A tribute to Sharon Kay Penman

In the spring of 2012, I conducted a reader survey focused on historical fiction – the first of 6 such surveys. Among the questions on reading habits, I asked readers to identify their favourite historical fiction authors. Sharon Kay Penman was at the top of the list. I’d read and loved many of her novels, so I plucked up my courage, found a way to contact her and asked if she would agree to be interviewed. To my delight, she said yes.

A few years later, Sharon also agreed to write an endorsement for Lies Told In Silence – what a thrill that was! And at the 2015 Historical Novel Society conference in Denver, I had dinner with Sharon and Margaret George – a real highlight.

The HF community is reeling from news of Sharon’s passing. As a tribute, I thought I would share that original interview. You will see that her personality and character shine through it.

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I am extremely pleased that Sharon Kay Penman is here today talking about writing historical fiction. This spring’s survey placed Ms. Penman in the number one position with readers – a truly wonderful accomplishment. I remember being captivated by Here Be Dragons and The Sunne in Splendour and my current read, Time and Chance, her novel about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, is equally captivating.

Why do you write historical fiction?     I always wanted to write, scribbled my first story at age six.   In my teens, I did a novel that mercifully has vanished from the earth, for I am sure it would be very embarrassing to read.   But I didn’t have a story burning to be told, and so my writing efforts were sporadic and random.  Then I stumbled onto the history of Richard III, and my life changed—literally.   I felt compelled to write his story, if only because my friends quickly grew tired of listening to me preach to them about the terrible injustice done to this long-dead medieval king.    The end result was The Sunne in Splendour, my first novel.  By that time, I’d spent twelve years in the fifteenth century with Richard, so it never even occurred to me to write of another time period.   And I’ve been happily ensconced in the Middle Ages ever since.

You are clearly very skilled at writing historical fiction.  What do you think attracts readers to your books?     I wonder that myself at times.  I feel very fortunate to have such amazing, devoted readers.  From what they’ve told me, they appreciate my efforts to be as historically accurate as humanly possible.  Obviously, any novel is a work of the imagination, but I believe very strongly that it needs a strong factual foundation, and this is what I strive for when writing.  If I do take any liberties with known facts, I clear my conscience by reporting that in my Author’s Note.   My readers also seem to like that I am writing of people who actually lived and events that really happened, for there are very few purely fictional characters in my novels.

Do you have a particular approach to research and writing?     I research on two levels, general and specific.  For example, I researched the life and reign of King Richard I before beginning the first of my two novels about him.  This enabled me to know what I would need to dramatize.  I also do specific research as I write, usually about a particular battle or castle, etc.   I am now following that pattern in the sequel to Lionheart, A King’s Ransom, which entails doing considerable research about Austria and Germany, where Richard was held prisoner on his way home from the Holy Land.   I love researching, so my concern is to rein my enthusiasm in.  I became so fascinated with medieval Sicily and Cyprus in Lionheart that I probably went overboard with my research of their societies, and I am trying to show a bit more self-discipline with A King’s Ransom.

Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you?     I don’t think I have been influenced by other historical writers.   There are many writers I admire, of course—Anya Seton comes at once to mind.   Among my contemporaries, I am a fan of Bernard Cornwell, Margaret George, Elizabeth Chadwick, C.W. Gortner, and Steven Saylor, just to name a few.  I also enjoy historical mysteries very much, my favorites including Priscilla Royal, Margaret Frazer, and Sharan Newman.

What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author?  Do you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing?     Truthfully, I have no idea!   I can tell you what I look for as a reader.  Historical accuracy is very important to me, both as a reader and a writer.   I also believe that we owe a debt to the people we are writing about.   My fellow writer, Laurel Corona, expressed this perfectly when she said, “Do not defame the dead.”  I think that ought to be the First Commandment for all writers of historical fiction!

How do you select new stories to tell?     I usually have ideas marinating in my brain for years before I actually begin to write.   If I did not have another novel in mind as I came to the end of one, I’d probably panic.   I tend to write trilogies, so that makes life much easier for me.  What my readers call my Welsh trilogy is set in the 13th century, and dramatizes the clash of cultures between the Welsh princes and the English kings.  I then did what was to be a trilogy about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.  But as I finished the final book, Devil’s Brood, I realized there was still so much of their story to be told, and the result was Lionheart and now A King’s Ransom; so my trilogy turned into a quintet.

