Historical Fiction – readers have their say

source: clipartbest.com
source: clipartbest.com

You, dear readers, have been patient with the charts and numbers I’ve thrown at you from last year’s survey. Who knows, some of you may even have changed the way you market your novels or the novels themselves as a result of insights from the data.

As 2014 closes, I thought you might be interested in what readers had to say when asked the following question: Reflecting on your favourite historical fiction books, how relatively important are the following factors? That question was followed by ten factors from ‘feeling immersed in time and place’ to ‘romance and/or sex’. And a space for write in comments.

Let’s hear from readers directly. I’ve picked a range of responses I found interesting. At some point I can create a graph organized by topics mentioned.

If the story moves me that is what is really the most important. I have to be drawn in, to be swept back in time and into this world created by the author. I do strongly prefer that the historical elements be researched and as authentic as possible without detracting from the story (it is fiction after all).


I loathe anachronistic details like names that were not commonly used in that era, or anyone saying ‘okay’.


I love to be swept up in a good story. A historical setting just makes it even more of an escape.


I read for entertainment mostly, so I can be forgiving of minor issues. I prefer stories with humor to balance the drama, and a good sense of setting and detail. It’s nice to learn something from HF but when I want just the facts I read non-fiction.


Modern mindsets and values placed in historical fiction is a major fault with some writers.


I prefer historical authors who can both be relatively accurate but also weave together compelling stories. Blatant anachronism bothers me. I won’t stick with a book if I’m not completely immersed in it.


I want to care about the characters. I also want to feel the author has done their homework. I want to trust that the information I’m given is true and correct.


Historical accuracy is very important to me. Poor research is the main reason why I stop reading a book or decide to avoid an author.


I enjoy a story that takes me out of my own life for a period of time. I want to laugh, cry and see characters who are real people not larger than life characters who are too perfect or too faulty for me to identify with. I want heroes who fall down and heroines who love them when they do.


I want a good, thumping read where I can’t put the book down.


Lately, a lot of historical fiction has turned into a sexy soap opera. This takes away from the serious events and often times puts the focus of an era or a family onto bickering wives and affairs rather than on those who changed a significant aspect of history.


It varies considerably. Some writers I read just for the pleasure of their writing. Others I look for strong characters and interesting plots.


A great story well told is irresistible. I look for favorite authors but am delighted to discover new ones. Dislike formulaic books of any kind but good romances can certainly add interest. I am a voracious reader who has read thousands of books in my lifetime. A good book is almost as essential as food.


Like the romance. Hate explicit sex.


If a character has faults this makes him more human. If he fails to gain favour or position, again a believable human trait. It is how the author deals with some of the lesser characters which are necessary to the plot that puts realism into the retelling of a historical event or time-line.


The lives of ordinary people who find themselves at the heart of extraordinary, historic events.


I want the history/events to be more than backdrop. I want the history to be as important as the characters and the conflict tied as much to the history as the journey of the characters.


Plot construction just as important in historical fiction even though it follows historical fact.


Looks like a great list to consult as I write novel number three. I’ll be back in the new year.

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 in paperback from Amazon and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

Historical Fiction Author – Blythe Gifford

Blythe Gifford HeadshotI’m very pleased to have Blythe Gifford appearing today. Blythe is known for creating a wonderful balance between history and romance. She has written medieval romances featuring “characters born on the wrong side of the royal blanket” and is writing a series set on the turbulent Scottish Borders of the Tudor era. 

I see that your tagline is ‘On the Borders of Historical Romance’, what made you choose that as your focus?    My Brunson Clan trilogy is set on the Anglo-Scots border during the early Tudor era, so it refers specifically to the Scottish Borders.  But beyond that, the term “borders” refers to two other characteristics of my work.  First, the time periods I choose tend to be outside the current mainstream of historical romance, which is squarely focused on Regency England.  And second, my work tends to be close to the edge where historical romance becomes historical fiction, so it refers to that border as well.

