26 February, 2006

Appealing historical fiction, part two - Updated

Alianore contributed her replies to my earlier post, and as I miscounted the original responses that brings the total to 11. Hooray, double figures! I also realise that I didn't distinguish between Sarah Johnson and Sarah Cuthbertson in my summary. So here is an updated and amended post.
Thanks again to all who replied.

Sarah J provided the background to the article, "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." This answers my original question about the basis of the article; it presumably represents the views of a group (number unknown) of US editors. Rick and Sarah J also both thought it reflected the tastes of a majority of US readers. By the way, does anyone know if publishers do much reader research? I'd never thought of it before, but I don't recall ever seeing a customer questionnaire about books, though I get surveys from ferry operators, companies I once hired a car from, printer manufacturers, the Guardian website, supermarkets and regional French tourist boards.

Here's a summary of the replies. If I've missed something or got the wrong end of the stick, do correct me.

Strong story and/or characters (Alex, Ali, Alianore, Gabriele, Sarah C, Wil)
Historical figures rather than purely fictional characters (Susan)
Particular time and place (Susan)
Conflict between characters that is true to the period (Alianore, Sarah C)
Exciting and bloody battles (Gabriele)
Convincing and well written (Alexandra)
Background detail that deepens knowledge of the characters and their lives (Alianore)

Too much detail/info dump (Ali, Alianore, Bernita, Sarah C, Wil)
Gross historical inaccuracy or anachronistic ideas (Ali, Alianore, Bernita, Sarah C)
Boring or cliched story and/or characters (Alex, Ali, Sarah C)
Laboured modern analogy and/or modern propaganda (Alianore, Gabriele, Sarah C)
Mysticism (Susan)
Sexual awakening with an obliging artist, peasant or ratcatcher (Susan) (Ratcatcher? I'm dying of curiosity!)
Major fictional character introduced among real historical figures (Alianore)

Nine women and two men replied, and both men said they didn't read much historical fiction, so that's consistent with the view that most readers are women.

'Too much detail' was mentioned as a dislike by five people. This is fascinating, so I want to understand it better - how much is too much? Bernita mentioned Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma mysteries (see the comment thread for an illustrative quote!) and Alianore mentioned Elizabeth Chadwick. It seems that gratuitous detail that doesn't advance either story or character is annoying (though tastes vary, and one person's gratuitous detail is probably another person's rich background). I'm just reading my first Elizabeth Chadwick so can't comment on her, but I concur with the comments on the Sister Fidelma mysteries. I've read two of them, Absolution by Murder and The Haunted Abbot. I find Sister Fidelma too know-it-all to be a sympathetic character. I'm not an expert on 7th-century Ireland, but I do know something about 7th-century England, and I'm not convinced that the contrast was anything like as great as depicted. (Which reminds me. Horrible pun from a computing newsgroup, courtesy of my partner. 'Who were the first recorded artists in Britain? The garrison of Hadrian's Wall, because they were de-Picting the landscape.' Groans are permitted.)

Sorry. Back to Sister Fidelma. Anyway, Peter Tremayne has the nickname in our household of 'Mr Everything-Good-Comes-From-Ireland'. I've read some of his non-fiction on the same subject, and it seems to me that he selectively quotes evidence that supports his thesis of 'Celtic' cultural superiority and downplays evidence that doesn't support it. I've no difficulty with his description of the sophisticated Irish legal system and the Brehon judges; where I part company is on the assumption that early English law and society was invariably primitive, crude and unjust.

I find some of his details unconvincing too. In Absolution by Murder, a cave below Whitby abbey leads to an opening in the cliffs high above the sea, a convenient place to dispose of a dead body and a crucial plot point. I've walked those cliffs many times and the caves in them are all at beach level, formed by wave action. I suppose there could have been a high-level cave in the 7th century that has eroded away, but the geology is mostly boulder clay overlaying thin layers of shale, and that doesn't tend to form extensive cave systems. In The Haunted Abbot the plot relies on a stone-built abbey in Suffolk with an extensive network of secret underground passages. There are records of early English abbeys and monasteries founded in ex-Roman structures, like the Saxon Shore Forts, but I haven't seen a report of a Roman fort or villa with a vast underground cellar system, especially not with a convenient passage through the defences. You get sewers in big towns, but the passages described are clearly not a sewer system. And in The Haunted Abbot a Frankish trader complains that the primitive English have no use for coins except as bullion, but in the same book Fidelma and her companion use coins to pay an English farmer for a night's lodging, which the farmer accepts as normal and ordinary. Either it was a coin-using economy or it wasn't, surely? Maybe there is evidence to support all these, but this sort of thing makes me suspicious.