What advantages do you think come from concentrating on a period of time or creating a series like you have done?  Any disadvantages?     I feel so comfortable in the Middle Ages that it would feel strange to write about another time period.  After so many years, I am familiar with medieval customs, beliefs, superstitions, and the details of daily life.  So I would find it somewhat daunting to start from scratch in writing of another era, ancient Rome, for example.   I know some writers who do shift from one time to another and do it very well; Margaret George certainly does, writing about the Tudors, Cleopatra, and Helen of Troy, just to mention some of her books.    But I’ve put my roots down in the Middle Ages for thirty years now, and have no plans to move.

What techniques do you employ to write productively?     I have an established routine by now.  I begin with an outline of the novel, and then I do a chapter at a time, staying with it until I am satisfied.   Some of my writer friends do several drafts, but I’ve never tried that approach.   Of course I always do some last-minute pruning and polishing, but once I’ve completed the novel, that is the final version.  I don’t do any rewriting unless my editor requests it.

Do you think of yourself as having a brand?     No, I do not think of myself as a brand.

What do you do to connect to readers?     I have always responded to letters and then to e-mails, but social networking sites like Facebook have made it so much easier for writers and readers to interact.    I confess that I was hesitant about venturing onto Facebook at first, but I soon became addicted.  In addition to my personal Facebook page, my readers have set up three Facebook fan clubs, and I try to stop by as often as I can.  I had formed friendships with readers via snail and e-mail, but Facebook makes it so much easier.  This past week I had a phone chat with my Australian Fan Club, who were holding their annual meeting, and it was so much fun.   I feel as if I know them all by now, and I have moved a visit to Australia to the top of my Bucket List as a result.   So far I have avoided Twitter, but writer friends tell me I should give it a try, so that will probably be next on the agenda.    I have also formed friendships because of my blogs, for blogs are inter-active, too.    And websites like Goodreads and LibraryThings are another way for writers to meet with readers.

What do you know about your readers?     Well, they have good taste in books!  They are also well educated and, to judge from their letters and Facebook comments, quite articulate and often very funny.  They share my passion for the past.  And my publishers have told me that I am unusual in that my readers are split about evenly between men and women; apparently most of historical novel readers are women.  But I’ve always had a fair share of male readers, too.

What data do you collect about your readers?     I do not collect any data about my readers.  I am not that organized!

What strategies guide your writing career?     Truthfully, I’ve never had a strategy.  I was just following my passion, the need to write.  This led to The Sunne in Splendour and after that, the dominos seemed to fall naturally into place.

What would you do differently if you were starting again?     I have been so fortunate in my writing career that I don’t think I would change anything.  I love writing and still feel blessed to be able to do it.    I have a wonderful editor, who has been my editor for all twelve of my books, which is almost unheard-of in publishing.  I have very gifted agents on both sides of the Atlantic.  And I have never been required to meet a word quota, as some of my writer friends are.   This is both remarkable and rare and I feel so lucky.

Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction?     If at all possible, I would try to find an agent.  I know that can be quite a challenge, but I think it is well worth the effort.   And of course publishing is very different now than it was when I first began my career.   Writers today have options that writers never even dreamed of in the past.   E-books are becoming more and more important, so I would advise writers to educate themselves about this phenomenon.   Some writers are choosing to bypass publishers altogether and to publish their books themselves.  This was once a high-risk venture, and it still can be a bumpy road.  But in the era of e-books, it can be an enticing option and I think it is one worth exploring for those just starting out, as long as they remember how time-consuming it can be.

Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked?     Actually, there is one.  What are your favorite research sources?

That would be the medieval chronicles, which are a fascinating mix of the foreign and the familiar.   The chronicler will be complaining about high prices, bad roads, and corrupt sheriffs, stories that could be found in any of today’s newspapers.  And then I will come across an account of green children found in Kent!     The chronicles cannot be taken as gospel, for the chroniclers often pass on rumors and gossip.  I also have to take personal bias into account.  The vast majority of chroniclers were monks, so they tended to look upon women with a skeptical eye, as daughters of Eve.  Nor were they free of nationalism; French chroniclers were highly critical of English kings and vice versa, and the English were hostile to the Welsh, who returned the favor.    But the chronicles open a window to these distant times and offer us personal glimpses of people dead for centuries.  This was especially true for my last novel, Lionheart, much of which was set during the Third Crusade.  The Lionheart of legend smolders like a torch, glowering, dour, and dangerous.  But the chroniclers who accompanied Richard I to the Holy Land and the Saracen chroniclers give us a very different man—sardonic, playful, unpredictable.  I worry that Lionheart has spoiled me for future books, as I will never have such a rich treasure-trove to draw upon again.   I had eye-witness accounts of the battles fought between the crusaders and Saracens, told from both sides, and for a novelist, that is beyond wonderful.  For those interested in reading them, too, I list them all in the Acknowledgments of Lionheart.

