What is historical fiction? An accepted definition is that it is fiction set 50 or more years ago and requires a writer’s reliance on research. Sir Walter Scott in England began the genre we recognize as historical fiction, but its origins lie in the more distant past. Historical fiction’s appeal has not dulled over time, although it has reached new heights from the 1990s to the present.
Over time, this genre has developed more than 10 identifiable subgenres.
Traditional Historical Fiction
The traditional form is what is generally thought of as historical fiction. It typically has a historically accurate plot. Seminal examples among modern writers include Colleen McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” series, and Sharon Kay Penman’s books set in the Middle Ages of Great Britain and France.
Multi-Period Epics, Series, and Sagas
James Michener’s “Chesapeake” covered the history of a location from its Native American past to modern times. Norah Loft’s “The Suffolk Trilogy” covered the history of one house from the 14th century to the 1950s. The “North and South” trilogy by John Jakes is a saga of how the Civil War tests the ties of two families, a Northern family from Pennsylvania and a Southern one from South Carolina.
Historical Romantic Fiction
An example of historical romantic fiction is Anya Seton’s “Katherine” about a real-life love story between the Plantagenet John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and Katherine Swynford, Geoffrey Chaucer’s sister-in-law.
Historical Western Fiction
These comprise stories about the American West. How they cover the subject matter has evolved since they were first written in the 1800s, shifting from an unsympathetic view of Native Americans to a more sympathetic perspective in recent time.
Mysteries, Thrillers, and Adventure Novels
An example of historical mysteries is Ellis Peters’ series about crime-solving Brother Cadfael, a twelfth-century monk and herbalist. Peters’ “Cadfael Chronicles” is credited with popularizing this subgenre.
Historical thrillers include “Enigma” by Robert Harris, “The Coffee Trader” by David Liss, and “The Alienist” by Caleb Carr. Bernard Cornwell’s series about Richard Sharpe is an example of historical adventure.
Time-Travel, Alternate Histories, Fantasy, Literary and Christian Novels
“The Shining Girls” by Lauren Beukes is a historical time-travel thriller, and Connie Willis’” Doomsday” is another example of time-travel historical novel. “The Years of Rice and Salt” by Kim Stanley Robinson is an example of an alternate history novel.
Michael Livingston’s “Shards of Heaven,” Tim Powers’ “On Stranger Tides,” and Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” are examples of historical fantasy. Catherine Marshall’s “Christy” is an example of a Christian historical fiction.
The appeal of reading about the past never fades. Inventive writers delight new generations of readers by finding endless inspiration.
Historical fiction can offer more than escapism to adolescent readers. Re-creations of history in historical fiction (when based on accurate evidence) sheds light on history in a way that facts by themselves cannot. It can enlighten young adults (YA) about ways of being and conflicts in another time, and also resonate with their own pathway to maturity.
Since the 1990s—A New Era of Popularity
Prior to the 1990s, teachers had limited choices in what they could assign to their students. However, from the mid-1990s onwards there has been greater choice in historical fiction for this age group. Scholastic’s “Dear America” series boosted the genre’s popularity, and genre-blending fiction offered non-history loving YA readers a different reading experience.
Publishers now offer individual novels and series of historical fiction for this age group. As of February 2017, the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) will have a Teen Book Finder Database—a one-stop shop for finding award winners and selected lists. Users will be able to search the database and print customized lists. This will make it easier for teachers to select reading lists. YA writers should take note, as school libraries are major purchasers of books in this category.
The Challenge for YA Fiction Authors
Young adult fiction authors have to create an attention-getting and reader-sustaining story, make a certain period interesting for YA readers, and devise a story that is suitable for that period. To make it more palatable for young female readers, some authors distort the reality of women’s roles in the past and the customs of that time. However, it is better to explain the differences as YA readers are capable of understanding that people lived differently in the past.
An Example of Genre-Bending YA Historical Fiction
Maggie Stiefvater, a YA author herself, selected “Code Name Verity” by Elizabeth Wein as her favorite book for 2012 in her list of “5 Young Adult Novels That You’ll Never Outgrow,” published on December 20, 2012. This book illustrates the genre-blending appeal that can hook YA readers of this or an older age group. The novel is about two girls who join the British war effort in World War II.
