Thursday, April 26, 2012

Readers' favorite historical novelists, per survey

Please note: An updated version of the Top 20 list was posted on Friday 4/27.  View the latest details there.


In mid-March Mary Tod asked if I'd publicize a survey she'd compiled on reading interests in historical fiction.  She received an enormous response.

Mary has been reporting on the results over at her blog A Writer of History.  She asked if I'd like to comment on the survey data dealing with favorite authors.  My response: Of course!

Out of 805 respondents total, 602 gave the names of their favorite authors (see table).  People were allowed to give as many names as they wanted.

Per Mary, in addition to what's above, 19 authors were selected as favorites by 10 or more people. 404 different authors were chosen by only one person; a further 99 authors were chosen by two people.  More details at A Writer of History, along with the next 20 on the list and Mary's own thoughts.

My observations on the Top 20:
  • There's a lot of diversity overall, but the top authors stand out - especially the top 5.
  • Fifteen of the Top 20 authors are women.  (The original survey had 668 women and 129 men responding.)
  • Many of these authors write novels in series (Gabaldon, Cornwell, Sansom, Dunnett, Peters, Winspear, O'Brian, Plaidy, as well as Follett for his best-known books).  Others write books with interconnected sets of characters or interrelated families (Penman, Chadwick, Moran for her ancient Egyptian novels).
  • Several of these authors are deceased (Seton, Heyer, Plaidy, Austen, Dunnett, Peters, O'Brian) although for most, their novels have been reissued and are still in print - and ripe for discovery by new historical fiction fans.  Per information provided by Mary, Seton, Heyer, and Plaidy are mainly preferred by the 40-and-older set.
  • Biographical fiction, especially about royal women, is popular!  (No kidding, you'll say, but it's nice to have some data to back it up.)  This correlates with the conclusions drawn from readers' stated preferences on Mary's survey.  Readers' three favorite story types were those about (1) strong female characters, (2) the lives of significant historical figures, and (3) the lives of lesser-known historical figures.
  • Most of the Top 20 authors write British or European settings - predominantly medieval and Tudor/Renaissance.  Some have also written American settings (Gabaldon, Cornwell, Seton) but this isn't what they're best known for. 
  • A great many of these authors write door-stopping epics of 500-plus pages.  Obviously many readers aren't afraid of large books - or of committing to lengthy series by these authors.
  • Jane Austen is listed by 24 people as a favorite author.  historical novelist, even though she was writing about the time in which she livedCorrection: the survey asked for favorite authors, not necessarily favorite historical novelists, so Austen's presence here isn't the anomaly I'd thought.  Apologies for my misunderstanding of the survey question.
  • The original survey had 473 US respondents, 134 Canadian respondents, and 86 UK respondents, the rest being from Europe, Australia/New Zealand, and Asia.  Despite the US having five times as many respondents as the UK, British authors had a very strong showing in terms of readers' favorites. 
Read more about it at A Writer's Voice.  Thanks, Mary, for letting me peek at your data!

How many of these authors are on your personal favorites list?


  1. A mutual thanks, Sarah. Maybe we should do it again next year!

  2. It would be interesting to see how this list changed over time!

  3. I'm a bit sad to see Plaidy so far down the list.

  4. Anonymous10:37 AM

    Shame to see Dorothy Dunnett so low down also.

  5. Rather sad not to see Tracy Chevalier or Susan Vreeland among these writers! But I guess there are many sorts of HF!

  6. Confused: why is Austen is on the list at all, since she was not an historical novelist by any means!

    Love, C.

  7. Re: Plaidy and Dunnett... my guess is they're more frequently chosen by longtime readers who were getting into HF when their books first came out. (Such as myself - although I wouldn't call either a personal favorite.) For readers who are new arrivals to the genre, they will be classic authors rather than the ones they see up front in stores or on blogs.

    Good observation, Stephanie... novelists of a literary bent aren't well represented on these lists. It would be interesting to see where they placed.

    C, exactly... it proves that some readers are going by a different definition of HF than we do!

  8. For C and others: I put in a correction with regard to Austen in my post. I misunderstood the survey question. It asked for favorite authors, not necessarily favorite historical novelists.

  9. I'm very pleased to see my two favourite historical fiction authors numbers one and two on the list :-) It's not surprising they rate so highly, as they not only tell great stories but they also pay close attention to historical detail.

    I've read at least one book by all but one author on the list (Ellis Peters -- and I'll get to her one day!) and, with a couple of exceptions, loved them all.

  10. Would that definition be that the works of Jane Austen were written in a year the readers weren't alive, even though Austen was setting the works in her contemporary time?

    For me that can't work at all. You cannot write historicals when you don't know how the period ends up! :)

    Love, C.

  11. Please disregard my comment on the definition (see above). But either way - I wouldn't call Austen a historical novelist either!

    It has been a very long time since I've read any Ellis Peters... and I haven't read very many. With so many books of hers out of print, it's interesting to note her continued popularity.

  12. This is a fascinating list. Thank you. I studied it with great interest. Nice to see some diversity of periods.

  13. I read the Heaven Tree set and The Brothers Gwynedd set by Peters many years ago, the last one not an easy read, I found it a slog I'm afraid.

  14. Very interesting indeed :) I too was confused by the Austen appearance, in amongst all the historical novelists.

    As for Peters/Pargeter - she's definitely an acquired taste. I've loved all her books, but can see how her style might not appeal to some. The Marriage of Megotta is one of my favourite books written by her.

  15. I couldn't get through Brothers of Gwynedd either, although I made a valiant attempt. I brought it to a temp job I had once (this was before the Internet) and had nothing else to do all day. Big mistake! Marriage of Meggotta is my favorite of hers too.

  16. A really interesting post :)
    I'm one of the ones that participated but didn't leave the names of any favourite authors. I find that I'm really settings/time period driven and don't tend to haveany favourite others. This list reminded me that I really want to try Follet's Pillars of the Earth though.

  17. I've been thinking now of other authors I should have listed. Some are no longer writing so they slipped my mind. Pillars of the Earth was a page-turner. One of these years I'll read the sequel.

  18. So many good authors are here.