Reader Interview – from the US west coast

Woman Reading - Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Woman Reading – Pierre-Auguste Renoir

It’s been awhile since I posted any reader interviews and . . . here’s a reader from the west coast of North America sharing her thoughts about historical fiction. She’s a voracious reader as you will see.

Tell us a little about yourself.  I am 62, live in the West Coast of US but grew up back east.  Both sides of my family came from little towns and I spent every summer, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter holiday there.

My whole life direction changed when I got married after college.  I had planned to be a teacher but I ended up working for my husband. I love reading, needlework, volunteer work, gardening and genealogy.

Please tell us about your reading habits and preferences.

I have always been a voracious reader as were my mom and dad.  I read almost a book a day but have tried to slow that down because I actually run out of books.  When a weekend or holiday comes up, I “stockpile” a bunch of books so I won’t run out.  I would estimate I read around 300/310 books per year.  I only read one book at a time, and since we now have to watch our money, I get all of my books from 2 neighboring library systems.  Due to money issues I do not have an e-reader or mobile device to be able to read my books but I have given thought to investigating them.

For a long time, my two best friends were also avid readers and we would quietly drop books off at each other’s houses like abandoned babies waiting for a new home.  Sadly one has moved away and the other has passed away so now I have no one with whom to share books.  I adore long books and dislike short stories and for that matter poetry and science fiction.  I also enjoy biographies, and self-help books.  Lately due to some family medical situations I have been reading books on nutrition, health, and psychological disorders.  My very favorite fiction though has always been historical fiction.

How do you decide which books to buy? What influences your purchases?    Author, where geographically the novel takes place, time period.

What do you like about historical fiction? What don’t you like?    I love learning about other places, in other times.  I love getting lost in a book and being able to forget my troubles or my pain.

My family has always done genealogy and when I started tracing lines, I had a blast.  I researched the female lines and discovered numerous Revolutionary War soldiers and one Mayflower ancestor.  I think researching genealogy, wondering about what ordinary people did or had to do to live is the biggest reason for my enjoyment of historical fiction.  I find those questions so fascinating.

For example, I read Paris by Edward Rutherfurd a few months ago.  In the middle of my exclusively Protestant English and few Scottish family lines, I have one French line.  Turns out they too were Protestant because they were French Huguenots.  This was the first novel since Tracey Chevalier’s Virgin Blue that I had read that told of French history and why and how the Huguenots were treated.  It was a fascinating learning experience.

I don’t like historical fiction that is incorrect or just unbelievable.

What types of historical fiction do you prefer?    I enjoy fiction about the various time periods in the United States and Great Britain the most. I am enjoying novels about India and Australia and have enjoyed books about Japan. I just finished The Midnight Rose by Lucinda Riley and it was just wonderful. I don’t seem to like books about the Middle East or South America or Africa so far.

The last few years I seemed to find everything about the Tudors fascinating (Hilary Mantel, Nancy Bilyeau), years ago medieval times (Sharon Kay Penman) then I went through a WWII period. Once I find one book about a time or an area, then I search for others.

Do you have historical fiction books or authors you would recommend to other readers? Can you tell us why?    All of these authors write well-written, intriguing, original stories. I love books most when I can’t predict what will happen and would not even think of skimming. The best books have something in them for me to learn.

Favorite historical authors (I am a boomer so I am fascinated by anything before I was born) these are not in any order:

  • Nancy Bilyeau – The Chalice, The Crown
  • Lucinda Riley – The Midnight Rose, The Orchid House
  • Sharon Kay Penman – Sunne in Splendour, etc.
  • James Bassett – In Harm’s Way
  • James Clavell – Shogun, Tai Pan, King Rat
  • Tatiana de Rosnay – Sarah’s Key
  • C.S. Harris – Sebastian St. Cyr novels
  • William C Harris Jr. – Delirium of the Brave
  • William Martin – Back Bay, Cape Cod, The Lincoln Letter,
  • Edward Rutherford – New York, London, etc.
  • Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall
  • Colleen McCullough -The Thorn Birds
  • John Galsworthy – The Forsyte Saga
  • James Michener – Hawaii, Centennial
  • Leon Uris – QB VII
  • Herman Wouk – The Winds of War, War and Remembrance
  • Deborah Swift – The Lady’s Slipper
  • Fiona Mountain – Lady of the Butterfies
  • David Liss – The Whiskey Rebels
  • Anne Perry
  • Kate Morton
  • Charles Todd

Current general fiction writers I love

  • JA Jance -Joana Brady, JP Beaumont series
  • Diane Chamberlain, “The Midwife’s Confession”
  • Kellie Coates Gilbert, “Mother of Pearl”
  • Kevin A. Milne, “The One Good Thing”

Romantic fiction writers I really enjoy

  • Mary Balough
  • Jane Feather

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 used to share books and had great discussions when my mother and cousin were alive. But they passed away. Then my two dear friends are no longer around, so I have no one who shares my specific reading interests. I have tried a few book clubs but found that the general level of interest was for an Oprah type of book. Very few of them appeal to me.