YA Fiction Also Enjoyed by Adults
A market that has developed in the past 50 years, the children’s book industry has expanded exponentially. A major reason is that it also attracts adult readers. A 2012 survey revealed that 55 percent of YA fiction readers are adults. Young adult books often outsell even the most popular adult books. Young adult fiction excels in providing escapist appeal.
The inventiveness reflected in YA literature is rare in adult literature. Adults also enjoy the nostalgia evoked by YA historical fiction and other subgenres of the YA fiction category.
Alison Weir has publicly praised Norah Lofts and has also been a force in the republication of Lofts’ books. There is growing appreciation of this unheralded writer.
Lofts was a history teacher who became a prolific writer of mostly historical fiction and biographies, although she did write mysteries and other types of fiction as well. Her eye for detail and place and her use of book series offer writers an opportunity to learn from an expert in historical fiction.
Sir Walter Scott—the First Historical Novel Author
A genre first identified with Sir Walter Scott and “Waverley,” historical novels have received critical recognition in this century. Historical fiction is no longer considered middlebrow and beneath critical esteem. The 2014 Man Booker Prize was awarded to Richard Flanagan’s “Narrow Road to the Deep North,” and both of Hilary Mantel’s books about Thomas Cromwell received the Man Booker Prize as well. James Robertson’s books about Scotland have also earned critical acclaim.
Re-reading Scott’s first book can still move readers in our time because of its treatment of the protagonist, what he experiences, his evolution, and the difficult issues he wrestles with. Scott followed his initial success with many historical fiction novels, primarily to get out of debt. Then, as now, historical fiction gained a large following.
Norah Lofts and the Female 20th Century Historical Fiction Authors
Female authors of historical fiction dominated the genre during the 20th century, although their work varied in quality. Norah Lofts, Anya Seton, Mary Renault, and Eleanor Hibbert (who wrote as Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy) made their own interpretations of history and its characters. Norah Lofts produced outstanding books focused on old houses and their histories. Her “The Suffolk Trilogy” stands out as historical fiction created about a place.
Alison Weir has particularly praised the “Suffolk Trilogy” as the best historical fiction she has ever read. She has also described the trilogy as “one continuous book” even though it is a set of three books published years apart. “The Town House” was published in 1959, the “House at Old Vine” in 1961, and “The House at Sunset” in 1962. Shifting viewpoints by showing the unfolding of time through different eyewitnesses/perspectives gives these books additional layers of meaning.
For a new talent interested writers can check out Sarah Gristwood’s first fictional work, “The Girl in the Mirror.” Alison Weir, on her website, has praised this book for setting “a new benchmark for historical novels.”
Some say that the main thing a writer needs in order to succeed is talent. Although this is certainly true, a close second for the most needed asset in writing is good old-fashioned discipline. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t put the pen to the paper then nobody will ever know it.
Different Types of Writing Discipline
There are many different types of writers and many different types of discipline that will work for each writer. One form of discipline that may work very well for one writer will not for another, so it is important to search for the level of writing discipline that will work for you.
If you do not suffer from writer’s block or lack of inspiration, set a writing goal for yourself each day. If you are working on a novel, for example, try writing one perfect page per day. This may not sound tough, but you will find that it is quite a challenge. Doing so requires discipline and builds up your disciplinary skills. And just think, if your novel is 250 pages, then in less than a year that first draft will be completed.
Other writers spend weeks, months, or even years waiting for inspiration. If they attempt to write during periods of non-inspiration then the results do not come out well. If you are one of these writers, it doesn’t mean you can’t develop a disciplinary routine. Try to set a goal to write something during a specific timeframe. For example, start a novel outline and vow to complete one outlined chapter per week. Working on this outline may get you excited and thinking about the plot and inspire actual writing of the story.
Your Favorites Had Discipline, Too
If you’re skeptical or hesitant about applying discipline to your writing or are simply trying to come up with a method that works best for you, look to your favorite writer for help. Do you love Ernest Hemingway? Keep in mind that Hemingway, when working on a novel, would write religiously each day from just after breakfast until well into the night. Is Philip K. Dick a favorite of yours? When working on a novel he would write from the time he woke up until the time he went to sleep, pausing only to eat.
Behind every talented writer is the discipline needed to get that talent down on the page properly. You already know that you have the talent; now adopt the discipline to reach your desired accomplishments as a writer.
