Friday, April 20, 2012


If you read (or write) historical fiction, check out the Historical Fiction Survey recently conducted over at  Mary Tod's A Writer of History blog.

Setting out last month to discover evolving tastes and trends among the historical fiction readership, she culled responses from 805 people, readers and writers, female and male, foreign and domestic. And she's been busy compiling her findings ever since.

From general questions about favorite genres and historical periods, reading habits, and selling points ("strong female character" and "significant historical figure" trump military stories and capital-R Romance),  Tod has been branching out into specific topics like "Reasons not to read historical fiction," "Historical fiction would be better if..." and, "Stories that sell" (historical and otherwise).

Back in 2000, when I was laboring to midwife my first novel, The Witch From the Sea, into existence, I conducted my own highly unscientific Historical Fiction Survey via the pages of the pirate fanzine No Quarter Given. Then (unlike now) historical fiction was considered a hard sell in the publishing world, and I wanted to know if anybody was still reading it, and why.

My small but vociferous group of respondents were only 45% female to 55% male (and, given the venue, most had a preference for nautical fiction). Back then, on the cusp of the digital age, respondents bought on the average 4 hardcover books a year and 12 paperbacks.

As to genre, some respondents bristled at the very idea. Citing his favorite author, Rafael Sabatini, one male respondent asked, "Would you consider him mainstream or romance or thriller? I think he has elements of all." Another participant insisted, "an author should not present a book as a work of 'historical fiction,' but rather as 'a great story.'"

What seemed overwhelmingly evident was that readers were less interested in a specific genre, locale, author, or time period, than in finding that elusive good story. As long as the story and/or characters captured their imagination, readers were willing to follow them into all sorts of unchartered waters, be it Romance or sci-fi, Shogun-era Japan or the Third Moon of Endor.

Happily, this still seems to be the case. As Tod writes of her survey respondents, "When asked about the genre they read or what detracts from historical fiction or their favourite authors – the data and comments point to a desire for great stories."

To this I would add something else I've observed lately: popular books (historical and otherwise) often create an entire alternate universe of the imagination that the reader wants to live in.

Who doesn't want to go to Hogwarts, drink Butter Beer, and hobnob with centaurs in the Forbidden Forest? And what about the Cirque de Reves in Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, with its provocative black-and-white striped tents? (Morgenstern only offers us glimpses inside some of the tents, which makes the book practically interactive: readers are free to imagine their own magical attractions lurking within the periphery of Morgenstern's tale.)

On the other hand, in her "Stories That Sell" post, Tod quotes non-fiction author James W. Hall's finding that “Three of the common features [of best selling novels] … are maverick heroes, high stakes and hot sex.” Okay, it's not exactly rocket science, but something to consider when trying to divine what readers really want—at least, if you plan to write a best-seller.

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