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.

Hit Lit – the final six features

The first post in this series of three explored ‘tricks of the trade’ used by best-selling authors. The second post summarized five of James W. Hall’s twelve features from Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers.

This final post outlines Hall’s remaining six features.

Feature #7 – “Bumpkins versus Slickers”

In most bestsellers, there’s a central character who sets off on a journey that takes her from rustic America into turbulent urban landscapes … almost as often, the heroes of bestsellers make an exodus in the opposite direction

Hall and others refer to this as the hero’s journey, a structure that has worked in endless permutations to leverage the ageless clash between city and rural values.

Question: is feature #7 the commoner versus the nobility in historical fiction?

Feature #8 – “God Sells”

Our twelve bestsellers all feature religion in prominent ways, consistently critiquing orthodox religious practice and the dangers of zealotry.

The secular world is juxtaposed against religion that has gone astray and people who claim to adhere to religious values while clearly committing contrary acts. False piety, says Hall. Common sense struggles against religious conviction, science against faith. Langdon of Da Vince Code fame is an example – a man of science clashing with powerful religious leaders.

Question – does religion have such prominence in historical fiction?

Feature #9 – “Americans delight in reenactments of our national myths.”

The rise from humble roots to become rich and powerful. A character struggling against injustice and, finally, triumphing over oppression. And we are also grimly fascinated by the flip side of these stories.

Hall illustrates: Mitch McDeere’s belief in the American Dream (The Firm), Scout Finch’s triumph over racism (To Kill a Mockingbird), Scarlett O’Hara’s example of the virtue of hard work (Gone With the Wind), exposing injustice (The Da Vinci Code), the freedoms of American society clashing against communism (The Hunt for Red October).

Question – is there an equivalent to America’s national myths in historical fiction?

Feature #10 – Rebels, Loners, Misfits and Mavericks

The heroes and heroines … are all rebels, loners, misfits or mavericks. They don’t fit in worth a damn, and that’s one of the reasons we love them so much

Hall explains that the “tension between mavericks and conventionalists operates at the core of the biggest bestsellers”. Heroes of these novels reject conformity and convention. They are strongly individualistic.

Feature #11 – “Fractured Families”

In each of our twelve novels, a member of a broken family finds an ingenious way to transcend his or her crazy stress.

A few pages later Hall states that “twelve of the most successful novels in publishing history and not a traditional, fully functioning family among them, yet all our heroes and heroines find ways to make peace with their extreme losses”.

Perhaps these novels function partly as therapy for readers coping with their own family distress particularly at a time when the traditional family model is changing (some would say has changed).

Feature #12 – yes this is the last one – Sex

In every novel on our list, one key sexual encounter plays a decisive role in the outcome of the plot and in the transformation of the protagonist.

Scarlett’s sexual encounter with Rhett Butler. The false accusation of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird. Unresolved sexual tension between John Smith and his former girlfriend in The Dead Zone. Raunchy sex just before a woman is eaten by a shark in Jaws. Mitch McDeere’s infidelity on a deserted beach in The Firm.

The sexual language may be toned down to broaden the books’ mainstream appeal, but copulation, both violent and extreme, still plays a crucial role in the outcomes of these stories … somewhere in our national consciousness we know that one good roll in the hay can change everything.

So … there you have it, the twelve features of bestsellers according to James Hall’s analysis. By the way, he has one final ingredient to add – personal passion. “Without this one last ingredient, a novel might easily contain all the recurring features but still remain a lifeless pile of mush.” There’s still magic involved.

Feedback – what do you think? Do these twelve features resonate in the stories of your favourite historical fiction writers?

More Features of Hit Lit

Two days ago, I wrote about the ‘tricks of the trade’ that make a bestseller so gripping. The analysis comes from James W. Hall’s book on Hit Lit. Ultimately I’d like to consider Hall’s twelve features against some of the top historical fiction authors that readers identified in the survey and these posts are a way for me to clarify ideas in my own mind. Writing helps me think.

Let’s have a look at a few more features:

Feature #2: Raise the controversy of the day

For some hot-button issue to have real wallop, it also must express some larger, deep-seated, and unresolved conflict in the national consciousness.

Hall’s book is peppered with references to the American experience. (This is the time to explain that I am Canadian and hence accustomed to living in the shadow of our great neighbour to the south.) He gives examples of hot-button issues from the twelve bestsellers he’s chosen.

Gone with the Wind – published in 1936 where the hot-button issue was capitalism and its many failures. Remember this is a time when The Depression was a recent experience. In Peyton Place – the hot button was sex. To Kill a Mockingbird – published at a time when race issues were boiling. The Hunt for Red October – cold war paranoia. John Grisham’s The Firm – corporate greed. The Da Vinci Code – religious corruption and conspiracy. “And all of these stories explore some hot-button social issue of their day that is rooted in a long-term national dispute.”

Question: does historical fiction explore today’s hot-button issues or those of long ago?

Feature #3 – “Colossal characters doing magnificent things on a sweeping stage”

Hall asserts that bestsellers pit relatively ordinary people against high stakes situations. Readers are intended to connect to these characters, to be inspired by the aspirations, actions and bravery of everyday heroes like Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Mitch McDeere, a small town boy made good in The Firm, Robert Langdon – really just a rumpled professor – in The Da Vinci Code. The characters become colossal because of the fight they take on. David and Goliath come to mind.

Question: are readers fascinated with historical fiction because it allows them to see the everyday person in famous people like Eleanor of Acquitaine or Thomas Cromwell?

Feature #4 – “America as paradise”

America as the new Eden. A land of second chances, fresh beginnings in the virginal wilderness.

Often the novel’s hero is alienated or exiled from their ‘homeland’ and struggles to return. That ‘homeland’ can be the land itself such as in Gone With the Wind and Scarlett’s home Tara, but it can also be a state of innocence, youthful idealism, a time of security, a parent or grandparent.

Feature #5 – “An abundance of facts and information”

Hall explains  that readers want to be informed, to “learn about the larger world”. Whether its the intricacies of a nuclear-powered submarine or the workings of a prestigious law firm or the “double-dealing of showbiz”, readers are fascinated with the facts and figures and the social arrangements and codes of behaviour within these worlds. Readers “read in order to peer inside secret places not open to them otherwise”.

Fact-based fiction has broad appeal because it is simple, hearty fare. No highly refined palate required. Anyone can buy a ticket.

Historical fiction certainly offers an abundance of facts and information.

Feature #6 – “All twelve of these bestsellers expose the inner workings of at least one secret society.”

Let’s have a look at Hall’s examples. The Godfather exposes the mafia. Jaws exposes the secrets of the sea. The Da Vince Code – Opus Dei. The Bridges of Madison County – the secret world of adultery. To Kill a Mockingbird – the KKK.

And here’s the punchline – our simple, everyday heroes triumph over these secret societies. Good over evil.

Question: in historical fiction do we see monarchies and the nobility as secret societies?

The final six features will be posted on Monday.