On the generalisation that women like to read about other women, of the nine women who replied, five didn't mention the issue, two specifically said they had no preference (three if you include me), one said she preferred to read about men and one said she either had no preference or preferred to read about men. Gabriele articulated the issue for me when she said, "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." Thank you, Gabriele, that sums up exactly what I've been groping towards all through the discussions on women in historical fiction. I think this is why warrior princess characters raise my hackles; it's my equivalent of the dormouse test. I'm fine with it if there's evidence in support, either already known to me or in the Author's Note. In the absence of evidence, though, it's an immediate alarm bell for a bolted-on modern agenda, whether it be stridently feminist (Women can do everything and men are a waste of space), faintly misogynistic (Women are weak and boring unless they're hitting someone with a sword), blatantly commercial (Female action heroes sell) or dubiously pornographic (Leather bikinis and armour-plated bras. Oooo!).

Just for completeness, here's my own list of things that attract me to or repel me from historical fiction:

- A rich and complex world that feels convincingly real
- Humour, preferably subtle
- A story and motivations that belong to that time and place (it might resonate with the present, in fact one of the reasons I find history fascinating is that it so often does, but I don't like to feel that the story could be happening now just by changing the names and costumes)
- Variation in style of speech so I can tell which character is talking without looking at the dialogue tag
- Author's note (if the author feels it necessary to diverge from historical events for their story, I like them to come clean about it)

I should say first that I almost never give up on a book before the end. I don't seem to have any automatic 'off' buttons. All these are portable, with other graces weighed.
- Made-up mysticism. (If it's a book about magic and supernatural powers, please call it a fantasy).
- Ludicrous historical inaccuracy. (Marie Antoinette looking up at the Eiffel Tower on her way to the guillotine, 12th-century Welshmen wearing kilts and woad, rifles in the English Civil War, "Wow, cool!" said Michaelangelo, "Honey, don't worry," said Lady Jane Grey, "By Mithras!" roared Eric Bloodaxe).
- Self-important, pretentious, pompous or patronising style, especially if combined with a plodding or meandering plot. I can think of three books I've failed to finish in the last couple of years, and all three were for this reason.
- A modern social or political agenda imposed on an earlier time.

Sarah C also made an observation that I fear may be very perceptive, "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." Very possibly true, because a big publisher makes far more money from one book that sells 100,000 copies than from 10 books that each sell 10,000 copies (and 100 books that each sell 1,000 copies is probably a recipe for bankruptcy), so they naturally want high-volume sellers for the mass market. So where does that leave readers who don't necessarily want the Next/Current Big Thing? In the library or the second-hand bookshop looking for out-of-print titles with these mundane qualities? Or will niche publishers emerge to fill the gap? And if they do, how will we find them?


Rick said...

I'm going to guess that "too much detail" means poorly integrated infodumping that doesn't advance the story - the equivalent of "so tell me, Professor" in old SF.

LOL about warrior princesses and armor plated bras. On the other hand there are a few interesting historical cases, such as a prominent 16th c. Spanish noblewoman, Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli, who lost an eye in a duel when she was 14. (There was a movie made about her later career, starring Olivia de Havilland; I've never seen it, and the reviews I have seenindicate that it wasn't very good.)

I get my gals into a little bit of action, but with (I hope) careful restraint - situations that pseudo-Renaissance noblewomen might plausibly be able to cope with.

Regarding what publishers are looking for, I've never heard of them doing formal research - and I hope they don't start, because then we'll be confined to whatever a bunch of market researchers claim to "prove" will sell. But I would guess that they go by previous sales in terms of what eras, etc., are assumed to be popular.

Perhaps also sales of non-fiction popular history, though with some obvious exceptions - Arthuriana is clearly popular, though the actual history is so obscure that little can be written about it.

