One of the questions in this year’s reader survey invited participants to be interviewed about their reading and give additional feedback. Today, Andrea is the first participant to explain her views.
I was struck by her email signature, which gives us an insight into how Andrea views the world.
We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. ~~ Joseph Campbell
Please tell us a little about yourself:Andrea: 62 year old, disabled retired ordained minister. Married 17 years. Pastor at lBorn in Rhode Island USA. Have lived in New York State for 20+ years USA. Read 150-200+ books across genres every year (links at bottom of email) and review every one.
In your opinion, what is the power of fiction? The power of fiction is to expand your mind…to broaden your horizons… to challenge and teach… and to entertain
What kind of stories are you drawn to? Any you steer clear of? It’s easier to say what I steer clear of: Horror, (s)exploitation, zombies, some shifters, most reverse harem and all sports jock stories, most billionaire stories- except Belle Andre. I love intelligence, which is why I love paranormal and scifi.
What aspects of an author’s writing make you feel like you’re ‘immersed in the novel’s world’ and/or ‘transported in time and place’. The author needs to talk to the reader as an equal, or tries to teach me so at least I’m not clueless. Descriptions help.
Which books read in the past year or so stand out for you and why? Drawing Lessons by Patricia Sands was my standout women’s fiction last year. I loved it because I was just along for the ride…I was there…it was understandable and believable.
A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline is Historical Fiction about Andrew Wyeth and his paintings. It was absolutely fascinating and since I am a huge fan of Wyeth and have read everything I have been able to find, I found the story understandable and wonderfully written (and I did not like her first book at all.)
Ritter Ames, Marie Grazia Swan, Jennifer L. Harte, Anna Celeste Burke and Carolyn Haines all write amazing mysteries that bring you in like you’re in on the secret.
How do you decide what books to buy? What influences your book purchases? I’m an Avocational Reader- “I read for books”. I have so many eBooks my iPad and kindle groan at the thought and I doubt I’ll ever run out. As a former professional chef, I know we “eat with our eyes”, so covers are important first looks. I read across genres so suggestions from other authors, websites and the like. On a fixed income, free is always a good thing – but can’t guarantee a good read.
Is there anything about where you live or your particular background that influences your fiction choices? As I get older, I find less tolerance for erotica and bad language. I also will address punctuation issues directly with an author.
If there is anything else about reading fiction, the kind of books available today, or the way reading is changing that you’d like to comment on, please do so. Indie publishing has put some real c**p out there. Please authors, find good editors.
Many thanks for your thoughtful comments, Andrea. I’m astonished at how many books you read!
Chris O’Neill took on the challenge of discussing successful historical fiction. Chris is a published author in healthcare research, and is on the threshold of publishing his first historical fiction novel.He’s an avid reader and a fan of historical fiction. Many thanks for participating, Chris.
What’s your definition of successful historical fiction?
Focusing on the novel rather than marketing, I’d say a blend of very interesting story with historical detail that both sets the past apart but also links with contemporary issues and problems.
What attributes are most important to you when designating a novel ‘successful historical fiction’.
The same as above combined with a series. I like series because the characters can grow with the conflicts they experience. Of course, not every novel will fit well with a series. And in some series I like (e.g., Saxon Tales) the character development stalls or levels out (middle age, perhaps???) and it’s pretty much the action surrounding a familiar character (Uhtred) that pulls me to the next installment.
Which authors do you think create the most successful historical fiction? (please restrict yourself to a small number of authors!)
The two that stand out in the last year or so are J. Tullos Hennig (who revisions Robin Hood mythically) and Bernard Cornwell (both the Grail series and the Saxon Tales with Uhtred). I think BBC has developed a fine character and WWII ambience with Christopher Foyle (“Foyle’s War” written by Anthony Horowitz), and the series has the attribute of emphasizing virtue over expedience—a healthy contrast to modern cynicism.
What makes these particular authors stand out?
Well, returning to my opening thoughts about the definition of successful historical fiction, a great blending of historical detail with contemporary issues (Foyle re: modern-day cynicism; Robin Hood as gay, mystical and embodying resistance). In the Saxon Tales, Uhtred has such a Shakespearean presence that the story captures your attention from beginning to end—with relentless action between.
