23 February, 2006

Appealing historical fiction

The latest edition of Solander, published by the Historical Novel Society, has an article by US literary agent Irene Goodman on how to write commercially appealing historical fiction. You don't have to be a member to read the article. Here's a quotation from it:

What is “high concept?” It means something that is instantly recognizable and appealing in a short phrase or sentence. “A village in 17th-century England that got the plague and decided to quarantine itself” accurately describes the novel A Year of Wonders (Geraldine Brooks), and it’s all we need to know. “A banker survives the San Francisco earthquake and builds a new life” is not as powerful or as interesting. Why? England works better than San Francisco. Bankers are boring. Villagers are homey and appealing. The plague captures our imaginations more than the earthquake. There is also a great level of suspense with the plague book, because we know that plague killed off two thirds of a population before mysteriously stopping. So we know we will be presented with a cast of characters and that two thirds of them are going to die – but which ones?

Another factor in success with historical fiction is that the majority of the readers are women, and they like to read about other women. Much of history is dominated by men, which means you have to look for subjects that include women. The most common device is to take a woman who really lived and to let her tell her own story, free from the alleged “misrepresentation” of history

- Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, v.9 no.2 (Nov. 2005): 15.

I've been puzzling over this article for a while as its purpose isn't entirely clear to me. So far I've thought of three possibilities:
1) Is it tongue-in-cheek, like the Solander Official Rules for Writing Historical Fiction, and I haven't got the joke?
2) Is it the author's personal preferences? She likes books about plague in English villages more than she likes books about bankers surviving earthquakes in San Francisco?
3) Is it intended as a serious analysis of the factors that determine the saleability of historical fiction?

The tone of the article seems most consistent with (3) as the intention. In which case, I'd be interested to know what evidence it is based on. Is it derived from market research results? If so, in which country or countries, and what was the sample, and how was the research conducted? I hope it's based on solid research evidence, because the assertions don't reflect any of the factors that make me buy and read historical fiction. Yes, I know I'm only a sample of one, but I do read a lot of historical fiction and that makes me part of the target market. I'm curious as to how (un)representative a part.

Let's take the statements in turn.

"England works better than San Francisco". Why? Is this a US perspective that sees England as foreign and exotic? Is there something I don't know about San Francisco that makes it an inherently dull place?

"Bankers are boring." Why? (Except in cliche).

"Villagers are homey and appealing." Why? (Except in cliche).

"The plague captures our imaginations more than the earthquake." Why? Both are natural disasters, not human actions, so the interesting thing for me is how people reacted to them and coped with the disruption to their lives. Why is an infectious epidemic automatically more interesting than an earthquake?

"There is also a great level of suspense with the plague book, because we know that plague killed off two thirds of a population before mysteriously stopping. So we know we will be presented with a cast of characters and that two thirds of them are going to die – but which ones?" The book she's discussing is about the plague of 1665/1666 and the village is Eyam in Derbyshire. I wonder whether the 'suspense' is as obvious as stated. The story is well known and has developed considerably in the telling, as discussed in a scholarly paper by Patrick Wallis of the London School of Economics. Incidentally, the received version of the Eyam story is 75-80% mortality, not two-thirds, and the overall mortality rate across the country was very much less - about 19% in London, for example. Assuming the characters in the book are the real people from the records, a well-informed reader may know from the first page who lives and who dies in the end. The parish record from Eyam is extant, and the village has been the subject of several non-fiction books. My knowledge of Eyam is limited to having passed through it on a walk once and wondered idly why there were so many tourists there, and to having watched a TV documentary on genetic immunity that used Eyam as an example. But even I know that the rector survived and his wife Catherine died. Suspense? And even if the characters in the book are all fictional, why exactly is a book automatically attractive because two-thirds of the people in it are going to die a horrible death before the end? If I were looking for that as the main element of a story, I could get it from horror.

"....the majority of the readers are women, and they like to read about other women." This astonishingly sweeping statement makes me hope the article is a spoof. Why lump all women readers together? Don't we have individual tastes? I personally want to read about people and their interactions with each other and with their society. Unless the story is set in a closed community of nuns or a company of celibate warrior-monks, it's likely to include both men and women. I expect the author to make them all individuals, with different points of view, different expectations, different pressures on them and different courses of action open to them. I read historical fiction to explore why decisions were taken as they were, why events fell out as they did, and to get a feeling for how the world worked in a different time and place. Why should I want that filtered through a single-sex perspective or, worse, twisted to fit modern ideas of gender politics? (For a superb example of the stereotypes that can result, see How to Write Feministly-Reimagined Historical Novels). All I ask of an author is that they do some research, try to understand the mindset of an earlier age, and tell an interesting story about it. Surely that's not too much to ask?

So, let's do some highly unscientific market research on a random sample of however many people choose to leave a comment (if there's anyone out there who reads but doesn't comment, please de-lurk).

Do you read historical fiction?
What attracts you to a novel?
What repels you?
And why?


Anonymous said...

I've seen the article, and, quite frankly, I think it's purely tongue in cheek. As for what I like? Something that is well written and, convincing enough to feel like it's not fiction, without boring the pants off me. Which pretty much sums up any genre, really!