Sarah Johnson said...

I like the mental image of Eric Bloodaxe swearing by Mithras...

I've enjoyed the mysteries I've read by Peter Tremayne, though Fidelma annoys me at times. She can come across as a know-it-all. Plus I think there is an Agenda attached to her in these novels. His 7th C Ireland is portrayed as a sort of utopia for women's rights (which he talks about in the foreword to his novels). I don't know enough about the period to say whether that's true or not, and I'd guess most other readers don't either.

There have been a couple "royal women" and "women warrior" novels published recently that I would put into the Current Big Thing category. The subject matter is popular, but I felt the storytelling, characterization, accuracy, etc., left a lot to be desired. Either my perspective's way off, or those qualities don't matter as much to some people (including readers) as the overall subject. On the other hand, I do like royal women novels if they're done well, so maybe I'm part of the problem :)

Rick said...

Sarah - Societies that lie just beyond the fringe of recorded history seem to be popular as feminist utopias. 7th-century Ireland isn't really beyond that fringe, but close enough to Ancient Celts that perhaps it qualifies.

The other society that leads me to this generalization is Minoan Crete, with its unfortified palaces and all that goddess iconography.

Imagine what we might make of Roman Catholicism if we had only archeological evidence to go by - all those Madonnas, and the occasional Pieta. Then compare to the beating the church usually takes in medieval-setting stories.

Carla said...

Rick - I did say I'd accept anything if there's supporting evidence. Put in an Author's Note about Ana de Mendoza (I'd heard of her but I don't suppose everybody has) and as long as you haven't made all your heroines duellists on the basis of one example, you're on safe ground with me.

The problem with using previous sales data to judge demand is that by definition this can't assess demand for a product that doesn't exist yet, so it can become a circular argument.
('Fantasy without dragons and magic doesn't sell.'
'Have you published any?'
'Of course not, because it doesn't sell.')
Most businesses trip over this in some form when trying to come up with a new product. It's probably a good job that Guy Gavriel Kay had helped Christopher Tolkien edit 'The Silmarillion', otherwise he might have run up against this.

The near-total absence of facts doesn't stop 'non-fiction' (to stretch the term) being written about Arthur in astonishing quantity. Someday when I have a year or two to spare I ought to count up all the different (semi)historical figures who have been comprehensively proved to be the Real King Arthur.

Sarah - From what I know of 7th-century Ireland (which is not as much as Peter Tremayne), I'd say it's probably true up to a point, and that there was nothing like as much contrast between Ireland and the other contemporary societies as he makes out. As usual, there's so little evidence that multiple interpretations can be supported and few (if any) can be disproved. I had the impression that he may be reacting against the Monty Python dung-gathering peasants image of the 'dark ages' and consciously presenting a different picture. What do you think?

"...if they're done well" - no, that doesn't make you part of the problem! (If indeed there is a problem.) My objection is not to A or B, but to facile judgements ('A is always boring, B is always interesting') without stating the basis for them. 'Gut feel' or 'My opinion' or 'I saw it on the net somewhere' (my besetting sin) is a basis, but I wish people would say so.

Interesting point about utopia always being just beyond the fringe of recorded history. I would guess that's because theories can have free range there without the danger of encountering inconvenient facts.

And the point about Roman Catholicism is a neat example of the dangers inherent in trying to recreate a society and a belief system from its material culture! In a way, this is what draws me to historical fiction. The artefact or structure or document is evidence but beyond that is interpretation. I get uneasy with some of the speculative theories that are presented as history with only the supporting evidence cited and the contradictory evidence ignored or rubbished (The Real King Arthur is a field especially prone to this, but you get it everywhere). At least a novel is honest that some/most/all of it is made up.

Sarah Johnson said...

About Peter Tremayne going out of his way to present a different picture of the "Dark Ages" - yes, I believe so. And perhaps credit should go to him for implying as much in his author's note, that one of the purposes of his novels is to educate readers in this respect. If nothing else, he's up front about it.

Rick said...

Carla - I have more latitude in a fantasy novel, to be sure, even one that is supposed to have the look and feel of hist-fic. In a historical novel I'd certainly have an author's note for something that readers might find dubious, but was historically attested.

