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.


What keeps you turning the pages?

We all want to hear the response – “it was a real page-turner.” As readers, such an endorsement from friends and other sources offers a promise that a novel will be worth the time and effort invested. As writers, we love hearing from readers who describe our stories that way. And this writer, when hearing a book described as a page-turner wants also to understand what makes a book stand out in this fashion.

Often page-turners are plot-driven with fast pacing and lots of twists and turns and unexpected – though very satisfying – climaxes. In my recent reading, All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker and The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn fit this category. I could also mention The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah or Pompeii by Robert Harris.

Sometimes a page-turner contains characters whose worlds we eagerly inhabit and whose absence, when the story ends, create a great hole in our hearts. The Alice Network by Kate Quinn and Mary: Tudor Princess by Tony Riches come to mind. But I could equally mention The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick or Mary Called Magdalene by Margaret George or The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (even though the sequel was much less appealing), or The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner.

In my case, many are historical fiction 🙂

Some time ago, I wrote a few posts about Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers by James Hall. Hall itemizes twelve features of best-selling books. The first feature he calls “An Offer You Can’t Refuse”, which he further describes as a novel that:

  • entertains
  • engages readers in a compelling, simple and dramatic premise
  • offers an unfolding story with “one complication after another”
  • includes characters “of deep conviction and fervent, stubborn resolve, capable of passions that rise well beyond the normal range of human experience”
  • makes the story worth the readers’ time by forging a “powerful emotional bond … composed of one part pity, one part fear”
  • minimizes backstory
  • creates “some form of serious peril” very early on
  • enhances the tension with “the power of the ticking clock”.

You can read two other posts based on Hall’s book: More Features of Hit Lit and Hit Lit: The Final Six Features. I wrote them in 2012, no doubt full of deep intention to incorporate these features into my novels. But did I?

In the last six years, I’ve learned a lot about writing and had modest success. And yes, some readers have used the phrase page-turner to describes one or more of my novels. But, as Robert Frost is so often quoted: “These woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.”

I’d love to hear what keeps you turning the pages and novels that you’d describe that way.


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.


Hit Lit – the final six features

The first post in this series of three explored ‘tricks of the trade’ used by best-selling authors. The second post summarized five of James W. Hall’s twelve features from Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers.

This final post outlines Hall’s remaining six features.

Feature #7 – “Bumpkins versus Slickers”

In most bestsellers, there’s a central character who sets off on a journey that takes her from rustic America into turbulent urban landscapes … almost as often, the heroes of bestsellers make an exodus in the opposite direction

Hall and others refer to this as the hero’s journey, a structure that has worked in endless permutations to leverage the ageless clash between city and rural values.

Question: is feature #7 the commoner versus the nobility in historical fiction?

Feature #8 – “God Sells”

Our twelve bestsellers all feature religion in prominent ways, consistently critiquing orthodox religious practice and the dangers of zealotry.

The secular world is juxtaposed against religion that has gone astray and people who claim to adhere to religious values while clearly committing contrary acts. False piety, says Hall. Common sense struggles against religious conviction, science against faith. Langdon of Da Vince Code fame is an example – a man of science clashing with powerful religious leaders.

Question – does religion have such prominence in historical fiction?

Feature #9 – “Americans delight in reenactments of our national myths.”

The rise from humble roots to become rich and powerful. A character struggling against injustice and, finally, triumphing over oppression. And we are also grimly fascinated by the flip side of these stories.

Hall illustrates: Mitch McDeere’s belief in the American Dream (The Firm), Scout Finch’s triumph over racism (To Kill a Mockingbird), Scarlett O’Hara’s example of the virtue of hard work (Gone With the Wind), exposing injustice (The Da Vinci Code), the freedoms of American society clashing against communism (The Hunt for Red October).

Question – is there an equivalent to America’s national myths in historical fiction?

Feature #10 – Rebels, Loners, Misfits and Mavericks

The heroes and heroines … are all rebels, loners, misfits or mavericks. They don’t fit in worth a damn, and that’s one of the reasons we love them so much

Hall explains that the “tension between mavericks and conventionalists operates at the core of the biggest bestsellers”. Heroes of these novels reject conformity and convention. They are strongly individualistic.

Feature #11 – “Fractured Families”

In each of our twelve novels, a member of a broken family finds an ingenious way to transcend his or her crazy stress.

A few pages later Hall states that “twelve of the most successful novels in publishing history and not a traditional, fully functioning family among them, yet all our heroes and heroines find ways to make peace with their extreme losses”.

Perhaps these novels function partly as therapy for readers coping with their own family distress particularly at a time when the traditional family model is changing (some would say has changed).

Feature #12 – yes this is the last one – Sex

In every novel on our list, one key sexual encounter plays a decisive role in the outcome of the plot and in the transformation of the protagonist.

Scarlett’s sexual encounter with Rhett Butler. The false accusation of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird. Unresolved sexual tension between John Smith and his former girlfriend in The Dead Zone. Raunchy sex just before a woman is eaten by a shark in Jaws. Mitch McDeere’s infidelity on a deserted beach in The Firm.

The sexual language may be toned down to broaden the books’ mainstream appeal, but copulation, both violent and extreme, still plays a crucial role in the outcomes of these stories … somewhere in our national consciousness we know that one good roll in the hay can change everything.

So … there you have it, the twelve features of bestsellers according to James Hall’s analysis. By the way, he has one final ingredient to add – personal passion. “Without this one last ingredient, a novel might easily contain all the recurring features but still remain a lifeless pile of mush.” There’s still magic involved.

Feedback – what do you think? Do these twelve features resonate in the stories of your favourite historical fiction writers?