What makes a successful historical novel?

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I’m writing my first historical novel, a fictionalised account of my Ukrainian-born great-grandmother, and I’m struggling.  How much research should I do? Can I make up facts? What is more important, the character’s voice or the plot? Is there even a market for this type of story?

So, I’ve decided to reach out to those in the know and ask them ‘what makes a successful historical novel?’ The results of my enquiries to a variety of authors, agents, bloggers and publishers are set out below.

Firstly, a quick definition of the genre. Richard Lee, chairman of the Historical Novel Society, states that “historical fiction is the most primal, the most NATURAL of literary forms …. in all cultures, historical fiction is the most natural form of story-telling.” Generally, a historical novel is a novel set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience. www.historicalnovelsociety.org

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The founder of the genre is thought to be Sir Walter Scott who wrote in the early 1800’s stories about the Scottish nation’s past. The annual Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction www.walterscottprize.co.uk is one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the world. With a total value of £30,000, it is unique for rewarding writing of exceptional quality which is set in the past.

Historical fiction is a huge market that ebbs and flows along with the rest of the publishing world.  According to Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary Agency, “in a lousy economy, people want a book that’s an escape to a simpler time, so historicals do well when the economy is down.” www.macgregorliterary.com . With Brexit underway and the changes in the global political scene, it seems that times of uncertainty also make us look to the past.  Hilary Mantel’s winning of the Booker Prize in both 2009 and 2012 for her historical fiction about Thomas Cromwell shows just how important this genre is.

Enquiries with Waterstones staff about current trends in historical fiction give a clearer picture as to what’s in and what’s not.  In line with fiction overall, crime and thrillers are in; romance is not. This was confirmed by debut novelist Victoria Cornwall who, as a writer of historical romance, is aware her sub-genre isn’t strictly in vogue. However, she says ‘write what you want to write and love doing it …things do come back in fashion.’ The hotly awaited season three of the televised Winston Graham’s ‘Poldark’ will no doubt help fuel the market for more bodice-ripping, swashbuckling historical fiction.

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So, establishing there is a strong market for a historical fiction novel, and being aware mine has a mix of romance and drama, I set about asking how to write it well.

My top ten tips for a successful historical fiction novel: Continue reading