In your opinion, what aspects prevent a novel from being designated successful historical fiction?
I have no idea. So much of art is in taste and marketing. I know what I like and seek it out through online reviews like Goodreads and author interviews.
Are famous people essential to successful historical fiction?
Of course, not.
Does successful historical fiction have to say something relevant to today’s conditions?
It inevitably does, so I’m not sure that’s the right question. With the concept of erasure (human experience that is not mentioned or described or explored) it seems impossible that a story not be relevant when an author doesn’t address a critical feature of the historical era or culture. Not describing the servant experience, the homophobia, the unjust circumstances, for example, is a statement by its absence. It’s something I notice—not that a book can deal with every issue in equal depth. As I see it, the problem and opportunity is how to explore what hasn’t been recorded(except for perhaps an archeological record). The author is left with personal insight into human experience—something that surrounds the writing every day. Lots to discuss about the writer’s license and imagination here, but this is a brief response. For the reader it comes down to: is the story engaging and believable?
What role does research play in successful historical fiction?
Research is essential if it’s historical fiction or fantasy. For me, it sets out features of a broad landscape and adds detail. But the human drama is what interests me most, not the number of cannons stuck on a muddy road and late to the battle. Still, “All the Light We Cannot See” (Anthony Doerr) was riveting with the occasional data overloads!
What can I say? One gives an answer and can immediately find the exception … again and again!
Do you judge historical fiction differently from contemporary fiction?
Yes. All my expectations of “contemporary fiction” apply with the added requirement that “history” be present in the story and active in some way that matters to the characters and plot.
Many thanks, Chris. And best wishes for your writing journey.
FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)
A Writer of History is hosting a series of interviews with readers, particularly those who enjoy historical fiction. I hope these interviews will augment the survey data I’ve collected. Please welcome Kris, one of my Facebook friends as she tells us about her reading.
Tell us a little about yourself. I was born in 1944, the illegitimate daughter of a divorced German soldier and a young Norwegian woman. Whether my mother left to follow her lover, or was forced by circumstances beyond her control is not clear, but 14 months later she gave birth to yet another daughter (by the same man), whom she left with her older, married half-sister. I had been left with her parents, then in their late 50’s. Having sold their farm (Holtan South) due to ill health, we lived in a small whaling village near Larvik.
I spent my first 5+ years with my grandparents who adored and spoiled me, especially my grandfather who read to me and told me all the old stories. By the time I was 4, my grandmother taught me to read, using the local newspaper and the older children in the village often would drag me around the shop windows and marvel at my ability to read the text on the advertisement. (Normally children did not start school until age seven).
When I was 5 or so, my mother returned and soon married a Norwegian whaler and my life in a home with no books began. Fortunately my grandparents lived nearby and I was able to visit almost daily to read (with my grandmother’s encouragement) despite my mother’s frustration at her failure to keep me home.
Throughout the school years I visited the local library, which was open every Wednesday, taking home as many books as I could carry. The woman who ran the little circulating library eventually learned to keep some goodies aside for me and did not restrict me from any book that struck my fancy.
I have never stopped reading since and thank my grandparents for this gift.
In 1964, following a unhappy love affair (no doubt a failure because it didn’t live up to my expectations based on my reading), I decided that Norway was too small and too small minded to contain my rebellious self. I left Norway for the US and, having lived on both coasts as well as in Ontario CA and the Midwest, I am currently living near Seattle, WA working full time as bookkeeper. Aside from spending time with my two adult sons when possible, my main interests are reading, travel and Fabric Arts.
Please tell us about your reading habits and preferences. Based on my Kindle history for the past year, I can say I read between 3 and 5 books a week. I read in bed, on the couch while pretending to watch TV and while at lunch. I read Hard Covers in bed (prefer cheap paperbacks in the bubble bath); read my Kindle at lunch (and sometimes at work) and while travelling.
Since I am a fairly fast reader, I prefer longer tomes and usually read one book at a time.
Historical Fiction and what I like to call Crime Noir (Nordic Noir and Icelandic Noir) and the Police Procedurals set in the UK are my preferred escape from the sometimes emotionally gutting Historical Fiction I adore. Occasionally I will mix in some Contemporary Fiction (most recently The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin).
