Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Idle observations on current historical novels

I've been pulling together a list of what I call "traditional historical novels" (genre fiction, that is, as opposed to literary fiction - though the line between them is blurring more and more) published between mid-2004 and mid-2007. You may find this interesting. The numbers will change slightly as more novels are published or announced, but thus far, 2/3 of them (98 out of 148) fit the "women in history" theme. In fact, most fit one of these categories:

- biographical novel of a female ruler, or female member of a royal family
- biographical novel of the wife/consort/mistress of some famous man (including biblical figures)
- novel of a fictional woman's daily life in a given time period

What I'm not seeing are many new deals for this type of novel in Publishers Marketplace, though there have been a few. It makes me wonder whether this theme - along with the corresponding headless bodice covers - will have played itself out in the next year or two.

I haven't yet started analyzing literary historical novels for the same time period, though I know there are many more of them.


  1. Anonymous4:59 PM

    No wonder I feel I'm reading less historical novels the last years - I'm not overly fond of books centered on women, so I probably got only a percentage of those.

  2. Maybe novels with a lot of blood and battles will come back into fashion. (There are some of those on my list, but not many)

  3. Anonymous3:13 AM

    That is interesting. Is the full data set going to be published somewhere? I agree with Gabriele; that explains a lot. I don't think it's blood and battles per se that I miss in many women-centred books, it's something more nebulous than that. Maybe it could be described as a sense that the character is part of a larger world with other things happening in it, that affect the character and that he/she has to make sense of and adapt to. E.g. one of the things that I like about Anya Seton's Katherine is that you get the Peasants' Revolt as well as Katherine's love affair with John of Gaunt, so it's got a wider field than Katherine's emotional state and domestic relationships. If that makes any sense?

  4. Eventually all the titles, along with annotations, will become a chapter in v.2 of my book, which I'll be working on this winter. (Historical adventure novels a la Cornwell are in their own chapter.)

    I think you're right, Carla, about the narrow scope of many of these novels. Gregory's The Constant Princess is one of these. I enjoyed it but it felt claustrophobic in places.

    There are some exceptions I can think of. Brenda Rickman Vantrease's The Illuminator, for one, which has a protagonist involved in the larger world. But comparatively few novels have the scope, depth, and length of Katherine these days.

    Most of the books in this chapter weren't published anywhere but the US, but from your comments, I take it you're seeing something similar in the UK?

  5. Anonymous10:15 AM


    Well, geez, I HOPE they won't stop publishing those, since I have a Type 1 one in the works and a sort of Type 3 that's done. :)

    But then I like to read those...

  6. Oh, I'm sure they'll still be around... they always have been. And there are a few "women in history" series I know of that will be continuing.

    I'm just wondering whether we'll be seeing as many of them as we see now. I enjoy this type of novel myself!

  7. Anonymous12:51 PM

    yes, it's about the broad scope. There aren't many battles in Penman's books but I like them nevertheless. Though I admit I do have a soft spot for adventure and battles, and thus it's what I write. :)

  8. Anonymous6:38 PM

    Very interesting, all of your comments. I must admit that I do not read historical fiction for pleasure since most seem to be a rehash of the novels by the great writers, such as Plaidy and Seton and many others. Many newer books just seem to sensationalize the same stories without the depth. Now I am speaking as someone who is not acqauinted with the current market and I am sure that there are many exceptions, many wonderful new and interesting historical novels.

  9. Anonymous5:34 AM

    I haven't got in-depth survey data for the UK market, so it's only a vague impression of mine. I've found it harder to find novels that are really satisfying in recent years, and one of the things that most often disappoints me is a narrow focus, all about babies and getting a man and domestic life, that could almost be happening in any era. Sort of chick-lit in costume, without the jokes. On the one hand I suppose this is thought to be 'timeless' and 'easy to relate to', which in a way it is, and the novels often seem impeccably researched and written. It's just that it doesn't interest me all that much.

  10. Anonymous10:50 AM

    There seems indeed to be a trend towards the domestic (aside from Bernard Cornwell who keeps writing battles, and Wodan or Mars know how glad I'm about that, lol). Take German writer Iris Kammerer, fe. - she wrore a trilogy about time of the Varus battle and Germanicus' campaigns, but she manages to skip the battle and most of the later fighting as well. Sure, her research is meticulously, and her characters interesting, but it's basically the story of a Roman tribune who gets captured by Germans before the Varus battle, later flees with the daughter of the chief (with his knowledge, there's a feud going on), becomes prefect of a Roman fort and lives there with his German wife and is thrown into the intrigues between Romans and Germans, but on a much more local scale than my characters. The books are interesting, not a least for the world she presents, but they are definitely domestic, esp. seen on the background of the grand scope of the German wars. It has one advantage, though, I can write a book set in the same time without running into dnager of being a copycat - A Land Unconquered is about the wars as much as about the intrigues, and I don't have a romance in there. :)