Monday, April 27, 2009

An interview with Ann Weisgarber

Ann Weisgarber's debut novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, is a slice-of-life tale set in the South Dakota Badlands in 1917. Rachel and her husband Isaac had left Chicago fourteen years earlier to establish a homestead. They have achieved some measure of success with their ranch, but during this summer's drought, hard times force them to make tough choices. Already isolated from other settlers in this sparsely populated country, the DuPrees and their five living children face additional challenges because of their race.

As a pregnant Rachel minds her cookstove, cares for her children, and worries about their future and that of their starving cattle, she reminisces about the years she spent working in the kitchen of a Chicago boardinghouse. This job brought her into unexpected contact with many socially prominent African Americans, including a handsome army veteran named Isaac DuPree. Rachel tells her story in clear and unpretentious language, revealing the reality of her daily life in the Badlands, the levels of social hierarchy out West and back home, and her conflicting feelings about the bargain she made in her marriage.

The novel opens a window onto an aspect of American history rarely explored in fiction. Rachel is a strong and courageous heroine who faces universal dilemmas, and her tale moves at a good pace despite the seeming quietness of the setting. I especially enjoyed the authentic portrayal of the tangled history shared by the novel's white, African American, and Indian characters, as seen in the shadows it casts on their present-day relationships.

Ann Weisgarber lives in Texas. The Personal History of Rachel DuPree was published by Macmillan New Writing (UK) in 2008; the paperback appears this month from Pan Macmillan (320pp, £7.99). It was longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2009 and is a contender for the Orange Award for New Writers, with the results to be announced June 3rd. Ann will be speaking on the "debut authors" panel at the HNS Conference in June and will be signing copies of her novel at the event. I hope you enjoy this interview!

You tell Rachel DuPree's story in the first person. What sources did you draw upon to get into the mind and heart of an African-American woman from the early 20th century?

When I started the novel, I realized assuming a voice different from my own was a challenge and that I had to get the details rights. The first thing was to get a sense of the South Dakota Badlands. I couldn’t understand Rachel until I understood her home. I read everything I could about the area and about homesteaders. I spent several vacations in the Badlands and had a four-week writing residency at Badlands National Park.

Research and a handful of weeks in South Dakota, though, didn’t make me a rancher. Instead, it allowed me to see the Badlands as Rachel saw it when she first arrived. Its vastness overwhelmed her just as it had me. She missed aspects of city life just as I had. The constant wind tore at her nerves just as it did mine. My being an outsider allowed me to see the Badlands through Rachel’s eyes.

Next I had to learn about the issues that shaped Rachel when she was a child and a young woman. This called for history lessons about black culture. I discovered popular music, slaughterhouses in Chicago, and race riots in East St. Louis. I discovered Ida B. Wells-Barnett and admired her greatly. So did Rachel. Absorbing the culture was another step toward my seeing the world through Rachel’s eyes.

Regardless of research, I could not completely understand the African-American experience. This, I realized, was true of the other Dakota ranchers. They couldn’t understand Rachel. Nor could Rachel completely understand whites or Indians. Rachel’s struggles to deal with people different from her were more opportunities for me to see the world as she does.

Last, I had to learn about the mindset of the time period. I read novels and diaries written before and after the turn of the 20th Century. I discovered Rachel’s story was not unique; most women in the West, including Indians, struggled to feed their children. Many women lived with determined men. Heartache and homesickness were not unique experiences, but shared by many women. Rachel was one woman among many.

Writing this novel called for considerable research. But just as important, I relied on my imagination. Imagine, I told myself, the thrill when the handsome Isaac DuPree showed up in the boarding house where Rachel worked. Imagine the train trip from Chicago to South Dakota, Rachel dressed in her wedding suit. And imagine what it was like to lower a child into a water well. Emotions are emotions regardless of race or nationality. That was the common bond I shared with Rachel.

Many of the characters are pioneers in one way or another – not just the DuPrees themselves, but also others, such as Rachel’s parents, who were first-generation settlers in an unfamiliar land. What about the pioneering spirit interests you?

I’ve always been fascinated by American pioneers who had the courage to shed their past and start fresh somewhere else. They were full of hope, confident life would be better in a new place. They might have had doubts and they might have been scared, but they believed in themselves. Pioneers dared to try, and I admire that.

