The Christmas Season of Goodwill is nearly upon us, and you might be thinking about a good read to give to someone as a gift.
Imagine you are standing in Barnes & Noble or Waterstones choosing a book for some you don’t know particularly well. Your brief is merely, “Find something in historical fiction.”
How might you go about choosing a book from the overwhelming array of historical fiction (HF) novels on display? And what kind of historical fiction stories do men and women prefer – bearing in mind that anything we say about gender is at best descriptive rather than prescriptive or predictive. And what about the historical period?
There is a bewildering array of new and not so new titles. Appetite for the historical fiction genre just keeps on growing, stimulated by TV programmes and box sets that range far and wide, from the future to the past, in an effort to satisfy our viewing craving.
Age and Gender?
Young adults are more likely to read fiction than nonfiction books. Men are more likely to read nonfiction than fiction, particularly men aged 75 and older. A little more than half those classified as historical fiction readers (55%) are between 50-69 years of age. However, interest in romance novels shows signs of decreasing with age. Gender seems to make a difference to choice: women readers of historical fiction predominate at 85%, compared to 15% for men – a ratio of nearly 6:1.
Research suggests we can’t go too far wrong choosing the period between the 13th and 16th centuries, which are popular with both men and women, and followed by the 18th and 19th centuries.
Men are more drawn to reading about ancient times than women – 3000BC to 1000AD (particularly in the UK and Continental Europe); but also enjoy the 13th to 16th centuries and the 19th.
Women have a preference for the Tudor period, the 18th century, and also the 13th to 16th centuries.
The top three story types for women are adventure, a series with ongoing characters, and a strong female character (58%). For men, adventure is the most popular type of story (64%). For both, the presence of a significant historical figure set against a backdrop of great historical events is important. However, women are more interested in the lives of famous historical figures than men are.
The appeal of the psychological thriller genre lies in the suspense: the building menace from unreliable narrators and unpredictable characters keep the reader turning page after page, allowing the reader to glimpse behind the curtain into the complex psychological worlds that also mark marriages and friendships.
Decoding Back-Page Blurb
The front cover is usually an eye-catcher that leads us to pick up a book in the first place, but the next step is reading the blurb overview of the novel’s direction of travel, its main characters, and the period setting, followed by some refining.
As you sit in the bookstore café with a cappuccino and a handful of fiction contenders on the table, read the blurb for important clues, remembering that readers want to follow the drama and be moved by the character’s journey.
As readers, we want hope for the future in our fiction as much as in our own lives. The research suggests tough subjects and strong messages are key in this genre, but perhaps what is more important is punchy writing and deep unhappiness, presented through the characters.
This genre observes moral dilemmas and darkness in the world. It has a positive impact in that it helps us commit to living and experiencing, despite all the negatives that humanity has offered us, and brings us haunting questions and memorable characters.
As readers, we want a dramatic arc of historical events and characters that are both heroic and human. We have a preference for rich, layered novels, often with multiple strands to the storyline. Some 76% of people, asked why they read historical fiction, answered ‘to bring the past to life’- by opening doors, changing lives, and sending us off on a completely different trajectory from where we thought we were going.
Hilary Mantel says it best. “Historical fiction comes out of greed for experience. Violent curiosity drives us on, takes us far from our time, far from our shore, and often beyond our compass.”
Time’s nearly up!
Your turn to choose!
M.K. Tod’s 2015 Historical Fiction Survey