You have written several historical fiction novels and have been successfully published by Harlequin Historicals. What do you think attracts readers to your books?    To paraphrase an old presidential campaign motto, “It’s the romance, stupid.”  By which I mean that first and foremost, my readers want an emotional love story with a happy ending.  That said, my work is grounded in history and virtually all my books have included a real historical personage as a character, which is a little unusual for historical romance.  Despite this, my stories are very much about the people who lived it and their emotions.  As a result, I hope reading one of my books is like living a slice of history, not just reading about it.  I once had a line on my website, “to them, it wasn’t history, it was life.”  I can only guess that my readers enjoy that experience.

Do you have a particular approach to research and writing?    At the beginning of a project, I’ll read generally about the time period, until I find the “hook” that drags me in.  For example, when I was developing the Brunson Clan trilogy, I read broadly about the Reiver era, in general, across the entire 16th century.  Scottish Border Ballads are a great legacy of this area and the story behind one of them, “The Ballad of Johnnie Armstrong,” caught my attention.  It seems there was a Reiver who was enticed to meet with the Scottish King under safe conduct but was hanged, along with his men, when he arrived.  I wanted Johnnie to have a happy ending, so that started me down the path, though I turned the entire story inside out.  Still, there’s a kernel there, a specific historical event, and that has been the case with nearly all my work.

As I get into the story, I’m always searching for the sensory details that will allow me to walk around in that world and experience it.  I have a map and a calendar at hand to keep me grounded, and in some ways, I find images better research than words.  But the physical sensations, scent, touch, sounds, really put me in touch with my characters.  The “everydayness” of real historical life is, of course, the most difficult thing to pin down, particularly before literacy was wide-spread.

As an example, in the second book of the trilogy, CAPTIVE OF THE BORDER LORD, the Brunson daughter goes to court, where she is out of place as a “country bumpkin.”  During the development phase, I participated in an historic dance workshop at the Romance Writers of America National Convention and experienced the types of dances they would have done at court then.  I consider myself a good dancer, but the first time through, I felt incredibly awkward.  That gave me a great insight into how Bessie Brunson would have felt, tripping over her feet before the king.

Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you?    I heard Philip Roth quoted recently as saying “After the first ten years, the influences fall away.”  Since I’ve been writing seriously for more than twenty, it’s a little hard to say what influences are left, but two books come to mind.  The first was not “historical” when it was written, but JANE EYRE was the first book I remember reading that was about “romance.”  It really gripped my junior high school heart.  I have a theory that romance writers are either about Jane Eyre or Jane Austen (apples and oranges, I know!), and I’m all about the Eyre angst.  While the Regency era is the most popular in historical romance, it never drew me and I blame both Charlotte Bronte and Anya Seton for that.

Seton because around that same time, I read Anya Seton’s KATHERINE.  That book more than any other gave me my profession.  It sparked a lifelong interest in fourteenth century England and the impact that love, and the resulting royal bastards, could have on history.  When I started writing romance, I began in the fourteenth century and my first books usually featured royal bastards, real or imaginary, as main characters.  That was a direct result of my love of the subject and time period sparked by that book.

What ingredients do you think make for a favourite historical fiction author? Do you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing?    First of all, any author must tell a good story.  The basics of craft (pacing, character, dialog, plot) must be strong.  I’ve seen writers use the novel as an excuse to drape lengthy descriptions of period food, clothes, and politics around a flimsy story.  Or, conversely, they assume readers already know the history and explain too little, so the reader is left confused and, worse, feeling that historical fiction is only for the already educated.  It’s a real challenge to whisk the reader into the story while sprinkling just the right amount of historical detail and context into the mix.  I try to get that right and hope I succeed.

How do you select new stories to tell?    It’s a delicate balance between writing the stories that call to me and still positioning them in the commercial space.  My decision to write the Brunson Clan trilogy is a good example.  I wanted to write a trilogy, because readers love them, and I thought to move from medieval England across the border into Scotland because Scotland is second only to Regency England in popularity.