Isaac DuPree, Rachel's husband, takes considerable pride in his ranch; he bases his self-worth on the amount of land he's able to purchase and hold on to. Because of this, he's determined to tough it out in the Badlands despite incredibly harsh conditions. In this respect, how typical is he of other black pioneers you learned about in your research? How did you develop his character?

Isaac was typical of many western men, regardless of race. Like many men, owning land gave Isaac dignity and worth. It gave his children a future. Like many others, he pitted his strength against the land and pitted his will against anyone who tried to separate him from his land. Isaac’s determination to keep his land was a common story, and the steps he took to keep it were not unusual. His willingness to sacrifice was the norm even today. He was a composite of the typical Western man.

Have you found that your academic background in sociology influences the topics you choose to emphasize in your fiction?

My background in sociology pushes me think about my characters as people of their times. I believe it’s important to include references to literature, to music, and to popular culture. Characters don’t live in vacuums but are influenced by the news of their day as well as by events in the past. Newspaper headlines impact lives.

Social class and prejudice also influence characters and are themes I especially like, although admittedly it’s nerve-racking to write about them. The revelation of ugly prejudices in plain language is not comfortable. When writing Rachel DuPree, I had to remind myself that in 1917, Indians were considered inferior and if I wanted the story to be accurate, I had to write about Indians as Rachel saw them.

I've read that you taught yourself the basics of fiction writing by studying Cold Mountain. Why Frazier's novel in particular?

I wanted to study a novel that was historical fiction and that had a strong voice. Cold Mountain was Frazier’s first novel and had won the National Book Award. That was inspiring. I had also heard that he spent years writing it. That was all the more inspiring.

The four-week writing residency at Badlands National Park you mentioned earlier – is this something you arranged yourself, or was it an opportunity that writers can apply for? How did your residency there improve your manuscript?

The National Park Service has a residency program in selected national parks for writers and artists, and Badlands National Park is one of the parks. I was there during the off-season, and I had a small efficiency apartment near the main visitor center. I encourage any writer who wants to experience isolation to apply. It was a terrific experience. It gave me an opportunity to experience the weather, to sink up to my ankles in mud after a downpour, and to admire the Milky Way on clear nights. I also got to meet ranchers and hear their stories. I could not have written this book without those four weeks in the park.

What were some interesting or surprising things you discovered during the research process?

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a wonderful surprise. I came across her when I was researching Chicago and the black professional class. I admired her and knew Rachel would, too. At first I wasn’t sure how I would use Wells-Barnett but eventually found a place for her. As it turned out, she inspired much of Rachel’s actions.

At the moment, Rachel DuPree isn't available from an American publisher. I find this unusual and rather ironic, given the setting and subject, and hope that a publisher stateside will make the wise decision to pick it up! How did your search for a publisher lead you to Macmillan New Writing?

I had an agent a few years ago, and she worked hard to sell the book here in the States. It didn’t get anywhere since many editors considered the story too quiet. That told me the book wasn’t ready. My agent and I parted on good terms, and I went back to page one and worked on revisions. When I finished, I sent the manuscript to Macmillan New Writing, a division of Pan Macmillan in the UK that was willing to published unagented manuscripts. I had read about MNW in Poets & Writers but didn’t think the book had a chance since MNW published only twelve novels a year and received thousands of submissions. Luck was on my side, though. Eleven weeks after e-mailing the manuscript, I had a contract with MNW.

The book hasn’t yet been picked up here in the States and that might not ever happen. However, Editions Belfond in France bought it from MNW, and the French edition comes out in June, 2009. It has also been released in the UK in large print and as a CD. I’m very fortunate and appreciate the UK’s and France’s support of the novel.

Can you reveal anything about the novel you’re currently working on?

My next novel takes place in Galveston, Texas, and is based on the 1900 hurricane that killed 6,000 people on the island. The narrator is a young woman whose husband, a cattle rancher, disappears during the storm. The story revolves around her search for her husband and her determination to keep the ranch.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Wow, am I out of it

This attempt to place a medieval hero in modern context utterly failed with me. What does it say about me that I know exactly who Hereward is, but drew a blank when it came to Jack Bauer? My TV watching is limited to the evening news, PBS, and American Idol, with the occasional (and frequently unintentional) viewing of Formula 1 races and Major League Baseball.