The self-publishing industry and digital media have given new life to serials and serialized fiction. They are no longer “for-free” publications or limited to magazines. A serial is a story written in segments. Daytime soap operas are examples of television serials. Serialized fiction, on the other hand, is a complete story published in segments.
Online Reading, Serials, and Authors’ Intimacy with Readers
In the past, writers like Dickens and Trollope who wrote long books released them as they were writing. George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” was also released this way. Sometimes reader response would make authors modify their work, as happened with Charles Dickens. Dickens altered the end of “Dombey and Son” in response to reader comments.
Serialized fiction made the novels more portable and created a community of readers. Today, digital media is creating a new community of readers as E-readers and mobile devices make fiction portable in the internet age. Successful science-fiction writer John Scalzi began with the serial, “Old Man’s War,” and “50 Shades of Grey” was a serial before it was published traditionally.
E-readers and mobile phones have changed the habits of readers who frequently use these reading sources. Writers have recognized that serials build their readership and allow them more creative freedom than traditional book publishing.
Max Gladstone is among a growing number of writers who have joined today’s serial writing genre. Gladstone is a writer for two fantasy serials. The writer of the “Craft Sequence” series is one of the writers on the Serial Box’s “Bookburners” and “The Witch Who Came in from the Cold” serials.
Capturing Readers with Serialized Fiction
The serialized book publishing method has a proven history of boosting sales and creating anticipation. A French businessman used serialized fiction to create a readership for his daily newspaper in 1836. He serialized Balzac’s novel in segments to hook Parisian readers. That same year serialized fiction began in England with the segmented publication of the “The Pickwick Papers.”
With TV dramas like “Game of Thrones,” House of Cards,” and Downton Abbey,” and serial radio programs hooking their audiences, book publishers would like to boost sales by creating a devoted audience of serialized fiction readers. One of the creative writers taking advantage of digital media is Julian Fellowes, the creator of “Downton Abbey.” Fellowes is publishing his new novel, “Belgravia,” as serialized fiction with weekly chapters released via an app.
Segmented fiction offers writers a new way to reach the reading public. As people spend time waiting, they can be immersed in fiction. Research has also found that people prefer occupied time and complain about unoccupied time. How long will it be before writers can earn income through businesses who want to distract their waiting consumers?
In suspense, the readers are waiting for an event to take place. Unlike a mystery, in suspense the readers/observers are informed of what is at stake in the beginning. They become observers of the story on the side of the protagonist and become involved in the unfolding drama.
The traditional mystery may lack the emotional tugs and vicarious thrills suspense provides. Instead, mysteries typically provide puzzles for readers or the audience to solve. They can involve suspense in stories where a character, or protagonist, is in danger while the villain has not been apprehended. In a traditional mystery, the arc of the story is about revelation. The threat is more immediate in suspense, whereas in mysteries the conflict/revelation is delayed.
Advantages of Writing Suspense Thrillers
Writers have more freedom in the suspense genre than in the mystery genre. This is because suspense writers can create characters with different points of view, including the antagonist.
In a suspense novel, intensity builds as the protagonist finds a means to overcome the villain’s threat. Choices, clues, and twists keep readers in suspense as they follow the protagonist. Suspense immerses the readers in the story when they identify with the protagonist’s plight. Their sense of suspense increases the more they are engaged by the choices facing the protagonist and the degree of contrast between the protagonist and the antagonist. They experience vicariously the thrills of fear and anxiety.
Advantages of Writing Mysteries
Good mysteries, whether they are whodunits or whydunits engage their readers’ minds. Readers become involved because mysteries reveal a character’s perspective through unresolved conflicts. Mystery readers are hooked by the need to know what happens to the characters they identify with.
To maintain the mystery, mystery writers have to hide the antagonist’s identity or conflict between protagonist and antagonist, until it is time to reveal it.
A good mystery is a window that reveals the human condition in that context. In successful mysteries, a character’s psychology is fascinating for readers, as many fans of this genre are curious and intelligent.
In modern mysteries, other elements such as history, culture, and romance have attracted a wider readership than ever before. As a result, they are now second only to romance in popularity.
