Looking back – and looking forward

Something seems to be happening at A Writer of History. Let me explain. Attracting followers is a slow process. For the longest time, you think no one is interested – or maybe that’s just my own insecurity talking. However, during the past year, new followers have emerged at a higher pace than ever before and the number of daily views is also up. Hmmm.

So … I thought new viewers (as well as those of long standing) might be interested in some of the most popular posts from the past. Today I’m sharing posts from 2012 that attracted a lot of attention. I’ll look at other years over the next week or so and perhaps ultimately create a dedicated page for them.

From the World of Historical Fiction – Readers Share Their Perspectives (2012) … a link to the 2012 reader survey.

Historical Fiction Would Be Better If … 588 readers responded with enthusiasm to the question “what detracts from your enjoyment of historical fiction”

Top Historical Fiction Authors – 2012 Survey Results … 602 survey participants provided their favourite historical fiction authors in the 2012 reader survey. Most of those nominated in 2012 were also on the surveys conducted in 2013 and 2015.

Historical Fiction – Four Top Book Blogs … readers selected their favourite historical fiction blogs/sites. Three of the top four from 2012 are all still going strong.

I interviewed owners/bloggers from each top site. Richard Lee’s interview from the Historical Novel Society captured a lot of attention.

Insights from Hit Lit and Author James W. Hall … I read Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers looking for insights. This is the first of three posts about the book. More Features of Hit Lit is the second post and Hit Lit – the final six features is the third.

Top Ten Ingredients of Historical Fiction … Having read Hit Lit, I then analyzed interviews with and reviews of top historical fiction authors, looked at articles on the ‘popularity of historical fiction’, and the top three reasons people read historical fiction from the 2012 reader survey. I pulled these together into the top ten ingredients.

As always, I welcome your feedback. In terms of looking forward, I want a new theme for A Writer of History and hope that looking back will help.

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. 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.

 

Elizabeth I by Margaret George

Elizabeth I by Margaret GeorgeSo many historical fiction authors choose younger men and women to write about, those on the ascendancy of great historical change and their own place in it. In Elizabeth I, Margaret George has chosen to show us a woman at the end of her career—and what a career it was—a woman whose beauty has faded though her wits and passion remain sharp.

The story begins in 1588 when the Spanish Armada is about to launch its first foray against Protestant England. Elizabeth is fifty-five years old and has reigned since 1558. Many of her advisors served her father and her great love, Robert Dudley, is still alive, although married to her cousin Lettice, who has been banished from court in consequence.

George brings the story alive alternating between the voices of Elizabeth I and Lettice, Countess of Essex and of Leicester. Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex and son of Lettice becomes the throbbing heart of the story, winning Elizabeth’s affection despite the wide gap in their ages, leveraging that affection for many honours and influential positions, risking it repeatedly through ineptitude and hubris, and ultimately betraying his sovereign with an uprising against the government.

Elizabeth I is a fascinating tale with all the attributes of favourite historical fiction: feeling immersed in time and place, superb writing, characters both heroic and human, authentic and education, and a dramatic arc of historical events. Margaret George’s writing style is indeed superb, weaving facts seamlessly into the story and rarely providing too much detail. And drama? With plenty of drama in the later years of Elizabeth I’s reign to choose from, George keeps our attention focused on Devereux, avoiding tangential, and potentially confusing, episodes.

What affected me most is the view of Elizabeth as a woman striving to live up to her father’s legacy, deeply affected by the death of her mother, strong in her faith, devoted to her people, and passionate about her duty to protect England for future generations. She is a woman who has loved more than once and yet remained unmarried. She is a woman who inspires friendship and loyalty and cares a great deal for those friends and long-serving advisors. Occasionally she allows her heart to rule her head, however, for the most part, she is wise and ultimately willing to make the difficult decisions that serve England’s best interests. Definitely heroic and human.

I enjoyed the episodes featuring William Shakespeare and loved the bits about growing old. Here’s one I noted:

I found myself alert to what others denoted as signs of aging. Sleeping during the day. Walking into a room and forgetting what one has come in there to get. Reminiscing about the golden days of yore and how things have deteriorated since then—the manners of the young, the workmanship of craftsmen, the morals of women. Even if I agreed, I did not voice it.

Elizabeth I is a novel to savour well into the night. It is no wonder Margaret George is one of the top historical fiction authors.

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.