However, the Scottish Highlands, where most romance is set, called to me not at all.  The Borders, on the other hand, was in the center of the Anglo-Scottish conflict for three hundred years.  It was a good fit for my interests and, as I explained above, I settled on the early 16th century because of the Ballad of Johnnie Armstrong.

Though I was all set to promote my “Scottish” trilogy, when it came time to market the books, my editor tagged them as “Tudor”, so my description became the Scottish Borders of the early Tudor era.  And, not to my surprise, I’ve had several lovely reviews of my “Highlander” books.

But I have story ideas stacked up like planes on the runway.  I hope I have time to get to them all…

What techniques do you employ to write productively?    Do you have some to share?  Let me know!  A few tips I can suggest.  I write at the same time every day.  I don’t wait for the muse to strike.  I set word count goals and have learned to delay revising hard copy until late in the writing process instead of printing and revising daily.  With the Brunson books, the primary research applied to all three books, although I still had new things to learn for each story.  That, and knowing the characters well by book three, allowed me to write those books in six months each, a schedule I hope never to repeat!

Do you think of yourself as having a brand? If so, how would you describe it and how do you reinforce it?    My background is in marketing, so I’ve been very conscious of branding.  This business favors the predictably prolific writer, so I’ve tried to establish the hook of my brand in several books before moving on to something new.  First, I wrote about English royal bastards (literally), both real and imagined.  My last “royal bastard” book was set on the Borders, so to write a Borders trilogy, even though in a different time period, was a natural transition.  Next, while I might have been wiser to stay on the Borders, I’m going back to fourteenth century England and the court of Edward III.

There are other time periods I would like to write, but have postponed in order to establish myself in the reader’s mind.  Ultimately, I think a writer’s voice is her brand.  And there, I’d describe myself as a writer of angsty historicals set in time periods of change and disruption.  There’s a lot of competition, however, and “royal bastards” or “early Tudor Scotland” may be easier for readers to relate to as an introduction.

What do you do to connect with readers?    A website, newsletter, Facebook page, Twitter, Pinterest, Goodreads.  I blog with the Unusual Historicals group and I did extensive guest blogging to promote the trilogy.  But I’m most consistent on Facebook.

What do you know about your readers?    Romance readers as a whole are voracious readers and they read across many genres.  Most are women, yes.  My readers tell me they read in multiple formats – as many in e-book as in print and many read both.  Libraries are still important sources of books for them, too.  I’ve been honored to hear from readers in many countries, since Harlequin has made my work available around the world.  I must admit, I’m still really amazed when I receive a fan note from someone I don’t know personally!

What data do you collect about your readers?    Their email addresses if they will share them.  I occasionally ask questions on Facebook about what/how they are reading, but I don’t have ZIP codes or mailing addresses.

What strategies guide your writing career?    Strategy is too grand a word!  Just a few guidelines.  Don’t chase trends.  Keep showing up at the page.  Stay true to your muse.  Have faith.  Don’t worry about what you can’t control.

What would you do differently if you were starting again?    Two things.  I would have started earlier and I would NOT have spent six years writing my first book.  Such a rookie mistake!  Finish it and move on!

Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction?    Remember that the book is not about history.  It’s about the character.  The history in the book should only be included to the extent that it touches the character and brings him or her to life.

Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked?    A final comment, perhaps.  As writers of historical fiction, we face the particular challenge of making our characters authentic yet accessible to the modern reader.  If we were to faithfully present the world view for our time periods, it is likely that the modern reader would not understand, nor sympathize with the characters.  On the other hand, to imbue an historical character with modern attitudes is as grating as anachronistic dialog.  This is a tug-of-war particular to our genre, I think, piled atop the usual authorial angst.  That said, I love the journey of discovery that awaits me with each book.