To find new books, I have looked on Goodreads and have had success picking from compiled lists of certain historical era books.

What advice do you have for writers of historical fiction?    I love historical books because I want to learn about the era and also the location. Young women in particular had little actual freedom in the past or worked so hard. For an author, keep it real. Don’t have a character doing something that would not have been practical for them to do in that time period. Geographical and historical descriptions make stories come alive. I often have a world atlas close by so I can track where a character travels.

Is there anything else about reading historical fiction that you’d like to comment on?    There are many more average or poor working people in the world than society or wealthy traveled ones. Books with normal characters are more intriguing.

That’s an amazing list of favourite authors! Enough suggestions to keep most of us reading happily for a year or two 🙂 Many thanks for sharing your thoughts about historical fiction.

Top Historical Fiction Sites – English Historical Fiction Authors

Running the data from the historical fiction survey resulted in four top digital sites however, restricting the data to UK participants resulted in two additional favourites and today I am pleased to welcome English Historical Fiction Authors to the blog.

This lively site is run by a well-known group of authors writing historical fiction set in England. As their home page says they have “come together to share our historical work and to reach out to our much appreciated readers”. Have a read as Debra Brown, Nancy Bilyeau, Sam Thomas, Judith Arnopp and Sherry Jones talk about their passion.

Why did you start blogging? Did your group come together to create the blog or did you add authors as time progressed?

Debra Brown: In today’s publishing world, authors and readers are much more in contact than they ever were before. Social media and book sites have opened up a whole new way of interacting. To be found on the internet authors must have some kind of presence. Blogging provides one means, and we felt that those who love British history could meet together in one place to learn and share with each other. Authors write a daily post and readers can discuss them via their comments. We launched the blog on Sept. 23rd, 2011 with thirty authors. A few have been added over time as life and/or genre changed for some authors and we saw the need for others to keep things running smoothly.

Nancy Bilyeau: In the months before my first novel, THE CROWN, was published, I explored blogging and read all sorts of philosophies. Some people wrote a lot about the experience of being published or writing fiction, others focused on sharing original content. Because my book is set in the Tudor age and during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, I felt there was a wealth of material to write about. I knew I found it all extremely interesting, and I hoped readers would too. Just at the time I decided to do this, I found out about English Historical Fiction Authors, formed by Debbie Brown so that writers could take turns posting on the same site. The theory was that readers would have a lot of posts and a rich variety in historical periods to choose from and so would come back regularly. I think Debbie’s original idea was proven correct!

Sam Thomas: For me, blogging has been an extension of the other writing I’ve done. Before writing fiction, I wrote academic history, and in each case, my goal is to talk about the past in a way that the reader will find both entertaining and informative.

Judith Arnopp: Regarding my personal blog. I was advised to blog when I first published and found I really enjoyed it. I’m not the most regular of bloggers, I have to be inspired and not too busy working on a novel. I stumbled on the EHFA blog by accident and thought it was great and asked to join. It has put me in touch with a lot of other historical authors and I’ve learned a lot through them. I also enjoy promoting their work, not just my own. Debbie Brown should have a medal I think for all the hard work she puts in to the blog.

What is your philosophy for the blog? Why did you choose that philosophy?

Nancy Bilyeau: My background is magazine journalism, so I’m comfortable with nonfiction narrative. I enjoy writing about people who pass through my novel, which is a mix of fictional characters and people from history. But also I wonder if anyone besides fellow writers wants to read all the blogs about getting published. I really like writers but I want to find readers.

Debra Brown: I feel that readers of historical fiction are fascinated with the past, as I am. Yet most of us have questions about the eras we are reading – the customs, the people and the locations. The blog posts greatly enrich my knowledge of Britain – past putting context to the stories and helping them to make more sense to me. I hope that they do the same for others.

What trends have you seen in historical fiction in the past? What new trends are emerging?

Sherry Jones: It seems to me that literary authors, seeing the popularity of historical fiction with readers, are now jumping on the bandwagon and writing their own historical fiction novels in greater numbers. I’ve also heard that interest in the Tudors is waning — could it be that Hilary Mantel has finally tapped them out?

Is historical fiction growing in popularity? If so, why?

Nancy Bilyeau: Unfortunately, I have been told the opposite, that it has peaked in sales. But I see so much interest out there in the books by authors who contribute to English Historical Fiction Authors, and there are always new historicals coming out that are so rich and interesting to read. So I think the market is thriving.

Judith Arnopp: It doesn’t make much difference to me as an author, I would still write historicals. I think, like everything, popularity fluctuates and if it declines for a while it will soon perk up again. TV series like The Tudors and The Borgias seem to affect popularity of historical fiction so with the BBC running The Hollow Crown, who knows we might see a flood of Plantagenet interest. That should keep us busy.

Who are your readers? What do you know about them? Do you collect specific data about them?