How do you decide which books to buy? What influences your purchases? I use any avenue open to me: haunting libraries, Big Box Bookstores (not so much anymore), Independent Book Sellers, and, of course I visit numerous Literary Facebook Pages as often as I can, for example: Historical Novel Society, The Review and Before The Norman Invasion. In addition, I follow my favorite, old and new, authors’ FB Pages and Twitter accounts.
Before the Internet, I relied on the cover attracting my attention, Goldleaf and Reds rarely failed, then I read the inside cover. Once I find an author whose words speak to me and whose characters engage me emotionally (i. e. break my heart) I will track down every one of his/her published works.
What do you like about historical fiction? What don’t you like? I like that a well written historical fiction takes me to the time and place described and makes me fall in love with the characters, real or fictional. I am not so fond of the hybrid historical fiction that incorporates Sci-Fi and/or Super Natural Elements (though I have been known to read them).
What types of historical fiction do you prefer? My favorites are the ones that shed light on a time of importance in history, and flesh out the people of the era, especially when all the old myths and romantic notions are stripped away to show a very human side of a romanticised/vilified/mythicized figure.
Do you have historical fiction books or authors you would recommend to other readers? Can you tell us why?
Should not embarrass you but I have to list M. K. Tod’s Unravelled – because it is the first novel set in this time that I have read and I loved it. Loved it so much it led me to Charles Todd’s The Inspector Rutledge Series. [MKTod – I did not pay Kris to say this!!! Thanks for your very kind words, Kris. I’m honoured to be on your list.]
Dorothy Dunnett – The Lymond Chronicles and King Hereafter are my favorites – because of her painstaking research, exquisite character development, intricate plotlines and luminous language.
Sharon Kay Penman – Sunne in Splendor* The Welsh Trilogy -Because of her (again) meticulous research, believable character development of real historical figures and their relationships, and (again) flawless language and plot development.
Mary Stewart – The Arthurian Saga – because she doesn’t fall into the mythology trap regarding Merlin and the Arthurian Legend.
Cindy Brandner – The Exit Unicorn Series – for her lyrical prose, excellent characters and riveting historical setting.
Sara Donati (Rosina Lippi)’s Wilderness Series – because of the fresh look on the almost unreadable James Fenimore Cooper originals.
Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter – because it was my first historical fiction, read in the original Norwegian as a teenager. This book opened my eyes to other worlds and other times.
Elizabeth Chadwick – Shadow on the Crown – for shining the spotlight on an influential woman of her time who has been long neglected in fiction.
Gillian Bradshaw – The Horses of Heaven – for its unusual setting.
Morgan Llywellyn – The Horse Goddess & Grania– Wonderful look at Irish History/Legend
Then there is phenomenon that is Diana Gabaldon and the Outlander Series (with Auxiliary Novellas and Short Stories). I resisted picking this up for a long time because I was leery of the Time Travel element. When I finally (accidentally) picked up Dragonfly in Amber at the library I was captivated enough to buy the entire Series. For about a year and half I was a rabid fan. Unfortunately for Dr. Gabaldon the bloom is off the rose for me. I feel more and more like a victim of an evil marketing genius and do not like the feeling of being sucked into cult-like following. That is not to say she is not a wonderfully imaginative writer. The first three books are unforgettable … but after that I prefer the Lord John Gray Stories.
In today’s world, there are so many opportunities to talk and learn about books – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, book clubs – can you tell us about your experiences, where you go to talk or learn about books, why you enjoy discussions about books? I am pretty much on my own here; I do “lurk” on a lot of Facebook Literary Group sites, also follow many authors, and make occasional comments. I am somewhat less enamored with Goodreads. I must say I would really like to find a group or book club where I might find likeminded book lovers who actually read the books.
What advice do you have for writers of historical fiction? OMG … I couldn’t presume, but first of all do your research, don’t filter morals of another time through a 21st Century lens, and do not insert sex scenes a la 50 Shades, rather evoke emotional suspense.
Is there anything else about reading historical fiction that you’d like to comment on?
Read, read and read. WOW, Kris. What a great interview to kickoff this series. Your childhood could form the basis for a novel on its own! And you’ve given so many wonderful recommendations for other readers. 500 books in one year – that’s an incredible amount of reading. Many, many thanks!