Inside Historical Fiction with Angela Hunt

The writers map of historical fiction, stirred quite a response. Comments and suggestions have prompted me to augment the map using insights from those who responded as well as ideas from past interviews with favourite historical authors. I also went searching for books about writing historical fiction which has led me to invite various authors to add their input. The result: Inside historical fiction – a series of interviews on what makes this genre tick.

Writing Historical Fiction by Angela HuntWhen I found Angela Hunt‘s book on writing historical fiction, I contacted her to see what advice she could offer. She called her book Writing Historical Fiction: Viewing the Past Through the Lens of the Present – an intriguing title and concept. Angela graciously agreed to answer a few questions.

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M.K. Tod: With more than 130 books to your credit – Wow, that’s an impressive numberincluding fiction and non-fiction, you are undoubtedly a prolific writer! Can you share a few of your productivity tricks with us?

Angela Hunt: Lots of little things—a place and time for everything, a daily quota, a “relaxed” attitude toward housekeeping (though my house is clean, I don’t sweat the small stuff), and learning how to say “no” to good things that aren’t my best options.

Based on your experience, what attributes set historical fiction apart from contemporary fiction?

Obviously, historical fiction involves the people, places, and cultures of an age that’s past. Modern readers enjoy reading it and comparing modern attitudes to those of the past, but people will always be prone to virtues and vices no matter when they live.

You say that writers of historical fiction must do their best to “understand the mindset of the people” they write about. What techniques do you recommend to help writers accomplish this objective?

Historical fiction is so much more than substituting horses and carriages for automobiles. Historical authors need to understand the cultures of the past, and I believe there’s no better way to do that than to read writings written in that era. I have been amazed to discover how much literature exists from long-distant eras. I’ve read some amazing love poems from ancient Egypt, for example.

How do you research and prepare for writing an historical fiction story?

I start ordering books and reading about the people, their customs, their social structure, their clothing, their families, their governments, and their history. Whenever possible, I visit historical settings or take in museums with artifacts from ancient eras. When writing about ancient Egypt, I visited the British Museum, which has an amazing Egyptian collection.

What do you do to create a past world for your readers?

I use sensory perceptions. I try to make sure there is something to see, hear, taste, touch, and smell in every chapter.

Which historical fiction authors have inspired you?

As a child I read Margaret Mitchell, the Bronte sisters, and Louisa May Alcott. So it’s no wonder that my first adult novels were historicals.

What ingredients do you think make them successful?

Historical fiction not only requires a fascinating place and time, it depends on fascinating characters. Margaret Mitchell’s civil war story would be nothing without the headstrong Scarlett O’Hara.

What other advice can you offer writers of historical fiction?

Esther, Royal Beauty by Angela HuntBe careful not to let our present day political correctness intrude on your historical story. I once read a reader review chide me for “religious talk” in my novel set in 1587—well, daily life in that era was filled with “religious talk.” In other eras, women were chattel and some men were beastly, so if you create a headstrong woman, you must portray her as the exception she would be.

Can you tell us about Esther, your latest book?

Esther, Royal Beauty, is the first in a series of books about women whose exceptional beauty got them in trouble. It’s more than a retelling of the biblical story; it is the story of Xerxes, the Persian king, and Harbonah, a eunuch in the palace. Many books have been written about Esther, but I don’t know of many who have given these other important characters the space they deserve.

Many thanks for adding your thoughts on historical fiction, Angela. I wish you lots of success with your next novel.

SIGN UP FOR M.K. TOD’S A WRITER OF HISTORY TO FOLLOW THIS SERIES

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. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is available in paperback from Amazon (USCanada and elsewhere), and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and on iTunes.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

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.

2013 Reader Survey … a peek at the comments

I’m tired of crunching numbers so I decided to take a peek at the write-in comments from the survey. I designed this year’s survey to minimize the amount of work I had to do tabulating responses — believe me, wading through hundreds of responses to an open question takes a lot of time — nonetheless there were a few places for participants to share their thoughts.

Here are some write-in comments related to factors that determine favourite historical fiction:

I appreciate reading full-bodied stories by wordsmiths who engage me into the story full throttle.

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 necessary to the plot that puts realism into the retelling of a historical event or time-line.

I like an author to stick to the known facts, and elaborate to make the story readable, but not make up very much. And to tell me which parts are made up.

Characters and setting/times must ring true, avoid cliches. Characters must think and act appropriate to their times, not like modern people.

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

romance, yes…sex, no

If I feel like a book is trying to comment on “marginalized” groups at the expense of historically dominant types, I deliberately won’t read it.

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

Interesting perspectives.