Debra Brown: On our blog we do not keep track of much other than the locations that Blogger provides. We get most of our visits from Commonwealth and English-speaking countries, and interestingly, Russia. We also have a Facebook group by the same name as the blog, and many of our readers are members there, so we get to know them in person.

Nancy Bilyeau: I’m not aware of any method to collect data about my readers. On my own website blog I have a “contact” feature and I do get emails from readers. I reply to all of them, and I learn a lot from their comments.

Judith Arnopp: I only know the readers who contact me. I respond to them because they are the reason I write and I value their feedback. Each time someone bothers to contact me to say how much they’ve enjoyed one of my books it makes my day.

What features does your blog include? What features or topics are most popular? Do you plan to add other features in the future?

Debra Brown: Besides a daily post on a historical topic, we have a weekly book giveaway on a separate page. We have a page to introduce our authors and a page listing many of our books. We also have a Guestbook and enjoy comments that people leave there. We have a contact page and I reply to email or ask if others wish to at times if it is relevant to do so.

Sam Thomas: Based on what I’ve seen (which could be wrong), it’s violence, sex and death. If memory serves, our top post last year was about lingerie, and posts about murders also do well. It’s many of the same things that make books sell!

Do you think of the blog as having a brand? If so, how would you describe it?

Debra Brown: I understand the importance of branding, and we have a picture that perhaps people recognize and think of us, but to be perfectly honest, I am so busy with keeping things going and doing some writing that I have not put much time into worrying about branding for the blog. It does not seem to have hurt us as we have had to date nearly 56,000 unique visitors and we have about 1000 page views per day.  We do have our Twitter hashtag #EHFA!

What are your marketing strategies for the blog?

Debra Brown: Authors that join the blog agree to share the daily post and the weekly giveaway via Twitter, Facebook and/or whatever means they prefer to use for marketing. They have been very cooperative and successful at that. For quite some time, now, we are usually found on page one of Google for most relevant search terms, so it seems to have taken on a much-appreciated life of its own.

Nancy Bilyeau: Whenever I write a new blog post, I link it to my facebook, twitter and linked-in feeds with a little topic phrase or some way to entice people to read. Then I just hope it gets picked up! I am not good at marketing, it is a totally different skill so I just try to engage my readers in something interesting and hope it prompts them to look at my books.

Why do you think so many people blog about historical fiction or participate in blogs about historical fiction? What are the implications for writers, agents and publishers?

Sherry Jones: Historical fiction readers tend to be history buffs. They read for pleasure but also for education. And, recognizing the “fiction” in historical fiction, they want to know the history behind that. A lot of historical fiction bloggers are discussing their research in their blog posts, giving readers the history in their books in a form that is not only informational, but also well written — something a lot of academic history is not.

Judith Arnopp: It is such a vast subject that most people will have some sort of interest in the past even if it is as recent as the 1970’s. There are also many different types of historical reader; there are those who require deadly serious, very accurate books and those who like to read about a more colourful past, see the blood and taste the tainted meat, if you like. Personally, I like them all, so long as they are well written. The ‘past’ is expanding all the time so this guaranteed continued areas of interest can only be a good thing. Of course, everyone has a pet theory and this can make for some pretty heated exchanges on the blogs. I’m not sure if this draws people in or drives them away but with so much past to write about, so many different styles of historical writing and such a variety of reader, the long term future of historical fiction can only be a good one.

What do you see writers doing differently to market their books and build their platforms? What about publishers?

Sherry Jones: One new trend is the release of a short story or novella in e-book form before the release of a long novel, as a prequel. I did this, releasing WHITE HEART, telling the story of the early life of Blanche de Castille, the White Queen of France in the 13th century, before the debut of FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS, in which Blanche is a mother-in-law and antagonist to the eldest sister, Marguerite. Anne O’Brien has most recently released THE UNCROWNED QUEEN, a short story prequel to her THE KING’s CONCUBINE, and I expect others will follow.

Sam Thomas: It’s become cliche that more and more responsibility for marketing is laid at the author’s doorstep and in the author’s wallet. We have to put up our own websites, arrange our own signings, etc.

Judith Arnopp: Some authors are doing lovely book trailers and things on youtube etc. but personally I stick to blogging and discussing my work on social networking sites. I don’t enjoy marketing but we have to do it. It wastes an awful lot of writing time.

What advice do you have for writers?

Sherry Jones: Historical accuracy is a must for readers, but historical detail should add to the story. It is not the story. The emotional lives of the characters is paramount; all else is subservient.

Judith Arnopp: Stick to your guns, write for yourself, don’t try to follow trends or be something you aren’t. Also never believe you are good enough, never stop striving for improvement.

I love Sam Thomas’ comment on “violence, sex and death” being popular with readers just as it is in any genre. Another aspect that strikes a chord for me is the group’s desire to appeal to readers. I am very impressed that a site launched only eleven months ago already has so many followers! Many thanks for doing the interview. Best wishes as you continue to flourish.