(re: this publishing deal below)

James Wilde's HEREWARD, about a medieval Jack Bauer, single-handedly beating back the enemy in this brutal novel of war and revenge set in England during the Norman Conquest: rivers run red, disease stalks the land, and ancient prophecies fall into place - it is a time of ghosts, curses, demon-dogs and angels: a time for heroes, THE DEVIL'S ARMY, and END OF DAYS, to Simon Taylor at Transworld, in a very nice deal, for publication in spring 2011, by Ian Drury at Sheil Land Associates.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Giveaway winners

I drew the names and meant to post this morning, but work has been crazy... we're getting close to finals week. But without further ado, the two winners of Mistress of the Sun in paperback are Marie Burton and Laura L.!

Just drop me a note at sljohnson2 @ with your mailing addresses and I'll get the books on their way tout de suite!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Just for fun... recent search terms

Most people who find my blog through Google searches are looking for lists of historical novels, historical fiction blogs, or information on specific authors, novels, or agents. But every once in a while, people find me via unique search combinations. Like these.

blogger mysterious lady

Yeah, that's me all right.

nefertiti birthmark picture


you'll never amount to anything

I'll try not to take that personally...

sarah johnson author romance novels

Alas, my secret is out!

book my show please

Right away, ma'am.

a history of the civil war that nobody is going to like

You must be my high school U.S. history teacher.

romance novel stranded on an island pregnant divorce

Though I don't recognize that romance novel, I feel very sorry for the heroine.

what is the past tense of read

Historical novels, reviews, grammar help, you've come to the right place.

IMPORTANT and historical events while alan pinkerton was alive

Because when you put something in all caps, Google knows you mean business.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Guest post: Sandra Gulland on crafting stories from history

Today historical novelist Sandra Gulland is stopping by Reading the Past as part of her blog tour to celebrate the paperback release of Mistress of the Sun. Her biographical novel of Louise de la Vallière will introduce readers to the fascinating world of 17th-century France, rendered with sumptuous grace and a touch of mysticism. She posts about a subject that should interest writers and readers alike: How do you decide how much of history to leave in your fiction? (I also have two copies of Mistress to give away, so please read to the end.) Welcome, Sandra!

What to leave in . . . and what to leave out:
crafting a story from history

Writing any novel involves a great deal of editing and revision: mostly of the "taking it out" variety. As the arc of the story emerges, the cut pile gets bigger and bigger. I think of the "fall line" in skiing: that direct line down the hill. I think of the "fall line" as the direct line to the story I'm telling, its arc. The hard part is finding it — and harder yet, simply allowing it to be.

The cut files for each of my novels are longer than the novel. There are many good scenes in those files — scenes carefully worked over and polished, scenes deeply researched and lovingly honed. It's painful to let them go, and yet, were they to stay in the novel, they would crowd the story, distort it, blur its lines. They're like a beautiful, romantic moss, killing the host tree. They have to go. (I believe it was Hemingway who said something to the effect that it was what was not said that gave a scene power.)

I know the exact moment I felt I had become a "true" writer. I had been writing for almost a decade. I was under contract to write the Josephine B. Trilogy. The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., the first of the trilogy, had been accepted for publication and I was working on a final draft. Reading it through, yet again, I realized that one scene — my favorite — distracted from the narrative movement of the story, and so, boldly, I cut it. Stunned, I walked into the living room to announce to my husband: "I've just cut my best scene." I said this with a mixture of horror and pride. "Kill your darlings" is a familiar writer rule-of-thumb. In this moment, I understood.

With each draft, the story begins to emerge; an author must allow this to happen. The question of what to cut and what to leave in is always a tricky one — a decision that is more often intuitive than logical. But the guidelines get even murkier when the fiction is fact-based, historical. "But it happened," I will tell myself, justifying a scene that really should go. "And it’s such a great bit!" I must constantly remind myself that if a scene doesn't support the story in some significant way, it must go. Even a historian writing a non-fiction biography or historical text must pick and choose, and a novelist even more so.

The cut file for my latest novel, Mistress of the Sun, is 842 pages long. The manuscript itself was only 466 pages. The novel was eight years in the making, and in the last year, after it had been accepted for publication, I cut the last third of it. In the month before it went into production, I cut two chapters. This seems to be my pattern. When I sent the final revision of The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. to my publisher, I printed it out in a larger typeface, hoping she wouldn't notice how much I had cut.

