Advice From Top Historical Fiction Authors

When I interviewed some of the top 20 historical fiction authors, I asked each one what advice they would offer to other writers. Here’s what they said.

  • Find a story you are really committed to; write the story that’s in your heart; write what you want (Hilary Mantel, Susan Higginbotham, Helen Hollick)
  • Find an agent if at all possible (Sharon Key Penman)
  • Read and research widely and diligently, then let it simmer (Hilary Mantel, Elizabeth Chadwick)
  • Educate yourself on the world of e-books and self-publishing (Sharon Kay Penman)
  • Trust your gut (CW Gortner)
  • Find your unique voice (CW Gortner)
  • Master your craft (CW Gortner)
  • Shape your drama around history (Hilary Mantel)
  • Don’t bend the facts (Hilary Mantel)
  • Treat historical figures with respect (Susan Higginbotham, Elizabeth Chadwick)
  • Enjoy yourself (Elizabeth Chadwick)
  • Be proud of what you do (Margaret George)
  • Never give up; keep writing (CW Gortner, Michelle Moran)

So, if you are feeling daunted by feedback from your agent, uncertain of plot direction, distracted by Facebook, Twitter and other tools, proud of the day’s word count, disappointed with yet another rejection, exhilarated by some accomplishment, envious of a fellow author’s progress, pleased that you survived NaNoWriMo, or struggling for exactly the right turn of phrase – think of these writers who trod the same path and achieved success.

Listen to their advice, allow it to permeate your writer’s soul.

Books, books, books

After conducting the historical fiction survey and discovering a bunch of favourite authors, I decided that I should read as many of them as possible – not all their work but at least one book each. In some cases – Philippa Gregory is an example – I had already experienced the author but others, like CW Gortner or Deanna Raybourn, were unknown to me. So here’s my progress on the top 40, by the way, I’m concentrating on living authors.


  • Sharon Kay Penman – Time and Chance
  • Philippa Gregory – the latest was Fallen Skies (an early work set in post-WWI times)
  • Elizabeth Chadwick – The Running Vixen
  • Bernard Cornwell – Sword Song
  • Ken Follett – Fall of Giants
  • CW Gortner – The Last Queen and The Queen’s Vow
  • Michelle Moran – Cleopatra’s Daughter
  • Susan Higginbotham – Traitor’s Wife
  • Helen Hollick – Forever Queen
  • Anne Perry – The Sheen on the Silk
  • Geraldine Brooks – People of the Book
  • Jacqueline Winspear – Maisie Dobbs
  • Deanna Raybourn – Silent in the Sanctuary and Silent in the Grave


  • Diana Gabaldon – one of her Lord John Grey series (since I’ve read almost all of Outlander)
  • Alison Weir – Mistress of the Monarchy (a new author for me)
  • Margaret George – Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles (such a tragic figure)
  • CJ Sansom – Heartstone (one of his Matthew Shardlake series)
  • Tracy Chevalier – The Virgin Blue (interweaving present and past)
  • Hilary Mantel – Bring up the Bodies (completing the Wolf Hall story)
  • Sarah Dunant – Sacred Hearts (set in a 16th Italian convent)
  • Colleen McCullough – The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet (haven’t read this Australian author since The Thorn Birds)
  • Lindsey Davis – The Course of Honour (another new author)
  • Edward Rutherfurd – Dublin (who can resist Dublin?)
  • Sarah Waters – The Night Watch (WWII is up my alley)
  • Jean Auel – I’ve read them all (no pun intended)
  • John Jakes – On Secret Service (because I enjoy spies)

I have my work cut out for me. I’ll be trying to figure out what makes them such favourites.

PS – I’ve also read The Mathematics of Love by Emma Darwin, Fire in the East by Harry Sidebottom and The King’s Daughter by Barbara Kyle.

Top Historical Fiction Authors Talk About What Attracts Readers

Those who are frequent readers will know of the interviews I’ve conducted with top historical fiction authors. Collectively these interviews generated lots of interest and discussion. But … what can we learn by looking across nine favourite authors?

One question I asked was what do you think attracts readers to your books. Let’s have a look.

Sharon Kay Penman: readers appreciate “that I am writing of people who actually lived and events that really happened” and “my efforts to be as historically accurate as humanly possible.”

C. W. Gortner: “readers have told me … I write about human beings, not cliches: that I show flaws and weaknesses as well as strengths” and “find the connections between us … that shared emotional experience”

Hilary Mantel: tries to bring the “best writing she can” to her readers … “finds the dramatic shape in real events” … and regards each novel as a “joint effort between writer and reader”

Susan Higginbotham: tells stories “through fresh viewpoints” and “treats the historical figures … with respect” and “tries to avoid black-or-white characters or cliched characters”

Helen Hollick: ” I think the passion I feel for my characters comes across in my writing”

Michelle Moran: “I hope it’s the historical accuracy and the ability to be transported back in time”

Elizabeth Chadwick: readers tell me “they love the feeling as if they are there in the moment … appreciate that the characters are of their time, believable and not anachronistic … they enjoy the vividness, the colour and also the emotional and historical integrity”.

Margaret George: “people do say they feel like they are really there”

Deanna Raybourn: “I try to tell a good story with characters my readers will care about. I am rabid on the subject of historical accuracy”

Common threads – historical accuracy, characters we can understand and care about, the drama of history, vividness of the time.

Connecting back to the survey – the top three reasons for reading historical fiction are (1) to bring the past to life appreciating how people lived and coped in very different times, (2) because it’s a great story, and (3) to understand and learn about historical periods without reading non-fiction. And the number one response to the question of what detracts from your enjoyment of historical fiction – historical inaccuracies.

No wonder these authors are favourites!