Oh, and thanks for stopping by and, passing on the link.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I'll be back with a more detailed post tomorrow. But when it comes to women in fiction - sorry, but I prefer to read about men. I want my battles bloody and exiting. :-)

Also, female MCs tend to be spokeswomen for feminist propaganda that doesn't go with the time. Mandy Scott and MZB (as far as you can call her books hist fic) are some typical examples.

Bernita said...

Regarding the earthquake vs. plague question, one might be perceived as more interesting than other other because one is a force of nature ( the just and the unjust) while the other - plague - requires some human interaction.
However, I still think this is a subjective point of view.
The other questions I'm going to have to think about for awhile.

Susan Higginbotham said...

(I thought I posted a comment earlier--it doesn't seem to have posted. If it did, please delete this one.)

I took the article straight.

I read historical fiction based mainly on the time and place it's set in. I don't have a preference for female characters over male, and I'm female. I do, however, prefer novels about historical figures to those set in the past but with purely fictional characters.

As for what repels me in historical fiction, I'm not keen on novels about heroines (they always seem to be heroines) who have visions or mystical leanings or on novels about heroines who experience a sexual awakening at the hands of an obliging artist, peasant, or ratcatcher.

Sarah Johnson said...

I'm sure the article isn't meant to be tongue in cheek. I can't speak for her, obviously, but I gather it's based on her experiences in trying to interest US publishers in historical novels. Ms. Goodman was a speaker at the HNS conference last year in Salt Lake City and gave her thoughts in greater detail. It's written from an American perspective.

Personally I don't care if a novel's set in 19th C San Francisco or 17th C Derbyshire or wherever as long as it's a good story. But I also know I'm not among the majority of American HF readers. Many Americans (wrongly, IMHO :) think of American history as boring and dreary, while British or European history is more exciting. It's also much more unfamiliar.

And believe it or not, those feminist-tinged historical novels do tend to be incredibly popular in the US. So while I don't think the article is representative of what I seek out in HF either, I think it pretty accurately describes what's going on in US HF publishing.

ali said...

In order:


An interesting story (doesn't have to mean historically accurate) or characters.

Cliche. Stereotypical characters. Boring plot. For historical fiction specifically - too much detail. It's nice that they've done all that research, but I'm not that interested. Any of those things and I probably won't finish.

Why? Well, cliche is boring. Ditto for boring plots, obviously.

Stereotypical characters - especially stereotypical female characters. Robert Jordan's female characters seem to have been going in this direction - getting bitchy, hysterical, men-obsessed, and over-emotional.

And too much detail slows the story down.

And, I suppose, if I know a bit about the time period, too much historical inaccuracy can put me off. At the moment I'm reading a series about Julius Caeser that's practically made up, but I don't know much about that Romans so I'm not bothered and can ignore it.

Alex Bordessa said...

I take it that article to be a personal point of view. The author is American, so she is, I presume, commenting on the US market.

To answer your questions:

Yes I do read historical fiction (just a wee bit!)
An absorbing story attracts to me to keep reading
A boring or cliched story repels me - I guess this is to do with the author's storytelling skills, or lack thereof

Rick said...

Confession that I don't actually read that much hist-fic, but ...

I'm sure the article is serious, and my gut feeling is that most of Goodman's points are correct, at any rate in US market terms.

Hist-fic is mostly a subgenre of romantic fiction in the broad sense (i.e., not just love stories), and yes, England is more romantic than the US. Though I would think that old San Francisco rates highly as US settings go.

Bankers are boring - a stuffy image, unless it is 15th century Italy; a whiff of Medici probably helps.

I suspect the problem with earthquakes is that they are over so fast - 30 seconds, and the rest is all aftermath. But personally I would avoid a plague story like ... well, the plague. :)

And I suspect that women readers by and large do want at least interesting women in the book. Remember Miss Snark's reaction to your Crapometer offering? (I do, because that was what led me to your blog and this whole little community! Thanks, Miss Snark!) I thought she had missed the point, but still her commercial radar reacted negatively to her impression that "Morwenna" had only a passive role in the story.

That article via Sarah on "feminist re-imagining" is a hoot! My book is full of strong-willed women, but not one of them thinks of herself as a feminist, or even has any glimmering of such a concept. They haven't even heard of Christine de Pisan!

wil said...

Hmmm...seems like it would have to be #2.

I don't read a lot of historical fiction...I think HF authors too often get bogged down in scene setting (capturing the historical "reality") to the detriment of the actual story.

I'm attracted to interesting, real characters (not caricatures) and a good, solid story.

Bernita said...

Two things repel me: excessive detail included to "educate" me - I cannot stand Peter Tremayne for this reason; and gross historical inaccuracy.
Small things make me smile in a superior, snotty fashion but don't interfer with my enjoyment or generally with my respect for the writer - but large things that could have been corrected with a minimum of research make me hurl.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Sarah, I'm sure those feminist novels are popular, and good luck to Mandy Scott for making a living by them. But it's not the sort of books I read, let alone write.