With historical fiction, the important thing is to simplify. There are always too many people for a reader to be expected to keep track of, especially in the realm of the past, where families were bigger, where a house was bustling with staff, where every man who so much as walked into a room had family and servants with him. It's okay to simplify, combine characters (so long as you let readers know in an author's note). There were a number of people who had a profound religious impact on Louise de la Vallière (Petite), the heroine of my last novel, but rather than confusing the reader with a number of characters who would come and go, appear and disappear throughout her life, and all of them giving the same message, I combined them into one memorable character.

As well, actions are rarely made directly and cleanly. Josephine and her first husband split and made-up a number of times before the final break. I didn't want to drag the reader through the tiresome details of their life, but, rather, cut to the chase. Petite, of Mistress of the Sun, ran away to a convent three times, not twice, as shown in the novel.

Devotion to the historical record does not mean that a novelist must document every move. A historical novel, especially a biographical historical novel, is a distillation of the historical record — and in so doing, a historical novelist gets at the heart of a story, its essential truth.


Sandra Gulland's website is, and she blogs about the writing life at Sandra Gulland Ink (see here for additional stops on her blog tour).

Mistress of the Sun, a Historical Novels Review Editors' Choice title, was published in paperback by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster in April 2009. I have two copies to give away to blog readers.

To enter the drawing, leave a comment on this post in response to the following question: What historical figure do you enjoy reading about the most in fiction? Entries will be accepted through the end of the day on Sunday, April 19th, with the results posted Monday morning. International entrants welcome.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Is it hot or not?

Booklist focuses on historical fiction in its April 15th issue each year, and things are no different for 2009. Jump on over to the Booklist Online Newsletter for the latest updates. Keir Graff's editorial poses a question on whether historical fiction's still hot, and there are links to several related feature articles from the magazine. Likely Stories, the main Booklist Online blog, has been posting responses to the "hot or not" topic over the past few days, including one from yours truly. Scroll down through the blog posts as far as April 10th to read them all.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Book review: Dara Horn, All Other Nights

Horn, Dara. All Other Nights. New York: Norton, April 2009. Hardback, $24.95/C$27.50, 384pp, 978-0-393-06492-6.

(Sent to me for Librarything's Early Reviewers program and cross-posted here.)

With its focus on Jewish spies during the American Civil War, Dara Horn’s All Other Nights breaks new ground, though praising it simply for the uniqueness of its subject doesn’t feel quite fair. Rather, it’s how the author develops this fascinating cross-section of history and adds to it an emotionally involving storyline that makes it such a rich, engrossing read. Her characters are original and distinct, and she interweaves her dramatic plot with many timeless themes: racial injustice, the ties of love and family, the Jews’ enduring search for belonging, the price of blind devotion, and the true meaning of freedom. As briskly paced and complex as an espionage thriller yet as thought-provoking as the best literary fiction, it offers a combination that’s hard to resist.

The novel follows one man’s path to self-discovery, a journey fraught with moral dilemmas. On Passover in 1862, Union soldier Jacob Rappaport finds himself in an unspeakable situation. Our protagonist, as Horn tells us, has difficulty saying no. Having fled New York and joined the army to avoid an arranged marriage, he runs up against yet another painful decision. But for Jacob, unused to speaking up for himself and determined to prove himself worthy, it’s not as hard a choice as it should be.

Jacob’s superior officers order him to kill his uncle, a loyal Confederate who is planning to assassinate President Lincoln. To accomplish his task, Jacob travels down the Mississippi concealed in a barrel at the bottom of a boat and arrives at his relatives’ New Orleans home on the first night of the Jewish holiday. Ironically, on this night celebrating Hebrews’ liberation from slavery in ancient times, the family and guests are waited upon by slaves. Jacob’s answer to the ritual question posed at the seder table (“How is tonight different from all other nights?”) becomes clear as he dutifully carries out his mission.

His commander’s follow-up request, that he infiltrate a ring of suspected Confederate spies by marrying one of them, brings him next to New Babylon, Virginia. Eugenia Levy is a beautiful nineteen-year-old with a talent for acting and sleight of hand, and she and her three sisters are up to their necks in espionage. Predictably, Jacob falls deeply in love with the woman he’s been ordered to betray, and their marriage, though based in lies, develops into a genuine union. The plot takes many surprising twists from that point forward.

