What keeps you turning the pages?

We all want to hear the response – “it was a real page-turner.” As readers, such an endorsement from friends and other sources offers a promise that a novel will be worth the time and effort invested. As writers, we love hearing from readers who describe our stories that way. And this writer, when hearing a book described as a page-turner wants also to understand what makes a book stand out in this fashion.

Often page-turners are plot-driven with fast pacing and lots of twists and turns and unexpected – though very satisfying – climaxes. In my recent reading, All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker and The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn fit this category. I could also mention The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah or Pompeii by Robert Harris.

Sometimes a page-turner contains characters whose worlds we eagerly inhabit and whose absence, when the story ends, create a great hole in our hearts. The Alice Network by Kate Quinn and Mary: Tudor Princess by Tony Riches come to mind. But I could equally mention The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick or Mary Called Magdalene by Margaret George or The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (even though the sequel was much less appealing), or The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner.

In my case, many are historical fiction 🙂

Some time ago, I wrote a few posts about Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers by James Hall. Hall itemizes twelve features of best-selling books. The first feature he calls “An Offer You Can’t Refuse”, which he further describes as a novel that:

  • entertains
  • engages readers in a compelling, simple and dramatic premise
  • offers an unfolding story with “one complication after another”
  • includes characters “of deep conviction and fervent, stubborn resolve, capable of passions that rise well beyond the normal range of human experience”
  • makes the story worth the readers’ time by forging a “powerful emotional bond … composed of one part pity, one part fear”
  • minimizes backstory
  • creates “some form of serious peril” very early on
  • enhances the tension with “the power of the ticking clock”.

You can read two other posts based on Hall’s book: More Features of Hit Lit and Hit Lit: The Final Six Features. I wrote them in 2012, no doubt full of deep intention to incorporate these features into my novels. But did I?

In the last six years, I’ve learned a lot about writing and had modest success. And yes, some readers have used the phrase page-turner to describes one or more of my novels. But, as Robert Frost is so often quoted: “These woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.”

I’d love to hear what keeps you turning the pages and novels that you’d describe that way.


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 www.mktod.com.


5 Openings that Transport you in Time & Place

Those who read historical fiction tell us they love being transported in time and place. So, I’ve found five examples to share with you today. As always, I would love to hear your feedback.

summer-queen-uk-2“Alienor woke at dawn. The tall candle that had been left to burn all night was almost a stub, and even through the closed shutters she could hear the cockerels on roosts, walls and dung heaps, crowing the city of Poitiers awake … She donned the gown folded over her coffer, pushed her feet into soft kidskin shoes and unlatched a small door in the shutters to lean out and inhale the new morning. A mild, moist breeze carried up to her the familiar scents of smoke, musty stone and freshly baked bread.” From the opening paragraphs of The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick.

“They left the aqueduct two hours before dawn, climbing by moonlight into the hills overlooking the port … Already he could feel the heat of the morning beginning to build, the promise of another day without rain … the shafts of the tools he carried slung across his shoulders—a heavy, bronze headed axe and a wooden shovel—chafed against his sunburnt neck. Still he forced himself to stretch his bare legs as far as they would reach, mounting swiftly from foothold to foothold, and only when he was high above Misenum, at a place where the track forked, did he set down his burdens and wait for the others to catch up … From down in the harbour came the splash of oars as the night watch rowed between the moored triremes.” From the first two pages of Pompeii by Robert Harris.

I could hear a roll of muffled drums. But I could see nothing but the lacing on the bodice of the lady standing in front of me, blocking my view of the scaffold. I had been at this court for more than a year and attended hundreds of festivities; but never before one like this. By stepping to one side a little and craning my neck, I could see the condemned man, accompanied by his priest, walk slowly from the Tower toward the green where the wooden platform was waiting, the block of wood placed center stage, the executioner dressed all ready for work in his shirtsleeves with a black hood over his head. It looked more like a masque than a real event, and I watched it as if it were a court entertainment. The king, seated on his throne, looked distracted …” Opening sentences of The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

“I was thirteen years old when my parents conquered Granada. It was 1492, the year of miracles, when three hundred years of Moorish supremacy fell to the might of our armies, and the fractured kingdoms of Spain were united at last. I had been on crusade since my birth. Indeed, I’d often been told of how the pangs had overcome my mother as she prepared to join my father on siege, forcing her to take to her childbed in Toledo—an unseemly interruption she did not relish, for within hours she had entrusted me to a nursemaid and resumed her battles.” Opening sentences of The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner

