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Tuesday 30 August 2016

Historical Fiction – what do readers want?

My guest this week: M.K. Tod

I spent 2015 looking under the covers of historical fiction to illuminate those attributes that make it different from contemporary fiction. To do so, I explored seven elements of writing a novel: setting, characters, dialogue, world building, conflict, plot and theme.

A critical question is: “What do readers want?”

When asked what kind of stories they prefer, almost three quarters of those who participated in a 2015 survey chose ‘fictional characters within a backdrop of great historical events; close to half chose ‘the life of a significant historical figure’.

When asked what ingredients create a favourite novel, 86% said ‘feeling immersed in time and place’, but readers also want ‘authentic and educational’ stories, a ‘dramatic arc of historical events’ and ‘characters both heroic and human’. When asked why they read historical fiction, 76% said ‘to bring the past to life’.

Readers love historical fiction, but become annoyed when authors play around with historical events. When asked ‘what detracts from your enjoyment of historical fiction’, a large portion of readers cited historical inaccuracies while others mentioned too much historical detail, cumbersome dialogue, and characters with modern sensibilities.

Well now, that should be an easy recipe for writers to follow, shouldn’t it? Let’s look at those seven elements.

Setting: discover enough about your setting(s) to immerse readers in that time and place. Add details to inform and educate. Help readers understand what living was like for all manner of people.

Characters: if you choose a famous figure, ensure the details you include are accurate and find ways to bring out both heroic and human dimensions. When facts are absent, search for the plausible. Understand the restrictions and obligations faced by men and women of different classes. Avoid anachronistic behaviour.

Dialogue: use accessible language sprinkled lightly with references to era-specific language and terms. Readers are impatient; they don’t want to wade through ancient language that obscures the story. Avoid words, phrases and idioms not yet invented. Be careful with words whose meaning has changed over time.

World building: search for details that illuminate the period. Make sure you understand the political, social, religious, legal, military, bureaucratic and family context. Country borders are also a factor. Consider etiquette, fashion, food, drink and social customs. Avoid anachronisms. Find the big events your characters would know about – a plague, a riot, severe food shortages, wars, an eclipse, a monarch’s death, a pope’s edict.

Conflict: understand the conflicts inherent to your time period. These may or may not be the dominant conflicts of your story, however, they will provide context for them and could affect major or minor characters.

Plot: historical fact is critical when it comes to plot, especially when writing about major characters. You can’t have Eleanor of Aquitaine in England if the known facts are that she was in a particular part of what we now know as France at that particular time. Significant historical events cannot be ignored but use them to add tension or plot twists.

Theme: themes are generally universal. Myfanwy Cook offers a list in her book Historical Fiction Writing: “ambition, madness, loyalty, deception, revenge, all is not what it appears to be, love, temptation, guilt, power, fate/destiny, heroism, hope, coming of age, death, loss, friendship, patriotism …” Interpret them against the era of your writing.

Guide readers into and through your world. Educate but don’t overwhelm with details. Respect the facts.

I’d love to hear from others. If you’re a reader, what would you emphasize or add to this list? If you’re an author, how have you dealt with these aspects in your writing?

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 was 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

Time and Regret by M.K. Tod ~~ A cryptic letter. A family secret. A search for answers.

When Grace Hansen finds a box belonging to her beloved grandfather, she has no idea it holds the key to his past—and to long buried secrets. In the box are his World War I diaries and a cryptic note addressed to her. Determine to solve her grandfather’s puzzle, Grace follows his diary entries across towns and battle sites in northern France, where she becomes increasingly drawn to a charming French man—and suddenly aware that someone is following her.

Time and Regret is available from:

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  1. 1 comment sent via Messages: "I enjoyed M.K. Tod's post about what readers want. The paragraph about what detracts from reader-enjoyment was especially apropos."
    Marylee MacDonald

    Thank you Marylee - I so agree!

    1. Thank you from me too, Marylee! Good to have other perspectives on the issue.

  2. Mary, I've enjoyed your insights into historical fiction for a long time, and here you've shown us you know it inside out - a great summary of the important points. My own pet horrors are anachronisms and just plain bad writing.

    Thanks for hosting this, Helen!

    1. Thanks for leaving a comment Rebel Hand. I think I can tolerate some anachronisms, but some are so blatant they are almost silly!

    2. Absolutely agree with you on both counts, Rebel Hand. Interesting though, how it can be difficult to detect all anachronisms when you're - some items slip through the cracks. Let's hear it for good editors and beta readers!! Many thanks for your comment. All best, M.K. Tod

    3. Great comments! And I'm with you on editors and beta readers, Mary, they're gold dust.
      Thanks, Frances

    4. Gold dust for sure, Rebel Hand! What's interesting to me now that I'm working on book #4 (Helen, you're way ahead of me!!) is that I'm getting better at self-editing too.

  3. Dear Helen ... many thanks for having me on your blog! A great opportunity to connect with both readers and writers :-) All best, M.K. (Mary) Tod


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