Top Ten Ingredients of Favourite Historical fiction

In his book Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers, James W. Hall sets out twelve ingredients that drive bestsellers to the top of the charts. I’ve written about Hit Lit in three separate posts: Thoughts from Hit Lit, More Features of Hit Lit, and Hit Lit – the Final Six Features. According to Hall, best sellers incorporate the following: (1) an offer you can’t refuse, (2) controversy of the day, (3) colossal characters doing magnificent things on a sweeping stage, (4) America as paradise, (5) an abundance of facts and information, (6) inner workings of a secret society, (7) bumpkins versus city slickers, (8) God sells, (9) re-enactment of American national myths, (10) rebels, loners, misfits and mavericks, (11) fractured families and (12) sex.

Do the same ingredients apply to historical fiction? This is the question I’ve been deliberating for the last two weeks and I have some preliminary thoughts. I would be grateful for your feedback.

To come up with this list, I’ve analyzed interviews with top historical fiction authors (my own and others) and looked at reviews of their works in a number of forums. I’ve also looked for materials discussing the ‘popularity of historical fiction’. The survey I conducted last spring showed that the top three reasons people read historical fiction are to bring the past to life, to enjoy a great story and to understand and learn. Not surprisingly, these reasons are reflected in the ingredients that distinguish favourite authors and best selling historical fiction.

My analysis suggests the following critical ingredients.

  1. Superb writing. Similar to Hall’s first feature – an offer you can’t refuse – this ingredient covers prose, pacing, emotional resonance, plot twists and entertainment value. Table stakes for high quality fiction of any genre.
  2. Dramatic arc of historical events. In essence, successful authors are masters at finding and selecting what Hilary Mantel calls ‘the dramatic shape in real events’.
  3. Characters both heroic and human. Readers want to experience famous figures as believable characters complete with doubts and flaws. Readers also seek stories showing every day people accomplishing heroic tasks in times so different from today.
  4. Immersed in time and place. Activating all senses, authors like Sharon Kay Penman, Bernard Cornwell, Margaret George and others transport readers to another era from the very first paragraphs of their novels.
  5. Corridors of power. Whether ancient Rome, Tudor England or the American Civil War, best selling novels expose the structure, corruption and machinations of monarchy, military, religion, law, nobility, and upper-class society.
  6. Authentic and educational. Readers love to learn. The hallmark of a top historical fiction author is meticulous research followed by carefully chosen information to create a seamless blend of history and story.
  7. Ageless themes. Instead of Hall’s ‘controversy of the day’, favourite historical fiction dramatizes thought-provoking themes that are as important today as they were long ago.
  8. High stakes. Life, kingdoms, epic battles, fortunes, marriage, family. In historical fiction, characters risk on a grand scale.
  9. Sex and love. Men and women from long ago rarely chose their partners. Love was often thwarted. Women were pawns. Favourite authors incorporate this type of conflict. In addition, sex is frequently depicted as a turning point in the lives of heroes and heroines.
  10. Dysfunctional families. Kings beheading their queens, brothers killing brothers, daughters betrothed at the age of six, incest, rivalry between father and son, wives banished or locked away – merely a few examples of dysfunctional family life that are the subjects of successful historical fiction.

So … that’s my take at the top ten ingredients of favourite historical fiction authors. As mentioned above, I would truly appreciate your thoughts.

Insights from Hit Lit .. and author James W. Hall

What writer could resist the title: Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers?

Having just finished this book, I’d like to share a few notable insights. Bear with me as this will likely require more than one post.

Here’s the first quote, one that James Hall includes from another author, Michael Korda who has written about American bestsellers.

At least half the books on any given week’s bestseller list are there to the immense surprise and puzzlement of their publishers … That’s why publishers find it so hard to repeat their successes – half the time they can’t figure out how they happened in the first place.

Aha … perhaps this is why my agent and I are having trouble finding a publisher for my novels!

Hall organizes his book to reveal twelve features of hit lit. The first feature is “An Offer You Can’t Refuse” – essentially tricks of the trade that make a story so compelling the reader can’t put it down. What are these tricks?

A novel must:

  • entertain
  • engage readers in a compelling, simple and dramatic premise
  • offer an unfolding story with “one complication after another”
  • include characters “of deep conviction and fervent, stubborn resolve, capable of passions that rise well beyond the normal range of human experience”
  • make the story worth the readers’ time by forging a “powerful emotional bond … composed of one part pity, one part fear”
  • minimize backstory
  • create “some form of serious peril” very early on
  • enhance the tension with “the power of the ticking clock”

Feedback: what historical fiction authors or novels do you think follow these tricks of the trade?

Next post … a few more of the twelve features.