“I was down in Surrey, on business for Lord Cromwell’s office, when the summons came. The lands of a dissolved monastery had been awarded to a Member of Parliament whose support he needed, and the title deeds to some woodlands had disappeared … The young man had ridden through the night from Whitehall and arrived at dawn. I recognized him as one of Lord Cromwell’s private messengers and broke the chief minister’s seal on the letter with foreboding. It was from Secretary Grey and said Lord Cromwell required to see me, immediately, at Westminster … We had once believed with Erasmus that faith and charity would be enough to settle religious differences between men; but by that early winter of 1537 it had come to rebellion, an ever-increasing number of executions and greedy scrabblings for the lands of the monks … I shook the reins and steered Chancery through the throngs of travellers and traders, cutpurses and would-be courtiers, into the great stew of London.” From the opening pages of Dissolution by C.J. Sansom

You’re there, aren’t you, amidst the medieval world of Poitiers, the ancient world of Pompeii, or the reign of Henry VIII. You hear the crowd stamping and shuffling as they await the executioner’s swift sword. Phrases like ‘year of miracles’, ‘broke the chief minister’s seal’, ‘the cockerels on roosts, walls and dung heaps’ , and ‘three hundred years of Moorish supremacy’ transport you to another time and place. Words like triremes, cutpurses, and coffer signal the past.

The authors of these novels are renowned for their vivid interpretations of history. Straight away you know you’re in the hands of a master. And straight away, I have sentence envy!

Let me know if you have any favourite examples.

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, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

2015 Another Year of Reading

a year of reading40 books in 2015 – not as many as 2014, but still a decent number.

As with 2014, some were superb, others I did not finish. Most were historical fiction; a few were non-fiction. I read several in my capacity as book reviewer for the Historical Novel Society and the Washington Independent Review of Books, and a few for feature articles in HNS.

I suspect I’m a ‘hard marker’. Here’s the rating system I used last year: LR = light, enjoyable read; GR = good, several caveats; ER = excellent, few caveats; OR = outstanding; DNF = did not finish; NMT = not my type.

The following are from January 2015 to May. I’ve included links to blog posts and reviews where appropriate. I’ll share the balance in a few days.

Jan Penelope Fitzgerald Hermione Lee DNF Biography – far too much detail
Firebird Susanna Kearsley GR Loved The Winter Sea, but I think Kearsley needs to try a new theme
Sisters of Heart and Snow Margaret Dilloway GR HNS feature; the tale of a female samurai; too much present day not enough history
Writing Historical Fiction Marina Oliver GR Much of the advice is very basic
Historical Fiction Writing Myfanwy Cook GR Lots of good advice, research ideas and useful reference sites
Feb The Glory of Life Michael Kumpfmuller GR WIRO book review; last years of Franz Kafka; rich in detail, light on drama
The Heroes Welcome Louisa Young ER HNS Review; A novel about the effects of WWI; highly recommended
Mar The Foundling’s War Michel Deon GR A look at WWII France; present tense and omniscient narrator detract from story
Hell and Good Company Richard Rhodes ER HNS review; non-fiction on Spanish Civil War
All the Light We Cannot See – Pulitzer prize 2015 Anthony Doerr OR A five star IMHO; could not put this WWII novel down
The Wild Girl Kate Forsyth GR A story about the brothers Grimm; pacing slow in parts
Apr The Sandcastle Girls Chris Bojalian GR Book club; blending of past and present did not work for me
The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent Susan Elia MacNeal LR Set during WWII; light mystery
Writing Historical Fiction Katharine McMahon ER A short, straight forward read with some excellent advice
The Historical Novel – post 1 and post 2 Jerome de Groot ER Have read this twice; Traces the roots and impact of historical fiction
Write Away Elizabeth George ER A second read of this book on the craft of writing
The Dinner Herman Koch NMT Book club; not one sympathetic character
The Stranger Harlan Corben LR Audiobook – tense mystery
May Cairo Olen Steinhauer LR Complicated mystery set in Cairo
Pompeii Robert Harris OR Superb story of Pompeii’s destruction
The First Five Pages (a second reading) Noah Lukeman ER Great practical advice for writers
Scent of Triumph Jan Moran NMT Book review; far too melodramatic
The Secret Life of Violet Grant Beatriz Williams ER Great voice; strong blend of present day and past
Personal Lee Child LR Audiobook; good mystery for a long drive

Two outstanding reads, seven excellent ones.

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, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.