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.


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 Writer’s Toolbox

Best-selling author Kate Forsyth is conducting a workshop at the next Historical Novel Society Conference which takes place in June 2017 in Portland Oregon. I asked Kate to give a description of the workshop and it sounds fabulous. If you aren’t already signed up for the conference, please consider it! A great place to mingle with readers, bloggers and authors in the historical fiction community …. and you can sign up for Kate’s workshop as well.

THE WRITER’S TOOLBOX – a workshop with author Kate Forsyth

Writing is an art, and therefore mysterious and intuitive. But it is also a craft, like building a cathedral or weaving a tapestry. And just like any other craftsperson, a writer must acquire the tools of their trade.

Learning how to best use these tools is part of the writer’s journey towards mastery … and it does not matter how long you’ve been writing or how many stories you’ve created. There is always something new to be discovered (and sometimes re-discovered).

I have written more than forty books, of all shapes and sizes, and every single one has thrown up new problems to be solved and required new skills to be learned. And, of course, what can be learned can also be taught. I love teaching creative writing; I love seeing that moment of epiphany on someone’s face when something that had been incomprehensible suddenly becomes pellucid.

I have taught barefoot children in schools with dirt floors and lectured to academics from all over the world at Oxford University. I have run writing retreats in Fiji, Greece and the Cotswolds, and given masterclasses from Aberystwyth to Alice Springs, Chicago to Chichester, Singapore to the Scottish Borders. In Australia, my home country, my workshops have been known to book out in minutes.

Yet every single workshop I teach will be different. Until I meet the people who have come to spend one hour or one day or a week of their lives with me, I will not know what it is that they need. Often they do not know themselves.

How to create characters that seem alive. How to spin a story that is so riveting, so compelling, that the reader becomes addicted to it, unable to stop turning the pages, wishing it would never end. How to still the shrill voices in your head and find that place of intense and single-minded focus. How to control your reader’s physiological reactions to your story, so that their heartbeat quickens and the hairs stand up on their skin.

Words are nothing more but black marks on white paper, and yet they have the power to enchant, seduce, anger, disgust, and reduce to tears. Margaret Atwood said ‘a word after a word after a word is power.’

So find your hammer and chisel, sharpen your axe and your auger, lay out your squares and templates, and prepare to learn how to design the architecture of your own imaginary cathedral.

Many thanks for telling us about it, Kate!

You can discover more about the conference by clicking this link.

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 was 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.

Inside Historical Fiction with David Blixt

David Blixt is an actor, author, director and swordsman – yes, you read that correctly, he instructs and demonstrates the art of sword fighting and did so to great effect at the Historical Novel Society conference last June. David was also kind enough to answer some questions for me as I prepared for a panel presentation at that same conference. Today, he’s answering questions about the unique ingredients and challenges of historical fiction.

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable or irresistible to readers?

The first is Character. Any story worth telling begins and ends with the people, how they live and breathe and react. Characters in a historical setting give us a sense of continuity, a link to past times. They’re also a Memento Mori, a reminder that the dry pages of history are filled with the deeds of real living people, and that someday we, too, will be the minor details in some text – unless someone chooses to bring us to life in fiction.

The second is Detail. The small things, the pieces of history that either are utterly foreign to us, or else something that we take for granted today that was new and innovative a thousand years ago.

What techniques do you employ to create that magic?

Detail is easiest – research. The little snippets excite and intrigue me. Where does the phrase “at Death’s door” come from? Oh, in Italy in the Middle Ages, the living and the dead were not allowed to use the same portals, so there was a literal death-door, just waist high, in every home for when someone died. Things like that.

Character is really at the core of all fiction. I’m lucky to come at it from a theatrical world. In Shakespeare, motive matters, but actions define a character. They are what they do, regardless of their intent. Characters should also be conflicted, a mass of contradictions. And they’re each the heroes of their own story. No one considers himself to be a side-plot or a villain. Every man and woman in my work is the most important player in their own story. It’s just that their stories are not always mine.

How are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels?

Because we already know the signposts of history, we get to focus more on the journey than the destination.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novels?

Philosophy, food, clothes, religion, literature – but mostly the changing mores. I am attracted to small revolutions, the moments where history shifted seismically, even if those alive in the moment couldn’t feel more than a tremor.

In writing historical fiction, what techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

Dialogue is toughest. I try not to be too modern, but I eschew “old-timey” speak. I focus on class and setting. I’ve been hit for sounding a little too modern, but only when writing for characters who were “modern” for their era. Conflict, plot, and setting all feel natural when steeped in the research.

As for characters – you have to keep reminding yourself that these are not modern people. They cannot have cosmopolitan, enlightened reactions. And then you look around today and see some folks behaving as badly as can be imagined, and you realize there’s room for both enlightenment and ignorance in the past as well.

Most important, they have to be genuine, they must have all the humanness we see today. Faults are wonderful attributes, much more defining than strengths. So I give them faults, and then let them struggle against those faults. Sometimes they succeed. Most often not.

Can you share any of the unique sources or challenges for the time period(s) you write about?

For the Verona books, there aren’t many sources, and most what there are is in a medieval Italian I cannot parse. So I’m constantly finding information sideways – who was near Verona that might mention Cangrande, or Dante, or Mastino? When was this building erected, and why? There was nearly as much in the history of Padua as there is in the history of Verona.

But the best sources are the locals. I was honored to meet Dante’s descendent, the Count Serego-Alighieri, on my second visit to Verona, and he gave me a wealth of information about the family. I was able to tour the Roman ruins beneath the city. I was given a tour of mostly unknown historical sites by the film-maker Anna Lerario, places I’d never imagined, but that instantly because the settings for scenes. The joy is in the research, and the research cannot be limited to the page. Smells, sounds, tastes, sights, and the grit beneath your fingers all bring a story to life.

What do you do to ensure your characters are fully imagined in the historical context?

I try and throw as many historical obstacles in their paths, both literal and metaphorical. I want strictures, I want rules, I want something to either conform to or rebel against. Laws are marvelous, the more arcane the better.

Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how?

Dorothy Dunnett more than any other. I didn’t know I wanted to write historical fiction until I read the Lymond books. It was as though she gave me permission. “Oh! You mean a story can be smart, deep, awful, infuriating, rich, and wonderful, all without pandering or talking down to your audience? Sign me up!”

The first historical novels I ever read were Colleen McCullough’s MASTERS OF ROME books, and they have shaped my life in so many ways. I was later introduced to Sharpe, then Aubrey and Maturin, and more. I’m honored to call Sharon Kay Penman my friend, and I love rubbing shoulders with Chris Gortner, Margaret George, Diana Gabaldon and so many others. The sad thing for me is that I read far less today than I used to – too busy writing.

Many thanks, David. Your responses are unique and enlightening.

The Prince's Doom by David BlixtTHE PRINCE’S DOOM by David Blixt:

Finalist for the 2015 M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction

The explosive fourth novel in the Star-Cross’d series! Verona has won its war with Padua, but lost its war with the stars. The young prodigy Cesco now turns his troubled brilliance to darker purposes, embracing a riotous life, challenging not only the lord of Verona and the Church, but the stars themselves.

Trying desperately to salvage what’s left of Cesco’s spirit, Ser Pietro Alaghieri for once welcomes the many plots and intrigues of the Veronese court, hoping they will shake the young man back to his senses.

But when the first body falls, it becomes clear that this new game is deadly, and will lead only to doom 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 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.