10 Books to Recommend

A Writer of History is NOT a book blog – however, I have written reviews from time to time on books I’ve chosen to read or books selected by one of my book clubs. Below are ten to recommend with links to each more detailed review.

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate – I powered through this novel in two and a half very satisfying days. The story is “based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals—in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country.”

Educated by Tara Westover – Book club unanimously endorsed Tara Westover’s well-received novel of growing up in a survivalist Mormon home in the hills of Idaho.The words used to describe it included: compelling, horrifying, unbelievable, shocking, inspiring, and head shaking.

Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan – author Patti Callahan has written a poignant and clear-eyed story about these two well-known writers and I had the pleasure of reading the novel for an article published by the Historical Novel Society.

The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin – This compelling look at two famous women – actor Mary Pickford and screenwriter Frances Marion – entertains and informs while transporting readers to the magical kingdom of the movie industry. Highly recommended.

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng – the verdict at book club was resoundingly in favour of this powerful novel of memory and forgetting, war and peace, love and hate, which was nominated for the Man Booker prize.

The Splendor Before the Dark by Margaret George On every dimension – superb writing, feeling immersed in time and place, characters both heroic and human, authenticity, and compelling plot – The Splendor Before the Dark is a winner.

My Dear Hamilton by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie Beginning in 1777 with a victory against the British at Saratoga, My Dear Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton through the eyes of his wife Eliza. Superb historical fiction.

Mary – Tudor Princess by Tony Riches – I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Mary Tudor, sister to Henry VIII. The history is fascinating and Tony’s superb writing brings Mary’s character to life with a strong and sympathetic voice.

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson – This work of non-fiction “chronicles a glorious English summer a century ago when the world was on the cusp of irrevocable change … That summer of 1911 a new king was crowned and the aristocracy was at play, bounding from one house party to the next. But perfection was not for all. Cracks in the social fabric were showing.”

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn – In the two years since reading The Alice Network, I’ve recommended it to dozens of people. Why? Because it grabbed me from the very start and wouldn’t let go. And what special ingredients does it have? Flawed, heroic, and intriguing characters – check. Tension that builds and builds – check. A superb sense of history and setting – check. Strong writing – check. An immersive experience – check. A flawless weaving of two timelines – check. What more could you ask for?

I hope some of these add to your reading piles! If you have feedback on any of them, please add your voice to the comments.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

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.

The State of Historical Fiction #HNS2019

Elizabeth Mahon author of Scandalous Women moderated a lively discussion with this year’s agents and editors panel on the state of historical fiction in the marketplace. The conference was wonderful!! I wrote furiously to capture their insights and advice.

Photo courtesy of Janna G. Noelle historical fiction author

On the topic of whether this is a golden age for historical fiction (see this NYTimes article for reference), one panel member reflected on readers’ desires to look back at earlier times to gain an understanding of today’s cultural and political difficulties. Others spoke of growing interest in hearing from voices across the spectrum, seeking to appreciate experiences of previously marginalized groups, and of a desire to read about extraordinary women in extraordinary times, particularly in light of the #metoo movement.

Diversity in historical fiction was another topic. Agents and editors spoke of their desire to discover stories reflecting the trauma, accomplishments, and joys of different groups and countries. With publishing still being “monolithically white”, there is a feeling that the industry—agents, publishers, retailers, and readers—needs to be more proactive about finding these stories and fighting the view that such stories serve niche markets.

On manuscript wish lists, #MSWL, the advice for authors is that it’s hard to pivot based on today’s wish lists because it takes so long to complete a novel. While authors should be aware of market interests and successes, authors should still be guided by their passions. One editor commented that she “doesn’t know what she wants” until she sees it. Another said that themes are important and often transcend specific wish lists.

On the topic of book club fiction, panel members said that personal transformation is an important ingredient and that sisterhood—both narrow and broad definitions of sisterhood—is a topic of interest. Book club selections need to be thought provoking and capable of generating discussion and of attracting as wide an audience as possible.

What are the biggest mistakes new historical fiction authors make?

  • Providing an info-dump of all the wonderful historical research at the beginning of a novel.
  • Building characters with modern sensibilities, instead of the sensibilities of their time, immediately signals a problem.

Elizabeth asked each panel member to provide a recent novel that stood out. My TBR pile will soon reach the ceiling if I add all these to it!

  • Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  • The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
  • The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati
  • Lady Sherlock books by Sherry Thomas
  • Summer Country by Lauren Willig
  • Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly
  • A Memory of Violets by Hazel Gaynor
  • The Alienist by Caleb Carr
  • A Fire Sparkling by Julianne MacLean
  • Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  • Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Elizabeth Mahon opened the session up to questions:

How has the changed bookstore landscape affected business? Discoverability has changed as a result. Social media plays a much more prominent role and publishers are targeting influencers on various platforms. The new landscape expands the “democracy of readership” and changes the word-of-mouth dynamic.

When will the interest in WWII end? The opinion of one panel member was that it will never end, especially the unique stories, fresh perspectives, and unique characters of WWII. For example, stories of the Pacific front have not been well explored. The panel reassured authors that they continue to look at other periods as well.