To get started, inexperienced writers should read and analyze mysteries and/or suspense novels. They should check out best-seller lists and the names cropping up in anthologies and awards lists. The awards usually recognize works that have novel approaches that broaden the genre’s boundaries, or are exemplary representatives of the genre.
Stories are not hard to tell, but writing stories involves creating structure. Experienced writers understand that structure, in the form of the five narrative modes of fiction, intimately. These narrative modes of fiction are action, dialogue, thought, description, and exposition.
About the Narrative Mode of Description
Description sets the mood and the scene and provides an explanation. It gives the details about some place, person or thing. It should serve the story and be a mechanism for immersing readers in the fictional world the characters inhabit. The challenge is to avoid over-describing.
About the Narrative Mode of Action
Readers are engaged and remain engaged when something happens to the fictional characters. The action in the story moves it forward. Action drives the arc of the story and reveals information about the characters. It is something that happens and can include dialogue, gestures, and other activities.
About the Narrative Mode of Dialogue
Dialogue is spoken action. It is conversation between characters that can also help to evolve the characters.
If a writer wants to highlight a trait in a particular character or focus on a subject of discussion, the writer maintains the focus by not distracting readers with other narrative modes during the dialogue. However, writers bring additional meaning into the interplay by including action and thoughts when relevant.
Dialogue boosts pace and narration. Compelling dialogue is not just talk. Readers become absorbed in the story when characters say things we do not expect of them and are not predictable. Writers should avoid making characters sound alike; in real life people have their own individual ways of talking.
About the Narrative Mode of Thought and Monologue
Dialogue, thought, and monologue move the story along, build tension, and reveal something about the character. They can even be contrasted with the others for effect.
About the Narrative Mode of Exposition
Exposition is used to provide details about characters or the story. It is used in the beginning and during transitions, for instance to inform readers about passage of time, change of place or mood, or change in the focus character. It tells, rather than shows, readers about important elements of the story or characters.
Writers can be creative with the use of the modes as Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights illustrates. Despite the significant time-shifts in the novel, Emily Bronte maintained a continuous narrative using a multi-layered narration technique. Emily Bronte’s narrative technique reveals her mastery of the writing craft. Distinctively, the action in this memorable novel is presented as eyewitness narrations by characters who participated in what they describe.
Every work of fiction contains these modes, but the ratio varies. For most writers, determining when the different modes can be woven together or used separately improves with practice.
Samuel “Billy” Wilder was born in Vienna, Austria in 1906 and moved to Germany for work. Before he became a screenwriter and director, he was a reporter and drama critic. He subsequently left journalism and became a prolific writer for the German film industry.
From the German Film Industry to Hollywood
Wilder, who was Jewish, came to the U.S. after fleeing Germany to escape the Nazis. He was fortunate to arrive at a time when the studios allowed screenwriters to direct movies made from their scripts. He co-wrote several films with Charles Brackett, including Ninotchka and Ball of Fire.
Wilder’s career as a contract writer with Paramount began four years after his arrival with the film Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (his first movie for Paramount). The movie studio head at the time was German–born filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch, who had directed Wilder’s script for Ninotchka.
Wilder’s work covered a wide range as revealed by his films Ace in the Hole, The Apartment, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sabrina, Some Like it Hot, Stalag 17, and Sunset Boulevard.
Billy Wilder’s Screenwriting Tips
When he was interviewed by James Linville for The Paris Review, Wilder said, “Sometimes when you finish a picture you just don’t know whether it’s good or bad.” Nevertheless, in Conversations with Wilder by the screenwriter Cameron Crowe, Wilder shared his screenwriting tips, among them:
- Remember that the audience is fickle.
- Know where you are going with the plot.
- Grab the audience by the throat from the beginning, and do not let up until the end.
- Allow the audience to add up two plus two to win over the audience forever.
- Give the main character a clean line of action.
- A good screenwriter capably hides the plot points.
- Add to what the audience is seeing in the voice-overs, not what is being seen.
- The end of the movie is triggered by the event occurring at the end of the second act.
- The third act builds the action and tempo until the final event.
- If there is a problem in the third act, the root is in the first act.
- Do not leave the audience hanging at the end.
One of Hollywood’s great writer-directors, Wilder maintained that writing gave the movie its direction. He preferred to write with a partner and co-wrote each one of his twenty-four films. He began writing with a partner because of his limited English but continued it because he liked it.