I also mine for gold in the Pipe Rolls and other government records.   There we learn that Lady Neville had to pay King John a fine of 200 shillings “to lie one night with her husband.”   What I wouldn’t give to know the story behind that cryptic entry!  Another favorite entry captures a royal temper tantrum for all time, reporting the cost of repairing the crown of Edward I, noting that it was damaged “when it pleased the king to throw it into the fire.”

As you can tell, Mary, I love researching!  To be able to spend time studying the Middle Ages and then to write about it and actually get paid for doing so—well, it does not get any better than that.

Thank you so much for inviting me to visit your blog.

January 2021 – Thank you, Sharon. Thank you for your kindness, your warm heart, your brilliant novels, and the wonderful example you’ve offered to generations of authors to come.

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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 AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

10 thoughts on Favourite Historical Fiction

Participants in the 2015 reader survey nominated their favourite historical fiction (a second post added those mentioned by 5 to 9 participants). What can we glean from the more than 1700 nominated titles?

Favourite-Historical-Fiction

  1. Many mentions of titles by authors such as Dorothy Dunnett, Elizabeth Chadwick, Sharon Kay Penman, Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O’Brian, Ken Follett and Diana Gabaldon which is not surprising given the status of these writers as favourite authors. (You can find the post on favourite authors here.)
  2. Many mentions of Outlander and Wolf Hall  and I wonder if this reflects their recent TV adaptations.
  3. Despite the request for single titles only, series were frequently nominated which makes me think that participants really enjoy series and additionally did not want to be restricted to three titles.
  4. A significant number of favourites are stories set in ancient Rome.
  5. Many favourite stories were written long ago by authors such as Sir Walter Scott, Daniel Defoe, Mary Stewart, Alexandre Dumas, Irving Stone, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jean Plaidy, Leo Tolstoy.
  6. Readers enjoy myths, particularly those told of King Arthur and Merlin.
  7. Both major and minor historical fiction figures feature in the stories.
  8. There are many, many authors I have never heard of.
  9. The inclusion of a few relatively recent 2015 novels – All the Light We Cannot See for example – might suggest that it’s easier to recall a title recently read than one from long ago.
  10. Not surprisingly, favourites vary with gender, nationality and age.

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, TIME AND REGRET will be published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. 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 Ingredients of Favourite Historical Fiction

Some of you may have seen this on Tony Riches’ blog The Writing Desk a few days ago – many thanks, Tony.

In a 2015 reader survey, I asked participants to name three favourite historical novels. Listed below are the twelve top titles mentioned by over 2,000 readers. What characteristics do they share?

Favourite-Historical-Fiction

Immersed in time and place. Activating all senses, these novels transport readers to another era right from the opening pages. Here’s an example from the opening paragraph of Master and Commander, the first of the Aubrey and Maturin series: “He was wearing his best uniform—the white-lapelled blue coat, white waistcoat, breeches and stockings of a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, with the silver medal of the Nile in his buttonhole …” Here, words like breeches and stockings help set the time period, as does the reference to ‘silver medal of the Nile’, a sea battle that took place in 1798.

Superb writing. Prose, pacing, emotional resonance, plot twists and entertainment value factor into superb writing. Table stakes for high quality fiction of any genre. Each title on the list offers a uniquely compelling blend of these factors. As an example, here’s what one Goodreads reviewer had to say about When Christ and His Saints Slept: “Sharon Penman is one of those exquisitely rare writers who can’t put a foot wrong. The vocabulary she can draw upon would put professors of English to shame, her understanding of the language is almost unmatched, and her consummate fluidity of writing and fluency has few rivals. Moreover, Sharon’s writing style is supremely natural and elegant in its simplicity.”

Characters both heroic and human. Readers want to experience famous figures as believable characters complete with doubts and flaws or everyday people accomplishing heroic tasks in times so different from today. Outlander and Gone With the Wind are examples of novels based on everyday people; Wolf Hall and The Greatest Knight are examples of novels exploring the lives of famous historical figures. The strengths and flaws of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt emerge in Seton’s Katherine as do those of Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler in Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.