What periods are a hard sell? One panel member said that ancient history is difficult to sell, another added that stories beyond 500 years ago are difficult. A third said that the Tudor period is saturated. And a fourth said that in the early 2000s, there was an interest in biographical fiction, but that today the interest is more about extraordinary people in extraordinary times.

What about male protagonists? Panel members reflected that readership of historical fiction skews female and that women’s stories are more revelatory given today’s world (by which I think she was referring to issues dominating the media like #metoo, abortion and others). Editors are always open to great stories with male characters.

I hope these highlights are useful!

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. 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.

American Princess by Stephanie Thornton

While researching for one of my own novels, I came across a fascinating journal written by Alice Roosevelt during a lengthy trip to Asia. Now there’s an idea for a novel, I thought.

Stephanie Thornton must have had a similar experience! She’s here today talking about her upcoming novel American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt. Alice is an intriguing, forceful, and beautiful woman … exactly what a writer wants for their heroine.

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The goal of any good book is to transport its reader into another world, be it Middle Earth, Green Gables, or down the rabbit hole. When it comes to historical fiction, a book becomes a time machine (I prefer a TARDIS) that whisks its reader into the past to watch a bloody gladiatorial fight in the Colosseum, dance a brisk galliard with King Henry VIII (just don’t marry him!), or slog through the muddy trenches of Verdun.

In American Princess, I hope to make the not-so-distant 20thcentury come alive, as seen through the keen eyes of Theodore Roosevelt’s wildchild daughter, Alice Roosevelt.

My favorite revision of any novel is when I add in all the fun little historical details that really transform an era from shades of gray into vivid Technicolor. (I wait until nearly my last revision to add most of those, once the story is set and I’m fairly certain scenes aren’t going to get slashed.) For example, many people know that Theodore Roosevelt once quipped, “I can either run the country or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both.” He said that to his writer friend Owen Wister—who actually dedicated a western novel to the president—after Alice burst in and interrupted their conversation for the umpteenth time that day. For added fun in that scene, I pulled in mention of her younger brothers pounding on stilts down the hallway outside the White House’s presidential study (the Oval Office hadn’t been built yet) and included one of the Roosevelt family dogs, a yappy little terrier named Skip.

Source: Alice in Asia – the 1905 Taft Mission to Asia

One of my favorite distractions while writing is researching exactly what life would have been like for my characters. For turn-of-the-century America, that often meant looking up menus and digging through grainy black-and-white pictures in online archives so I could add verisimilitude to every scene. When Alice complains of her debut’s flat lemon punch or writes home about the gold filigreed fingernail sheaths she received from China’s Empress Dowager Cixi (which she later turned into a brooch), it’s because those were real things she experienced!

I was also fortunate to visit Alice’s childhood home at Sagamore Hill, to hear from National Park rangers about how the energetic family used the main hall’s fireplace as a spot to store their tennis rackets and how the children used to play hide-and-seek in the massive bathtub upstairs, which they aptly dubbed the Sarcophagus. In addition, the Library of Congress also allowed me to peruse many of Alice’s letters and diaries, plus one of Theodore Roosevelt’s famed doodle letters to his daughter. (They actually let me hold them with my bare hands!) It’s my hope that walking where Alice walked and seeing what she would have seen, plus reading her actual words has helped me capture what it was like to be her so I could pass that on to my readers.

A brief excerpt:

I ran an admiring hand over the car’s sleek twelve-horsepower wagonette body, rimmed by cherry-red wheels that begged to race. The speed gauge inside went all the way to a jaw-dropping fifty miles an hour, which promised an exciting caper from the train’s plodding pace. Plus, a news story covering my driving escapades might put to rest Father and Mother’s hysterics over those same papers reporting my five recent engagements. (Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst’s assertion that my suitors were as numerous as Penelope’s wooers from The Odyssey made me want to retch; I didn’t even know one of the men the papers claimed as my fiancé, and others speculated I might end up with cousin Franklin. I’d sooner have had all my fingernails pulled off and fed to me.)

Many thanks, Stephanie. I’m sure readers will be thrilled with American Princess.

American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt by Stephanie Thornton … releasing March 2019

Alice may be the president’s daughter, but she’s nobody’s darling. As bold as her signature color Alice Blue, the gum-chewing, cigarette-smoking, poker-playing First Daughter discovers that the only way for a woman to stand out in Washington is to make waves–oceans of them. With the canny sophistication of the savviest politician on the Hill, Alice uses her celebrity to her advantage, testing the limits of her power and the seductive thrill of political entanglements.

But Washington, DC is rife with heartaches and betrayals, and when Alice falls hard for a smooth-talking congressman it will take everything this rebel has to emerge triumphant and claim her place as an American icon. As Alice soldiers through the devastation of two world wars and brazens out a cutting feud with her famous Roosevelt cousins, it’s no wonder everyone in the capital refers to her as the Other Washington Monument–and Alice intends to outlast them all.

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. 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.