Raymond Chandler introduced a new kind of detective hero in The Big Sleep, his debut novel published in 1939. Philip Marlowe was a regular guy who was smart, witty, and often spoke directly to the reader. Unlike Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of him in the movie, Chandler’s creation was funny and literary. Perhaps his literary bent was influenced by Chicago-born Chandler’s early life in England. He wrote poems and reviews in England before leaving for America.
Realism in Fiction
Before he started writing books, Raymond Chandler wrote stories in pulp fiction magazines and developed his writing style before his foray into books and screenplays.
In his 1950 essay The Simple Art of Murder, Chandler wrote that the old novels that appeared stilted in his time were realistic for people of the day. However, crime novels of the past and present were too often not realistic. Chandler was not a fan of most of the crime fiction that was favored by mainstream publishers in his time.
At the time Chandler entered the detective story genre, the genre was dominated by the English formula, which did not impress him although he complimented it for its “more sense of background” details. But he said that these novels were “too contrived, and too little aware of what goes on in the world.” The English-style writers of detective fiction loved by the publishers didn’t write about the “kind of murders that happen” nor “about the authentic flavor of life as it is lived.” Chandler wrote about such murders.
Despite that, according to confessed detective story addict W.H. Auden, Chandler’s books were “works of art.” Auden discussed Chandler and detective fiction in his article, The Guilty Vicarage, published by Harpers in May 1948. Chandler’s crime novels covered gritty subjects, and he had a keen eye for details himself which, according to Judith Freeman who wrote a book about him, gave them their authenticity.
Plots Should Stand Up to Scrutiny
Chandler valued books that did not have implausible, unrealistic storylines. In The Simple Art of Murder, his takedown essay of a praised work by A.A. Milne, The Red House Mystery, Chandler reveals what is wrong with the crime novel.
Aspiring writers can take heart that Chandler acknowledged that when it comes to plotting, “(e)very detective story writer makes mistakes.” He himself failed to identify the killer of the gardener in The Big Sleep. But mystery fans continue to like Chandler because his “story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth,’ with a hero “fit for adventure.”
Chandler revolutionized crime writing and influenced generations of crime fiction novelists after him. Read The Simple Art of Murder to learn more about his likes and dislikes.
Knowing your target audience is a vital element of successful copywriting. This affects the information contained in the messaging, its tone and voice, and the type of marketing materials used to target the different types of potential customers. Selling to business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) target markets takes their differences into account.
Differences between the B2B and B2C Target Audiences
Potential B2B customers expect some industry terminology and understanding of the specific industry being targeted. They feel comfortable with material that reveals familiarity with their language and industry.
Being technical will not lose potential customers; technical information helps distinguish the product or service being offered from comparable products in the market. It also helps the purchasing customer persuade superiors about the value of the product or service being offered. Copywriters should check to see how comparable products and services are being marketed.
The B2C audience includes a diverse range of potential customers, who are more or less knowledgeable about the product or services being marketed. The marketing material should accommodate the diversity of potential customers in this market. Typical language should be easy to understand by readers with an 8th or 9th grade reading level. The National Adult Literacy Surveys in 1992 and 2003 revealed that average adults read at 9th grade level. The 2013 data revealed little change from 2003.
The B2B and B2C Target Audience Viewpoints
B2B marketers and copywriters should take into account that potential buyers are on a budget. The marketing of products and services should present how beneficial (compared to competitive products/services) and cost effective they are.
Unlike B2C customers, B2B readers are not impulsive buyers. They want to have good reasoning to support their purchase decision because they may be answerable to superiors. A copywriter for a client serving the B2B market needs to provide copy that clients believe will reflect well on them with their employers. The marketing material should answer as many potential questions as possible to make it easier for purchasers to justify their choice.
Potential B2C marketing customers make their own decisions and are not answerable to others. However, they also want to get value and have budgetary limits. Marketers understand that customers can make emotional decisions. Even with a discretionary product or service, marketing material aims to persuade potential customers they need or would benefit from what is being offered.
However, despite the general differences, B2B and B2C marketing approaches do have something in common. In both contexts, it is individuals who make the decisions. Copywriters need to write copy that appeals to potential individual consumers in either the B2B or B2C markets.