Why is setting important to historical fiction?

Why do we read? We read to gain knowledge, find advice and counsel, build self-awareness, develop motivation and strength, be entertained, create hope, seek escape or regeneration. We read to understand who we are and what we might become. We read to quiet our souls. We read to comprehend humanity, to build empathy for the experiences of others, to understand community and friendship, to appreciate how to live and die.

Pew Research Center poll asked readers what they like most about reading. In that poll, 26% mentioned learning, gaining knowledge and discovering information, 15% chose escaping reality, becoming immersed in another world, and the enjoyment of imagination. 12% read primarily for entertainment value including “the drama of good stories, the suspense of watching a good plot unfold.” Others mentioned relaxation, quiet, spiritual and personal enrichment, and expanding their world view.

So where then does setting come into play? A story will clang if the setting doesn’t ring true. You might argue that without an authentic and richly imagined historical setting, readers will have difficulty achieving any of the above objectives of fiction.

In three separate surveys of reading habits and preferences (check the Reader Surveys tab on this blog), the top three reasons for reading historical fiction are: (1) to bring the past to life, appreciating how people lived and coped in very different times, (2) because it’s a great story, and (3) to understand and learn about historical periods without reading non-fiction.

How can authors bring the past to life without exploring modes of travel, the circumstances of daily life, or the religious beliefs of the time? How can readers learn about a particular time period without seeing the characters of the novel confronting the conflicts and challenges of that era? How can a character’s emotions be relevant for today without appreciating the values and customs or the restrictions of yesterday?

Setting considers all of these and so much more. Without an authentic living and breathing setting, a work of historical fiction fails.

This is the second post on setting. The first post Tips on Setting in Historical Fiction can be found here. Next we explore the many ingredients of setting.

Your thoughts and reactions are welcome! Please use the comments to add to this discussion.

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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.

How reader surveys influenced my writing

Preferred-Story-TypesIn 2012 I wrote a post for Historical Tapestry on personal learnings from the first reader survey. Now, four years later and with three books published and three surveys behind me, it’s time to step back and reflect again.

So what am I doing differently in the areas of writing historical fiction? What you will see below are survey insights followed by actions I have taken. A second post will look at marketing and publicity.

Women read historical fiction at higher rates than men but 20th century stories are of greater interest to men than women. Women are quite clear about disliking violence:

  • Adjust the tone and balance of my stories to appeal to women.
  • Reduced the number of war scenes in Unravelled and Lies Told in Silence.
  • Reshaped the plot for Time and Regret.
  • Chose nineteenth century for my fourth novel.

Top three preferred historical fiction story types are (1) strong female characters, (2) adventure, and (3) a series with ongoing characters:

  • A fourth novel is underway that extends the stories of two female characters who appear in Lies Told in Silence; not quite a series but it extends the franchise of my first two novels.
  • Continue to write about strong female characters.

The top 20 or so favourite authors have been remarkably consistent across three surveys:

  • Read all of these authors. Analyze and learn from their styles.

Top three reasons to read HF are: to bring the past to life, appreciating how people lived and coped in very different times; because it’s a great story; to understand and learn about historical periods without reading non-fiction. A complementary finding is that favourite historical fiction must immerse readers in time and place while being superbly written:

  • Research more deeply for my novels so I can evoke the historical periods more effectively.
  • Create more time-appropriate dialogue.
  • Broaden the elements used in my novels to bring the past to life.

Readers love fictional characters within a backdrop of great historical events:

  • I had conceived a story based on the life of a relatively famous woman but have abandoned it in favour of a story set in 1870 Paris, a time of great turmoil and conflict.

A final thought—wise people suggest that authors should write what appeals to them rather than attempting to write for the market. In my case, I’ve tweaked what I write with an eye to the market, which I believe is different from writing for the market.

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, TIME AND REGRET will be published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. 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.