There’s a lot about history, culture, and Jewish tradition to absorb here, but the author takes care not to lay the details on too thick. She conveys the devastation and heartbreak wrought by the Civil War without depicting battle scenes, reminding us that not all of the war’s meaningless deaths occurred on the field. Judah Benjamin, the Confederacy’s (Jewish) Secretary of State, plays a major secondary role. To readers unfamiliar with Civil War politicians or Jewish American history, his very existence will be a revelation. In historical novels, scenes in which real-life figures bare their souls to fictional characters seem almost too pat, but Horn balances the history and fiction very well. (The detailed author’s note should satisfy all but the most pedantic Civil War buffs.)

The same holds true for the personal versus the epic. In a novel that never loses sight of the bigger picture, Horn also includes memorable details that illustrate the times, such as the pitiful image of a young, barefoot slave girl scrubbing out a sooty fireplace. And in an era where Yankees and Rebels use ciphers to communicate with fellow sympathizers, it’s only fitting that – as in one clever instance – Jews make use of their own secret codes to verbally identify one another.

All Other Nights is rich in cultural and religious symbolism, meaning that these and other scenes can be read on multiple levels for deeper impact. However, and to its credit, it's also completely accessible to readers with no prior knowledge of the place, period, or people, as well as to those who normally avoid literary fiction. The result is a brilliantly composed, compulsively readable historical epic that should appeal to a wide audience. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Bestselling historical novels of 2008

Last year around this time, I noted the top-selling historical novels from 2007, as recorded in Publishers Weekly's Facts and Figures issue. This 2008 data appeared in PW's issue from 3/23/09, and I've already gotten two overdue notices on it, so I figured I'd better write this blog post and return the magazine already. As with last year, PW asked publishers to submit sales figures on new books (issued in 2007 or 2008) that sold more than 100,000 copies domestically during 2008.

There's only one historical novel among the top 15:

#13 - A Good Woman, Danielle Steel (636,375 copies)

The remainder of the top spots were taken by thrillers and mysteries, Edgar Sawtelle, Stephenie Meyer's The Host, and an inspirational holiday novel called The Christmas Sweater that I've never heard of. Clearly I am out of the loop.

Other bestselling historical novels in hardcover, all with sales from 300,000 to 100,000 copies, are listed in descending order:

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
A Mercy, Toni Morrison
The Given Day, Dennis Lehane
The Other Queen, Philippa Gregory
People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks
The Fire, Katherine Neville
World Without End, Ken Follett
Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, Anne Rice
The Steel Wave, Jeff Shaara
The Enchantress of Florence, Salman Rushdie
Days of Infamy, Newt Gingrich and William R. Fortschen

I've read three of these (the Shaffer/Barrows, Gregory, and Brooks). How many have you read?

It's worth noting that of the titles above, many (Neville, Follett, Rice, Shaara, and the Gingrich/Fortschen) were highly anticipated sequels to bestselling novels from previous years. The Shaffer/Barrows is the only one that can be considered a debut of sorts, though Barrows has previously written children's books.

Follett's World Without End was #19 on last year's list, and it also sold 116,000+ copies in 2008 (plus 521,000+ copies in trade paperback in '08). No other titles duplicate between the '08 and '07 hardcover lists, though on the trade paperback list for '08 you'll find many familiar favorites like Water for Elephants, Atonement, Loving Frank, Pillars of the Earth, and The Other Boleyn Girl (movie tie-in edition), listed in descending order of sales.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Redefining historical fiction, Amazon style

Two weeks ago I finished reading Rebecca Dean's Palace Circle for the Historical Novels Review. I'd been caught in a reading slump for nearly three months and was seeking a great escapist read, which the publicity material promised (no, I don't automatically believe that stuff, but I was hopeful). Fortunately for me, the book delivered. I gobbled it up over a weekend then quickly wrote my review, which you'll find online at the HNS site eventually.

