The Ten Thousand Things – exploring successful historical fiction

In February I included a list of award winning historical fiction with the thought of exploring what readers think made them superb examples of the craft. I didn’t get very far on this topic and thought I’d return to it today with a look at John Spurling’s The Ten Thousand Things, winner of the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction in 2015.

What’s it about? In the turbulent final years of the Yuan Dynasty (13th century China), Wang Meng is a low-level bureaucrat, employed by the government of Mongol conquerors established by the Kublai Khan. Though he wonders about his own complicity with this regime—the Mongols, after all, are invaders—he prefers not to dwell on his official duties, choosing instead to live the life of the mind and his paintings. A novel of fated meetings, grand battles, and riveting drama.

One reviewer on Goodreads writes: “Spurling’s writing is exquisite. He creates scenes with a sensitivity and attention to aesthetic detail that seems light and effortless, yet deeply moving. To read this book is to plunge into another world, to be transported, not into some dimly remembered past, but a very real and vividly imagined world that is thoroughly convincing.”

Another says: “I now feel like I’ve been to China in the 13th century.”

So clearly Spurling is a master at transporting readers in time and place.

Many readers attest to Spurling’s wonderful prose, comparing it to the beauty of the paintings his protagonist creates. Another praises the dialogue and comments that Spurling’s experience as a playwright may be the source of his excellence.

There are numerous references to the authors blending of philosophy and politics into the story. “The Ten Thousand Things is a literary masterpiece that reveals classical philosophy and art of 14th Century China.” “Any student of Chinese history will appreciate the story and the insights into the politics, art and history of that time period.”

Kirkus Reviews has this to say: “The great strength of this novel is not so much the plot but the rich detail that sets the reader in the middle of China.”

The South China Morning Post [Hong Kong’s major English newspaper] says: “Like one of Wang’s paintings, this story is a highly crafted masterpiece that cannot be enjoyed in one sitting … Even a reader who starts out with no interest in China or Chinese artists will be sure to return to this story over the years, as its truths remain timeless.

So – superb writing, evocative time and place, timeless truths, rich details. I’ve certainly looked at enough reviews to add this one to my TBR list.

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. 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

Historical Fiction, Feminism, and Humanitarian Issues

Janie Chang is the author of Dragon Springs Road and Three Souls – both novels set in China. When we chatted back and forth on email, she said she was intrigued by the notion of “looking under the covers of historical fiction to illuminate those attributes that make it different from contemporary fiction” – the purpose of my Inside Historical Fiction focus. Here’s Janie Chang discussing historical fiction further.

Historical Fiction, Feminism, and Humanitarian Issues by Janie Chang

Writing historical fiction for a modern audience has its challenges, especially when you are acquainting readers with an unfamiliar time and place (see ‘Avoid Breaking the Spell’, my blog about anachronisms). It really makes me happy to receive email from people telling me that they never knew much about pre-war China, or even China, but now my novels have sparked their interest.

I also receive emails asking why the women in my novels couldn’t be more feminist. These readers want stories that encourage social activism and promote human rights. They want strong role models. ‘Why don’t you write about … ?’

Of course there have been famous Chinese women of extraordinary courage and intellect. Qiu Jin was an early revolutionary against the Imperial government. Her brutal execution and the anger it roused contributed to the fall of the Qing Dynasty. There was Song Qingling, whose marriage to Sun Yat-sen put her on the public stage, and who continued on as a force in Chinese politics after his death.

But I am moved to write about ordinary women. They lack the support and inner resources needed to break free from restrictive traditions. They’re flawed in character. They are the Everywoman of their generation, nobody special, just trying their best to survive with integrity under difficult conditions – and not always succeeding.

three-soulsIn Three Souls, the main character is an idealistic and spoiled young woman from a wealthy family; but when she steps out of line her father forces her into an unwanted marriage. Her husband’s family turns out to be poor, despite the enormous dowry brought into the household a generation ago by her mother-in-law, because her father-in-law squandered it all. That novel was based on my own grandmother’s life. She was a woman of unusual intelligence but never allowed to make decisions about her own fate. I take every opportunity at literary festivals, book clubs, and interviews to point out that there are cultures in our modern world where women are still treated as chattels, their lives dictated by fathers, brothers, husbands, and in-laws.

dragon-springs-roadIn my latest novel, Dragon Springs Road, a Eurasian girl faces rejection and racism. She is female, an orphan, and bi-racial – an absolute trifecta of sorrows in a society that values boys, family, and lineage. The closest contemporary situation we have to her and how she is treated would be the bi-racial orphans left behind by US servicemen after the Korean War.

The novel also includes descriptions of an unwanted baby girl being smothered by her mother and the child labour in a silk factory. They are not central to the story, but they are part of the main character’s reality. Historical fiction adds context to modern-day social problems. Like science fiction, we can comment on our world in oblique (or maybe not so oblique) terms, but unlike science fiction, our examples are drawn from history. We read about infanticide and child labour in the past tense. Historical fiction sharpens our outrage when we realize that such issues still exist in our supposedly enlightened times because we’ve already met its victims. (photo below – child workers in a Shanghai cotton mill)


Thus my response to “Why don’t you write about [insert issue here]?” is that I do write about humanitarian issues, just not always in a direct, in-your-face way. As a storyteller, my preferred approach is to let characters and their responses to the conditions around them inform the reader.