You're right (and I wasn't thinking!) about Arthurian "nonfiction" - yeah, there's plenty of it, identifying just about semi-demi-plausible candidate as Arthur, and no doubt many who aren't even semi-demi.

Yeah, if past sales are the benchmark, no new product would ever be introduced! Guy Gavriel Kay certainly benefited from his Silmarillion connection, but I do think The Industry occasionally takes a gamble on something new. After all, the usual fate of any first novel is to sink out of sight, so every first novel amounts to a kind of test marketing.

Carla said...

Rick - test marketing, maybe, but without any promotion. It looks more like playing darts blindfold to me :-)

Sarah - Yes, absolutely. I'm a great fan of Author's Notes. Readers vary enormously in the amount and type of historical latitude they'll tolerate, and a good author's note allows them to make an informed decision.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Lol, battles isn't the only thing I look for in good historical fiction, I also want interesting characters and historical accuracy. And well written prose. But I admit that reading the Illiad at the age of 8 did influence me a bit. :-)

Bernita said...

Yup, Carla.
The Sister Fidelma series annoys me, and not only for the instructional attitude towards illiterate peasants like me.
I find her character prissy, pushy and uninteresting, and the writing, as well as the dialogue, clunky and pretentious.
Quote, opening from "Act of Mercy":
"Colla, the tavernkeeper, tugged on the leather reins to halt the two sturdy donkeys which had been paitently hauling his overladen cart along the track across the precipitous rocky headland. It was a soft autumnal morning and the sun had begun its climb in the eastern sky. The quiet sea below the headland reflected the azure canopy which held only a few fleecy clouds. There was just a hint of a soft breeze from the north-west, giving impetus to the morning tide..."

And several pages further on:

" 'It is good you have so knowledgeable crew,' Fedelma observed with solemn humour.
'Well, as I say, if we have a fair wind and the blessing of our patron, St. Brendan the Navigator, this will prove an agreeable voyage.'
The mention of St. Brendan turned Fidelma's thoughts to her fellow pilgrims.
'I was wondering why most of my fellow passengers are missing the best part of the voyage?' she queried."
And on and on and on.

Carla said...

Bernita - many thanks for posting the quote, and I concur re Sister Fidelma (see updated post).

Bernita said...

I think, upon reflection, I would have to add that another reason I dislike the series, is that all the characters seem to speak in the same - by and large excruciatingly literate - voice.

Sarah Johnson said...

Just a quick correction for the record - Sarah C was the one who posted about literary agents looking for the Next Big Thing, not me. Next time I'll remember to add the initial when I post!

Carla said...

Sarah - Thanks for pointing that out! My sincere apologies, and I've corrected it in the post. Blogger does differentiate between you; you come up as 'Sarah' and Sarah C comes up as 'Sarah Cuthbertson', so it was entirely my mistake.

Sarah Johnson said...

Carla - thanks! And no problem. Sarah seems to be an awfully common name among historical fiction readers for some reason.

Anonymous said...

Hi Carla,

Interesting post and being as my comment on the HNS e-list was one of the things that sparked it, thought I'd drop a line. The reviewer in question at Amazon.co.uk unfavourably compared my novel The Greatest Knight, about William Marshal, to an earlier novel about him by Mary Pershall - Dawn of the White Rose. The author of the latter cuts William's age by about 8 years to make him a desireable 30 something when he marries Isabelle de Clare and proceeds to take various liberties with the known historical record in between describing detailed bedchamber bonkfests between the protagonists.
Fair enough. It's not my cup of tea, but obviously my novel wasn't that particular reader's cup of tea either. She wanted a hunk and threw a hissy fit when he didn't spend the amount of time in the bedchamber she required. The same reviewer was miffed over another of my novels where I dared to make the hero lame because history said so. Fancy having a hero with a limp - and slightly built as well -criminal!
Accuracy - No one ever gets it 100% right and there are numerous ways that events in history can be interpreted and slanted, but I think that the watchword, said loud has to be integrity.
I do find it much easier to read historical fiction outside of the middle ages because not knowing a period means that you don't fault-find quite so much!

Susan aka Elizabeth Chadwick