In brief, Palace Circle is a sparkling historical novel set amid the privileged world of the upper crust in early 20th-century England and Cairo. The first section is seen from the viewpoint of an American named Delia who marries an English viscount. The main characters are aristocrats, politicians, and socialites, and sometimes all three. It's important to emphasize that the novel is at heart a family saga, one in the classic British mold (mould). The main characters are all fictional, and the "history" presented is mainly social history -- which is rendered extremely well -- with some political history thrown in as World War II gradually approaches. Historical characters flit by in the background and are name-dropped into the storyline on occasion, providing the overall feel of a 1920s-era gossip column. The effect was totally appropriate for the setting, or so I felt.

My review done, I headed to Amazon to check what others were saying about it. Magazine critics adored the book. There were also 18-odd customer reviews, with an average of three stars. Okay, some people loved it and others didn't, and readers have the right to voice their opinions. What took me aback were some of the reasons they cited for their low ratings. There was remarkable commonality among them. Thus I present an informal case study on the undeniable significance of marquee names and marquee events and how they have come to dominate certain types of historical fiction, to the point of -- at least in some readers' minds -- redefining the genre altogether.

So, what were some of their criticisms about the book? My summaries are in bold, with examples provided from the Amazon reviews.

The fictional characters don't participate in major historical events.

"Important events are made known to us by the author, instead of letting us witness them. It's incredibly frustrating and had me putting down the book before it was over." (L. Flora)

"I would have preferred more insights into the various characters, and the reality of their current events which I would have expected to be more crucial." (Marie)

The historical characters aren't prominent enough.

"A lot of famous names are mentioned here, though they don't really play a main role - famous personalities such as Edward and Wallis, Winston Churchill, Prince and later King Farouk, Gamal Nasser and Anwar Sadat. I wished some of these characters would have received a bit more than a passing mention in this work…" (Z. Hayes; this was an exception, a 4-star review)

"The historical figures included in the novel aren't really a part of it, it's more like historical name dropping." (D. Joubert)

"Feels like famous names are thrown in just as filler." (KNSudha)

We don't get to "meet" any of the historical figures either.

"[Delia] meets and enchants people from Winston Churchill and his wife to the soon to be notorious David, Prince of Wales. But we never get to meet THEM other than by name." (NyiNya)

"Perhaps this continuous mention of famous personages is intended in order to classify Palace Circle as historical fiction. However, none of these figures do anything except appear at parties." (J. Perskie)

For all of these reasons, and more, it's really not historical fiction at all.

"I think this novel succeeds more as a period novel than a work of historical fiction." (Z. Hayes)

"Palace Circle does not seem to be historical fiction in the usual sense. Delia mentions famous people and places in history, and World War II is the backdrop for the story, but the historical aspect (at least in the beginning) isn't really fleshed out." (Guitarchick24)

"When I got this book from the publisher, it was billed as historical fiction and quite frankly this book is nothing close to historical fiction … My understanding of historical fiction is one peopled with characters from days past who take an active part in the movement of the dialogue and plot. That was absent here." (TrishNYC)

Furthermore, the author is no Philippa Gregory.

"It's unfortunate that the PR releases compare it to Philippa Gregory; it's not historical fiction." (D. Joubert)

"I have to completely disagree with the review which says 'Rebecca Dean has written a glorious novel that will sweep Philippa Gregory fans off their feet.' Stay true to Philippa Gregory until this author matures like a fine bottle of red wine!" (KK)

Philippa Gregory's name is all over the novel; there's a Nora Roberts quote on the cover ("If you like Philippa Gregory, you will love this book!") as well as a back cover blurb, which the Amazon reviewer cited above. The invocation of Gregory's name apparently indicates more than just a female-oriented historical novel with sweeping storytelling, romantic subplots, court intrigue, and bestseller potential. It can also imply the novel will have main characters that are not only real-life historical people, but also the movers and shakers of their time. Palace Circle fits most of the first set of categories, but not at all the second.

Do historical novels require celebrities to play more than passing roles, so that readers get the opportunity to "meet" them? Do major historical events have to be in the forefront constantly? This all reminds me of the curious reader reaction to Valerie Anand's The House of Lanyon, another British family saga that showed fictional characters interacting, in a historically appropriate fashion, with their social milieu. It also recalls Julianne's editorial comments on her recent market research survey, specifically her conclusions on society's obsession with celebrity.

In my latest reference tome, I wrote -- discussing the emphasis on social over political history in the works of Catherine Cookson and Janette Oke -- that the lack of reference to specific dates, outside events, and famous people in their novels doesn't diminish their value as historical fiction. I hope I'm not wrong.