The Course of Honour – by Lindsey Davis

The Course of Honour by Lindsey DavisI’ve just read my first novel by Lindsey Davis and it definitely won’t be my last! Lindsey Davis came to my attention when she appeared on both the 2013 and 2012 lists of favourite historical fiction authors. She was a guest of honour at the 2014 Historical Novel Society conference in London and the audience (including me) loved her dry wit and interesting stories about writing. Lindsey’s specialty is ancient Rome and she is well know for her Falco series of historical crime stories.

The Course of Honour is about Emperor Vespasian and his lover Antonia Caenis. If high school history had been as interesting as Lindsey’s stories, I would have enjoyed it so much more, and learned a lot as well.

Using the the top attributes of favourite historical fiction from the 2013 historical fiction survey, here’s my review.

(1) Feeling immersed in time and place – From the opening pages we know where we are and can already feel ancient Rome as we are swiftly introduced to Vespasian, Caenis and Sabinus and to the political time of Emperor Tiberius just before the fall of Aelius Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guard.

Ancient Rome – a time of corruption, religious superstitions, senatorial machinations, incredible wealth mixed with incredible poverty. A time where rules were rigidly followed, where men poisoned wives and brothers schemed against fathers. A time when Rome’s empire extended “from Africa to Gaul, from Farther Spain to Syria” and the gods could be capricious.

Here’s an example of time and place “the teenaged daughter being raped first, to spare the public executioner from the crime of killing a virgin. Rome had harsh rules, but they did exist.”

And another: “in the Twelfth District, law took second place to huge men with brutal tempers who trained gladiators.”

The Course of Honour takes us from AD31 to AD69 – a huge span of time that Davis masters with ease, interspersing just enough language and terms of the day to add authenticity without confusion. We experience festivals, triumphant parades, the life of a scribe, Roman baths, the pecking order from Emperor to lowly slave. We glide through magnificent palaces and step through the filthy streets of Rome. We learn about Roman dress, foods, shopping, senatorial hierarchy, social mores, Rome’s invasion of Britain, Vespasian’s struggles to conquer Jerusalem and so much more.

(2) Superb writing – Davis’ prose has an easy flow. Her scenes are well set, emotion vividly drawn. Except for a few occasions – for example, the use of Thanks and Neat! and gent – her dialogue suits my concept of the times and brings her characters to life. Caenis, Veronica, Vespasian, Narcissus were my favourite characters. While I did not underline many passages, I did note this one that occurs in chapter 1 with my comment ‘superb cadence’.

“Everywhere lay silent. The echoes of their own footfalls had whispered and died. No other sign of occupation disturbed the chill, tall, marble-veneered corridors of the staterooms on the Palatine Hill from which the Roman Empire was administered.”

I read lovely bits of imagery like: “Vespasian’s mood had clarified like a wax tablet melting for reuse.”

I also enjoyed the teasing bits of irony or sarcasm Davis weaves into the story. At times she pokes fun at Roman life, at other times her comments transcend time and are equally applicable today. “Caenis had made it her lifelong rule never to trust a man with peculiar footwear.” Or “Vespasian wondered why the most inhospitable tracts of territory were so endlessly disputed.”

Occasionally, Davis becomes the historian summarizing spans of time by listing the highlights of what occurred. While these did not take away from the story, they were a noticeable change of style.

(3) Characters both heroic and human – Emperors, slaves, senators, prostitutes, generals, high born women and men populate the pages of The Course of Honour. Some are tragic, others noble. Some are despicable. Vespasian and Caenis are the epitome of characters both heroic and human. They caught my interest immediately and that interest strengthened throughout the story.

Lindsey Davis has a knack for offering the most intriguing bits about historical figures.

(4) Authentic and educational – For the most part fact remains subsidiary to story. Most often we learn through the eyes of one of the characters. Occasionally, the narrator tells us what she feels we should know, but even then the information is so interesting that I rarely skipped any of the detail.

Here’s Lindsey Davis explaining the water-organ from Caenis’ perspective: “As far as Caenis could judge from her place in the upper gallery it was a gigantic set of panpipes, partly brass and partly reed, worked by a large beam-lever that forced air into a water box; under pressure it found its way to the pipe chamber and then to the pipes, released into them by slides which the musician operated.”

(5) Dramatic arc of historical events – there is plenty of drama in The Course of Honour as we travel from Emperor Tiberius to Emperor Vespasian and like an experienced surfer, Lindsey Davis catches and rides the big waves of that time period. At time the story leaps ahead by two years or twenty so we can catch those times when the love affair between Caenis and Vespasian changes or when their lives take a sudden turn. My imagination was completely engaged as I powered through the story in just a few days time.

A wonderful read. Highly recommended.