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.

FOR MORE ON INSIDE 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.

Books, books, books

After conducting the historical fiction survey and discovering a bunch of favourite authors, I decided that I should read as many of them as possible – not all their work but at least one book each. In some cases – Philippa Gregory is an example – I had already experienced the author but others, like CW Gortner or Deanna Raybourn, were unknown to me. So here’s my progress on the top 40, by the way, I’m concentrating on living authors.

READ OR READING

  • Sharon Kay Penman – Time and Chance
  • Philippa Gregory – the latest was Fallen Skies (an early work set in post-WWI times)
  • Elizabeth Chadwick – The Running Vixen
  • Bernard Cornwell – Sword Song
  • Ken Follett – Fall of Giants
  • CW Gortner – The Last Queen and The Queen’s Vow
  • Michelle Moran – Cleopatra’s Daughter
  • Susan Higginbotham – Traitor’s Wife
  • Helen Hollick – Forever Queen
  • Anne Perry – The Sheen on the Silk
  • Geraldine Brooks – People of the Book
  • Jacqueline Winspear – Maisie Dobbs
  • Deanna Raybourn – Silent in the Sanctuary and Silent in the Grave

TO BE READ

  • Diana Gabaldon – one of her Lord John Grey series (since I’ve read almost all of Outlander)
  • Alison Weir – Mistress of the Monarchy (a new author for me)
  • Margaret George – Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles (such a tragic figure)
  • CJ Sansom – Heartstone (one of his Matthew Shardlake series)
  • Tracy Chevalier – The Virgin Blue (interweaving present and past)
  • Hilary Mantel – Bring up the Bodies (completing the Wolf Hall story)
  • Sarah Dunant – Sacred Hearts (set in a 16th Italian convent)
  • Colleen McCullough – The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet (haven’t read this Australian author since The Thorn Birds)
  • Lindsey Davis – The Course of Honour (another new author)
  • Edward Rutherfurd – Dublin (who can resist Dublin?)
  • Sarah Waters – The Night Watch (WWII is up my alley)
  • Jean Auel – I’ve read them all (no pun intended)
  • John Jakes – On Secret Service (because I enjoy spies)

I have my work cut out for me. I’ll be trying to figure out what makes them such favourites.

PS – I’ve also read The Mathematics of Love by Emma Darwin, Fire in the East by Harry Sidebottom and The King’s Daughter by Barbara Kyle.

HNS London 2012 – an update

The cold struck on Friday, September 21st. “Shit,” I muttered while staring at my laptop but then, in what I like to think of as my ‘cup half full’ approach to life, I told myself it would be over in a week, hardly likely to affect my attendance at the Historical Novel Society conference in London. Might need some cough lozenges and hand sanitizer – the lozenges so I could listen and talk without too much hacking, the hand sanitizer so I wouldn’t infect any fellow writers, members of the publishing industry or historical fiction enthusiasts.

I was, as some of you readers might recall, scheduled to talk about the historical fiction survey at the conference.

The flu struck on Tuesday, September 25th. I spent most of that day and all day Wednesday dozing on and off, eating nothing and, on the advice of Jenny Barden (Conference Coordinator and programme director) and my mother, drinking hot water infused with lemon and honey. To no avail.

On Thursday morning, I admitted defeat. This gal was not going to fly across the Atlantic Thursday night, I could barely think straight or keep anything down let alone pack, get myself to the airport and endure ten or more hours of travel. Jenny was amazing. My fellow panelists, Justin Neville, Emma Darwin and Harry Sidebottom, agreed to look after the session and I returned to bed. This ranks as my biggest disappointment of 2012.

But that’s not the end of the story.

In the tradition of compelling historical fiction, where disaster strikes from unexpected quarters, knights in shining armour ride to the rescue and princesses remain the hidden power, the following unfolded.

  • I sent my speaking notes to Justin but given the feeble state of my brain, did not copy Emma, Harry or Jenny.
  • Saturday morning, Justin was in a car accident on the way to the conference. Very good news – Justin was not hurt.
  • Harry brought an earlier version of my agenda to the breakout session.
  • Emma brought a copy of my survey results.
  • Emma and Harry carried the day – or as Emma said, “we busked it”.

Drama and serendipity – a noteworthy combination. I offer grateful thanks to all involved.