I also believe that I do write about strong women. However, they must behave in a way that’s true to the realities of their era, economic status, and position in society; otherwise they turn into anachronisms. They’re heroic to me, not in an epic way, but in the way generations of women have been heroic, enduring much for the sake of the ones they love.

Many thanks, Janie. I love the way you’ve positioned your approach to writing. Wishing you great success. PS – Love the titles of your novels.

Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang – China, 1908. At the turn of the 20th century, an imperial dynasty collapses, a new government struggles to life, and in an ancient courtyard outside Shanghai, a Eurasian girl is abandoned by her mother.

Three Souls by Janie Chang – China, 1935. An absorbing historical novel of romance and revolution, loyalty and family, sacrifice and undying love — narrated by a ghost.

“We have three souls, or so I’d been told. But only in death could I confirm this …”

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 where you can also sign up for her newsletter.

Inside Historical Fiction with Piper Huguley

piper-huguleyPiper Huguley was named in 2015 as a top ten historical romance novelist in Publisher’s Weekly. A great accomplishment. She writes historical fiction featuring African American characters and has very recently released a novella The Washerwoman’s War. Today, we are chatting about the uniqueness of historical fiction.

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?  Worldbuilding is completely crucial. It’s important for the author to build a world where readers feel transported. So to me, the best historical fiction authors build in the details of everyday life, dress, food, culture, and what’s going on around them. The best historical fiction authors do all of this, without the reader noticing. That, to me, is the tricky part.

Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways? They are different because the times are different. However, I think the ongoing struggle with historical fiction is to build a bridge of connection between the author and readers. So to me, there has to be an element of how historical and contemporary novels might resemble one another. When an author can build that bridge, then readers are more willing to read historical fiction.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)? My novels don’t sugar coat the past. I want to bring forward a more complete history. There is a lot in the narrative that has been overlooked, so my stories are an attempt to restore some of those voices that have not been heard from for a richer, fuller depiction of history. Rather than focusing on African Americans as victims, my stories show how hard they worked and how they had strong faith in a brighter future for generations to come.

In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period? I rely on as many primary sources as I can. This isn’t easy, because there were long periods of illiteracy for African Americans. But they exist. So I go to them. I read the history and literature of the time period as well. As a literature professor, I have to teach this history to my students before they can appreciate the literary work, so it’s work I keep having to review. The history remains fresh and interesting to me in that way.

What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers? All of the aspects I listed before as what the best historical fiction authors do to get it right. It’s so important to make historical fiction accessible.

Do you see any particular trends in HF? I’m hopeful there will be more stories of ordinary people. I love the royalty stories as well, but there are a lot of them out there. This tight focus on a small group of people means that historical fiction appears closed off and limited. That kind of rigidity will not help to increase the numbers of readers. There has to be more variety so that more readers might enjoy this rich history in the coming years.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

My newest novella, released October 26, 2016, uses the Black Washerwoman’s strike of 1881 in Atlanta as a backdrop.

When Mamie Harper arrives to substitute teach for the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary school, she witnesses terrible injustices with some of the older students who are washerwomen. Mamie’s upbringing as the daughter of the most famous Black suffragette in America means that she cannot be silent. She takes it upon herself to help the washerwomen find their voice and protest their mistreatment.

Reverend Gabriel Harmon is the summer pastor at one of the most influential Baptist churches in Atlanta. When the Black Washerwomen go on strike, he’s brought in to mediate a solution but then realizes the feisty leader of the opposition is the young teacher from Milford who rejected his attempts to court her the year before. When these two collide over explosive events during a hot Atlanta summer, only one side will be able to win the battle. As they clash, they learn there is another war, the war of the heart, that’s worth winning as well.

Many thanks for being on the blog, Piper. I’m sure readers will find your perspectives very interesting. Stories about ordinary people are a passion of mine as well.

Piper G Huguley, named 2015 Debut Author of the Year by Romance Slam Jam and Breakout Author of the Year by AAMBC, is a two-time Golden Heart ®finalist and is the author of “Migrations of the Heart,” a three-book series of historical romances set in the early 20th century featuring African American characters, published by Samhain Publishing. Book #1 in the series, A Virtuous Ruby, won Best Historical of 2015 in the Swirl Awards. Book #3 in the series, A Treasure of Gold, was named by Romance Novels in Color as a Best Book of 2015 and received 4 ½ stars from RT Magazine.

Huguley is also the author of the “Home to Milford College” series. The series follows the building of a college from its founding in 1866. On release, the prequel novella to the “Home to Milford College” series, The Lawyer’s Luck, reached #1 Amazon Bestseller status on the African American Christian Fiction charts. Book #1 in the series, The Preacher’s Promise was named a top ten Historical Romance in Publisher’s Weekly by the esteemed historical romance author, Beverly Jenkins and received Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest Contest of Self-Published e-books in 2015.

Her new series “Born to Win Men” will debut in December 2016 with A Champion’s Heart as Book #1. Piper blogs about the history behind her novels at She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband and son.

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