Authentic and educational. Readers love to learn. The hallmark of favourite historical fiction is meticulous research followed by carefully chosen information to create a seamless blend of history and story. If you want to know about building cathedrals in the 12 century, choose The Pillars of the Earth; to explore Henry VIII’s destruction of the power of the Catholic Church, read Dissolution.

Dramatic arc of historical events. Each of these novels uses the dramatic shape of real events to tell a compelling story. In The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory shows us the times and intrigue of Henry VIII’s court as Catherine of Aragon loses her influence to Mary Boleyn who in turn loses to her sister Anne. Outlander explores a time when Scottish clans hoped for the return of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the end of English rule.

If you haven’t read them, I’ve included a brief blurb about each title to whet your appetite.

Outlander Series by Diana Gabaldon: Scottish Highlands, 1945. Claire Randall, a former British combat nurse, is just back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon when she walks through a standing stone in one of the ancient circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach—an “outlander”—in a Scotland torn by war and raiding clans in the year 1743. The series explores the life of Claire and Jamie Fraser, a Scottish warrior who rescues her, during a time of great danger and upheaval.

The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman: A novel of the controversial Richard III—a monarch betrayed in life by his allies and in death by history. In this superb novel, Penman redeems Richard III—vilified as the bitter, twisted, scheming hunchback who murdered his nephews, the princes in the Tower—from his maligned place in history with a dazzling combination of research and storytelling.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: England in the 1520s: if the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. Cromwell helps Henry break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?

Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman: Thirteenth-century Wales is a divided country, ever at the mercy of England’s ruthless, power-hungry King John. Llewelyn, Prince of North Wales, secures an uneasy truce by marrying the English king’s beloved illegitimate daughter, Joanna, who slowly grows to love her charismatic and courageous husband. But as John’s attentions turn again and again to subduing Wales—and Llewelyn—Joanna must decide where her love and loyalties truly lie.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett: A spellbinding epic set in twelfth-century England. The Pillars of the Earth tells the story of the lives entwined in the building of the greatest Gothic cathedral the world has ever known—and a struggle between good and evil that will turn church against state, and brother against brother.

Katherine by Anya Seton: Katherine is an epic novel of the love affair between Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt that changed history. Set in the vibrant fourteenth century, the story features knights fighting in battle, serfs struggling in poverty, and the magnificent Plantagenets who rule despotically over a court rotten with intrigue. Within this era of danger and romance, John of Gaunt, the king’s son, falls passionately in love with the already-married Katherine. Their affair persists through decades of war, adultery, murder, loneliness, and redemption.

The Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick: A penniless young knight with few prospects, William Marshal is plucked from obscurity when he saves the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. In gratitude, she appoints him tutor to the heir to the throne, the volatile and fickle Prince Henry. But being a royal favorite brings its share of danger and jealousy as well as fame and reward.

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell: Gone With the Wind explores the depth of human passions with bold intensity. A superb piece of storytelling, it vividly depicts the drama of the Civil War and Reconstruction. This is the tale of Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled, manipulative daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, who arrives at young womanhood just in time to see the Civil War forever change her way of life.

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory: When Mary Boleyn comes to court as an innocent girl of fourteen, she catches the eye of the handsome and charming Henry VIII. Dazzled by the king, Mary falls in love with both her golden prince and her growing role as unofficial queen. In reality, she’s a pawn to her family’s ambitious plots and as the king’s interest begins to wane, Mary is forced to step aside for her best friend and rival: her sister, Anne.

When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman: A.D. 1135. As church bells tolled for the death of England’s King Henry I, his barons faced the unwelcome prospect of being ruled by a woman: Henry’s beautiful daughter Maude, Countess of Anjou. But before Maude could claim her throne, her cousin Stephen seized it. In their long and bitter struggle, all of England bled and burned.

Aubrey & Maturin Series by Patrick O’Brian: stories based on the friendship between Captain Aubrey, R.N., and Stephen Maturin, ship’s surgeon and intelligence agent, against a thrilling backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Details of a life aboard a man-of-war in Nelson’s navy are faultlessly rendered: the conversational idiom of the officers in the ward room and the men on the lower deck, the food, the floggings, the mysteries of the wind and the rigging, and the roar of broadsides as great ships do battle.

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.