articles on the ‘popularity of historical fiction’, and the top three reasons people read historical fiction from the 2012 reader survey. I pulled these together into the top ten ingredients.

As always, I welcome your feedback. In terms of looking forward, I want a new theme for A Writer of History and hope that looking back will help.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. 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 www.mktod.com.

 

Favourite Reading Sites come in all flavours

I reported on the favourite reading oriented sites in the middle of February. Today’s post looks at the list of sites by category: reading sites, social media, retailers, blogs dedicated to historical fiction, genre sites, general book review blogs, author sites, industry sites and so on. The variety of this ‘reading ecosystem’ is phenomenal.

With my friend Excel at my side, I’ve gone through all named sites (696 in total) and classified them. Admittedly, this is my own classification scheme but I think it has merit.

As you can see in the All blogs category, blogs are a favourite vehicle to share book reviews and other book related information. Count refers to the number of different sites mentioned while Impact is the total mentions for that category. For example, a blog like Reading the Past is only counted once in the Count column, but given that 47 people included it as a favourite, 47 is added into the Impact total.

Favourite reading sites (1)

In the next group, we can see the role retailers play. Amazon accounts for 306 of the 419 Impact total.

Favourite sites (2)

A final group includes social media and reading sites like Goodreads. If we group reading sites with social media, the total impact score is 1768.

Favourite sites (3)

After cleansing the data as much as I could, 696 different sites remained of which 500 were mentioned by only one person. In 106 cases, the survey participant was insufficiently specific for me to categorize his or her entry.

What’s of most interest to me is YOUR thoughts on what all this means for readers and writers.