Thanks for having me.

And thanks for participating, Blythe. I love your down-to-earth views on the business of writing. A few items spoke to me: don’t spend six years on your first novel (wish I’d heard that before the six years spent); the balance of historical accuracy and accessibility to a modern day reader; “story ideas stacked up like planes on a runway” is such a great image which probably resonates for many writers. You’re the first author who has considered the notion of brand – congratulations on that!


Cover_ROTBW_lgBlythe Gifford has been known for medieval romances featuring characters born on the wrong side of the royal blanket. Now, she’s published a Harlequin Historical trilogy set on the turbulent Scottish Borders of the early Tudor era. The books are RETURN OF THE BORDER WARRIOR, November 2012, CAPTIVE OF THE BORDER LORD, January 2013, and TAKEN BY THE BORDER REBEL in March 2013. The Chicago Tribune has called her work “the perfect balance between history and romance.” Visit her at www.blythegifford.com, www.facebook.com/BlytheGifford, www.pinterest.com/BlytheGifford or on Twitter @BlytheGifford. Author photo by Jennifer Girard.


Historical Fiction Author C.J. Sansom’s Dissolution

Dissolution by C.J. SansomA few months ago, I developed a concept of ten essential ingredients for favourite historical fiction. Time to test another top author against those ingredients. To do so, I’ve chosen Dissolution by C.J. Sansom, the first in his series about Matthew Shardlake.

When a royal commissioner is murdered in the monastery of Scarsea, Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s feared vicar general summons fellow reformer Matthew Shardlake to lead an inquiry. Shardlake and his young protege, Mark Poer, uncover evidence of sexual misconduct, embezzlement, and treason, but when two other murders are committed, they must move quickly to prevent the killer from striking again.

(1) Superb writing – Sansom’s prose is an easy blend of narrative and dialogue. Dialogue drives the action of this novel from the very beginning, while narrative situates us in time (just after the death of Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour) and circumstance (the dismantling of Catholic monasteries). Sansom’s dialogue flows smoothly. He sprinkles it with phrases of the Tudor period and references to events of the day, but rarely confuses the reader. I quickly identified with Matthew Shardlake, a man of influence who suffers the stares and jeers of others because he is a hunchback, and Mark Poer, a promising young man with a troubled past.

Once Sansom takes us to the monastery, we meet a host of main characters: Abbot Fabian, Prior Mortimus, Brothers Guy, Edwig and Gabriel, Alice who serves in the infirmary, Brother Bugge who guards the monastery entrance, Brother Jerome who was racked in the tower of London. Several minor characters  appear as the mystery unfolds. I found such a large cast of characters confusing, although perhaps that’s what Sansom intended, and they remained more like stereotypes than individuals: the brutish monk in charge, the homosexual monk, the penny-pinching bursar, the religious zealot.

In terms of pacing, Sansom weaves action and tension into the novel as we follow Sharlake’s investigation of all aspects of monastery life, uncovering facts and hints pointing at one monk or another as the murderer. There’s a murky marsh behind the monastery said to be used by smugglers, a secret passage, a young girl who purportedly ran away though some think she was murdered. We are kept waiting, as befits a murder mystery, until almost the very end to discover who did the deed and at the last moment, there’s a surprising twist.    7/10

(2) Dramatic arc of historical events – The main story takes place over a few weeks but the story behind the story – that of the dissolution of Catholic monasteries – looms in the background adding to the tension of Sansom’s story. A third plot line revolves around Shardlake’s gradual awareness of Cromwell’s willingness to destroy anyone who gets in his way. And then, of course, we have a bit of romance.  7/10

(3) Characters both heroic and human – Matthew Shardlake is both heroic and human, his side-kick, Mark Poer, provides a useful counterpoint as the young, talented assistant whose ideals lead to choices that are contrary to Shardlake’s. Matthew never falters in the quest for justice, putting himself at risk on several occasions as he peels back the mystery. We also see him as a man with desires, doubts and insecurities. Sansom shows us a dedicated man, disfigured at birth who has been rejected by many, a man of faith and loyalty who intends to do what’s right. I had the sense that he might ultimately challenge his master, Thomas Cromwell. 8/10