I do read books with fictional female MCs and about historical female characters, but I don't want an agenda tagged to them, and female characters are more prone to attract one. Nor do I want female characters that in order to be interesting violate the restrictions of their time in a historically impossible way.

That doesn't mean there aren't interesting female characters in hist fic books, or that I don't write them. I have no female MCs, and I don't think I'll ever have (except maybe in that Fantasy plotbunny) but I have some interesting secondary characters that are strong within the historical role boundaries. Though I avoid pagan priestesses, they've become too much of a cliché. ;-)

As for plague ridden village versus Fancisco banker - sorry, but both sound boring to me as subjects/plots for a modern commercial hist fic novel. If I want a small community, I'll read the Barchester Chronicles and if I want the fates of a merchant dynasty, I read The Buddenbrooks. *grin* Both benefit from an old-fashioned 'telling' narrative that won't get published today but have spoiled me for that sort of books. The modern concept of 'showing' works better with more fast paced plots.

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

Re: Irene Goodman's article, it seems to me that literary agents, when they're not looking for more of the Current Big Thing, are always trying to find the Next Big Thing. And because of the Big Thing mentality, they sometimes ignore mundane qualities such as storytelling, 3D characters, historical accuracy and polished prose, dialogue and plotting. Hearteningly, these qualities are sometimes there anyway, but I get the impression they're not top priorities these days.

I suppose she's right about women being the main readers of HF (since they read more fiction generally than men). I think women are more inclined to read fiction written by men than vice versa. "They like to read about other women" is a huge generalization, though. Women (more so than men, I think) like to read about relationships between people, both male and female, rather than plot-led adventure-type stuff. And some men can write that!

To your survey, then:

Do you read HF?

Yes, a lot.

What attracts you to a novel?

The conflict between the main characters, which should (for me) be personal but arise out of the period the novel is set in. I prefer the conflict to be complex, not black hats-and-white-hats. I'm especially drawn by the conflict inherent in conquest and its aftermath. I'm interested equally in men and women as protagonists.

What repels you?

Cardboard characters. Characters with anachronistic ideas and mindsets. Clunky prose, stilted dialogue and poor plotting. Data dumps of undigested research. Laboured or facile analogies with the present (especially novels in which the author hits you over the head with said analogy in an Afterword, in case you didn't get it while reading the novel. The Roman occupation of X = the American-led occupation of Iraq is fashionable just now).

Afraid I've rambled on, but it's a very interesting subject you've brought up!

Kathryn Warner said...

A bit late, but here's my take on histfict! :) I'm rather annoyed by the article's sweeping generalisation that 'women want to read about women'. As a woman, I'd say that either I have no preference, or that I tend to prefer reading about men. I agree with Gabriele's comment that women characters can often seem like mouthpieces for feminist propaganda, and I get very irritated with writers who think that the way to create a 'strong' female character is simply to make her stroppy and petulant. I'm currently writing a novel on Edward II where the viewpoint characters are mostly Edward himself and Despenser (though also Isabella and Despenser's wife) and I enjoy writing from a male perspective for a change!

What I like about historical fiction: believable, sympathetic characters true to their time period (in names and opinions). A good story with lots of conflict. A certain amount of background detail that deepens my knowledge of the characters and their lives. What I don't like is 'too much detail' - infodumping that shows off the writer's research but adds nothing to the story. Elizabeth Chadwick's novels are a good example. I know she's popular, but I've always put down her novels after a few pages because she focuses waaay too much on the background and not enough on the people. I don't care if the hero's hose are made of wool or silk - I want to know what he's feeling! I always find myself thinking in EC's novels - why does it matter if the clothes chest is made of oak, or if the brooch has a ruby in it? What's the relevance to the story? Why don't you do more research on creating three-dimensional people, and less on what a brooch looked like in 1204?
What I also don't like is when the author drops a fictional character into the middle of real, historical people - perfectly acceptable if they're servants or similar with a tiny role, not if they're main characters. Norah Loft did in the 'Lute Player' (a hunchbacked woman) and Philippa Gregory did it in 'The Queen's Fool' (a dwarf, I think). It just seems like a transparent plot device - someone who can go from Mary to Elizabeth, for example, so we can see both sides.
I can cope with a certain (low) level of historical inaccuracies, but when it's too obvious, it jolts me out of the story - like a novel I read on Ed II that had Despenser and his wife marrying a full 15 years after they really did, or when a character is the 'Duke of Stafford' or some such at a time when dukes didn't exist in England. I also hate it when the goodies have 21st century, politically correct opinions, while the baddies hold views that are actually correct for the time period ('let's all jump on Edward II for not treating women as equals!!')

Carla said...

Many thanks, Alianore. I've updated the summary post to include your replies.

I have a similar sort of difficulty with major fictional characters introduced into real events. Sometimes they work, but when they play a major role in influencing events I tend to wonder how things really happened since this person didn't exist. I like to see both sides of a conflict, but this can be done by cutting back and forth between people involved in each of the two sides. If I remember correctly Hannah in Queen's Fool had the second sight, rather than being a dwarf (and would therefore come under Susan's dislike of heroines who have visions or mystical leanings).