What Do Readers of Historicals Want? by Peg Herring

Posted by on Aug 25, 2014 in 16th Century England, Historical Research | 3 comments

MacBethsNiece185x280Get any group of historical novelists together and you’ll hear discussions of research. We read and read and read about the era we plan to write about. We try to sort out the real from the assumed, the misinformed, and the unconcerned writings that have gone before. (Shakespeare, for example, is good for Tudor-era detail but often way off in terms of truth about historical characters. With good reason, but still.) There are sometimes disagreements among authors, and I for one contend that some things are impossible to get right. Since we aren’t in the heads of any generation that came before us, we can’t completely understand their thinking. Besides, there isn’t true consensus in any society. Those in power can make people conform in speech and action, but they can’t stop them from thinking as they like.

When a serious writer of historicals begins, then, she should feel a duty to portray the era and characters accurately. But what do readers of historicals look for? In my experience, three things.
Details of how people of other times lived. We find it hard to imagine putting powdered rabbit head on a bit of cloth in order to clean our teeth, but people somehow survived it. Readers like such intimate details of daily life salted into the story so they feel a little of what it must have been like.

IMG_0075Several years ago, I arranged a fashion show for the annual Romance Writers of America Conference at DisneyWorld. I collected a dozen writers who were willing to model costumes typical of the eras they wrote about. I was pleased with the range, everything from Imperial China to Prairie America. I worked very hard on my Tudor costume, a replica of one Catherine Parr wore for her portrait as Henry’s queen.

The show went well; each participant was lively and knowledgeable. We took questions from the audience at the end, each of us hoping we could answer accurately. In a rather humorous result, the questions were almost all directed to an author of Victorian romances, and the vast majority concerned the many layers of underwear proper Victorian women wore. It seemed everyone in the audience was fascinated with petticoats and corsets.

A sense of the time. Another thing readers enjoy is gaining a sense of other times. Though my Tudor novels don’t deal with the English Reformation as such, historical events color what my characters do. Even for people who couldn’t have cared less about religious strife, it had to be confusing to keep up with which prayer book was acceptable and what to call the man standing in the pulpit at church.

IMG_0025Writers try to capture what it was like for people to navigate their days, keeping in mind that thoughts and attitudes differ, no matter the time. I recently read Hannah Kent’s excellent Burial Rites, in which she used letters from the era to show the thinking of ministers and community leaders in Iceland in the early 1800s. It’s eye-opening stuff, revealing the prevailing attitudes toward crime and redemption. The letters can’t tell us what individuals really thought, but Kent does a good job of imagining the range of possibilities. That’s a large part of the historical writer’s task: establishing a sense of the time then setting individual characters with unique qualities into it.

Most importantly, readers want a good story. In writing historical novels, it’s possible to become so caught up in the first two points that we forget this one. Writers have to find ways to weave the sense of time and details of life into a story that constantly moves forward to a satisfying conclusion. To make it even trickier, mystery writers like me have to insert clues and red herrings as well, so the reader has a fair chance at solving the crime along with the protagonist. It’s quite a mix, and it requires work.

Readers of all types of fiction want a good story first and foremost. Readers of historicals want that tale to take them to other times with a reasonable sense of accuracy about events and some interesting details of lives that were very different from ours. It’s a daunting task, but some brave authors are willing to take it on, including the members of HFAC.

Peg Herring, August 25, 2014

See Peg Herrings’ series featuring the young Elizabeth I as an amateur sleuth, Her Highness’ First Murder, Poison Your Graceand The Lady Flirts with Death for some rousing good stories!


  1. So glad to see you mention this about history and historical fiction:

    “Besides, there isn’t true consensus in any society. Those in power can make people conform in speech and action, but they can’t stop them from thinking as they like.

    I see a surprising number of comments condemning characters (and by association the writer and the entire story) as anachronistic because of their thoughts. Women especially: they may not have “done” certain things, if they knew what was good for them, but I feel quite certain they had their private thoughts, which of course were almost never recorded and maybe never even shared, so have not come down through history. Even in the most rigid of societies, (maybe more so) women might well have thought things that would have got them killed if they’d spoken them out loud, or thrown out of the community, disgraced, or whatever. If women never even *thought* rebellious things, then I doubt the suffrage would have ever come about.

    I agree with your theories: I think you’ve captured it perfectly. I’ve noticed that oftentimes, “a good story” will trump just about anything.

  2. Absolutely right concerning women’s thoughts throughout history—they’re about the only female attribute that wasn’t refuted, censored or met by injustice or execution — provided they remained unspoken 🙂 An interesting source of freely expressed women’s thoughts is Shakespeare’s plays. Okay he was a man, but many of his women speak with courage, brilliance and conviction about their own ideas. An example of male, anachronistic criticism of such utterances in our own day came from my former professor of English at university, who refused to believe that one of Shakespeare’s characters, Helen in All’s Well that Ends Well could have spoken the lines in the first scene beginning ‘The court’s a learning place’ — because Helen was (a) female and (b) too young to know what she was talking about!!!! He preferred to think the scholarly text had a misprint than to credit that a woman could speak so knowledgeably and wittily about something that concerned her deeply. The biggest anachronism we could commit as writers of historical novels would be to banish the profound inner female voice from our stories.

  3. My grandmother said it best when I asked once how she stood for some of the ridiculous things that were said about women in her day. (She was born in 1899.) “I just let them talk,” she told me, “and think whatever I want to.”