(4) Immersed in time and place – Sansom’s opening sentence tells us where we are: “I was down in Surrey, on business for Lord Cromwell’s office, when the summons came.” A great hook that immediately grabs our attention. A little further into the scene, we read of “heads of those executed for treason stood on their long poles, the gulls circling and pecking” and “the throng of travellers and traders, cutpurses and would-be courtiers.” We know we’re in Tudor England.

When Sansom takes us to Scarsea, the monastery comes to life as soon as Shardlake and Mark Poer enter the courtyard. And over the next few chapters we explore each aspect of the monastery – infirmary, the abbot’s splendid home, the church, the refectory, the workshops, the bursar’s office – along with Matthew and Mark. Sansom paints wonderful pictures for his readers. The only negative is that some descriptions went on too long and slowed the pacing.  8/10

(5) Corridors of power – Lord Cromwell’s power is positioned from the very first chapter and looms over every plot turn and conversation, and dominates Shardlake’s personal thoughts. We see the corruption and machinations of Cromwell, the Catholic church, the reformers, and the nobility. It’s a brutal machine at work in a time of uncertainty. I feared for Shardlake, not because of the murder he was attempting to solve but because of his growing awareness of Cromwell’s true intentions.

“Around thrones the thunder rolls,” says Shardlake at one point.

Sansom also exposes the hypocrisy of the church and monastery life where wealth is accumulated and zealously guarded against the humble beginnings and Christian intentions of the Benedictines.  9/10

(6) Authentic and educational – Sansom skillfully gives the background to dissolution of the monasteries through Shardlake’s thoughts and various conversations he has with those inside and outside the monastery. We also learn about monastery life, its management structure, restrictions, demands and eroding adherence to Benedictine values. For some reason, C.J. Sansom includes two scenes about parrots, apparently a new exotic experience for that era. I could speculate that he wants us to compare those slavishly following Thomas Cromwell to parrots but if that was the intent, he needed to connect the dots a bit more.  8/10

(7) Ageless themes – class, loyalty, the destructive power of revenge, standing up for your beliefs and for people who are powerless, the pettiness of jealousy and the notion that those driven by wealth and power are often corrupted. In addition, Sansom uses Matthew Shardlake to discuss the differences between faith and religion. Occasionally, his characters sound like they are lecturing rather than conversing. Nonetheless these are compelling themes that remain relevant today. 7/10

(8) High stakes. In the best historical fiction, characters risk life, kingdoms, epic battles, fortunes, marriage and family on a grand scale. We have Mark Poer who risks his career for a chance at happiness, the murderer who, if caught, would likely be executed, the monastery brothers whose lifestyle is threatened. High stakes, but they didn’t captivate me as much as I hoped. 6/10

(9) Sex and love. Dissolution offers little in the way of sex and love to propel the story. I found the attraction between Mark Poer and Alice, the servant girl, somewhat unrealistic.  3/10

(10) Dysfunctional families. In dissolution, the dysfunctional family is the brethren living at Scarsea. Sansom refers to them as a family in several scenes and we find out quickly how dysfunctional they are. However, to be compelling, readers have to identify with the families within a story and I doubt most readers would do so in this case. As I write this, I wonder whether readers of Sansom’s novels are mostly men, and I am presenting a female perspective. 5/10

Near the end of the story, Matthew Shardlake visits the Tower of London to ferret out a clue to the murderer. Oldknoll, the tower armourer, has this to say about England:

A country full of godless crime. Papists and mad gospellers. We should hang them all.

A great comment that sums up the times and the danger people faced every day. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and can certainly recommend it for those who enjoy mystery with their history.