“Get inside their head” is about getting to know the audience you’re writing for. Once a month, I interview one avid reader of a particular genre, asking questions every author wants to know, or should know about writing for their audience through the eyes of one ideal potential reader.
Today’s discussion is about Historical Fiction. And my interviewee is blogger, author, and avid reader, Hannah Heath:
Hannah Heath

Hannah Heath

Hannah is a college-aged author, blogger, and hopeless bookworm. She loves searching for old books at thrift stores, winces every time she hears the phrase “I don’t like to read,” and often wishes someone would invent candles that smell like hardcovers. She writes young adult Christian Fantasy and is currently seeking representation for her first novel, The Stump of the Terebinth Tree.

Check out Hannah’s blog page here:

hannahheath-writer.blogspot.com

Hannah can also be found at Goodreads:

https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/48039868-hannah-heath

Thanks again Hannah for joining us on this feature interview about what readers are looking for in a historical fiction novel. And thank you for being willing to let us poke around your brain a little!

My pleasure, Rae! Thank you for having me.

First of all: How long have you been an avid reader of the historical fiction genre?

I’d say since I was around nine years old. That’s when I first discovered Scott O’Dell, who I will forever credit for my love of historical fiction.

What drew you to the historical fiction genre?

I loved the fact that these were stories about real people and events. To me, it was so amazing to read something and think, “Wow. This actually happened.” It gave me strength to read about people who had overcome their trials, because it helped me see that I could overcome my own.

What was the first historical fiction novel you ever read?

Island of Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. I don’t know that it was my first historical fiction novel, but it was the first one that actually mattered to me.

How many historical fiction novels have you read in total? (Round about)

Well dang. I have no idea. Let’s say I read about 15 historical fiction novels a year. That puts it at about 120. Maybe.

What are your top three favorite historical fiction novels or series?

I’ll have to go with The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, and The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Though Amy Stewart’s Girl Waits with Gun gets an honorable mention.

What about your #1 fave book stuck out to you the most?

The writing style. Hands down. I was so impressed with the way Zusak paints scenes and characters on a page. Effortless, seamless, utterly gorgeous, and completely heartrending. The idea of showing the story through the eyes of Death is a stroke of genius that I will not readily forget.

Which character(s) in this book really spoke to you?

Oh man. All of them? But, since I know that’s kind of a cheap answer, I’ll have to go with Leisel and Death.

Why or how did they speak to you personally?

Leisel’s resilience always struck me as something beautiful. As somebody who struggles with Lyme disease, I loved reading about a character who got up every day despite all of the pain surrounding her.

I was also amazed by Death’s character. His constant struggle to understand how humans can be “so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant” really spoke to me. I’ve often wondered the exact same thing, but Death had a way of putting my deepest questions so poignantly, whereas I would have ended up blubbering something incoherent.   

What, in your opinion, makes these characters so memorable?

The contrasting between both Leisel and Death is branded into my mind. As Leisel tries to come to terms with words and the destruction and beauty she knows that they can wield, so Death also works to understand the meaning behind human’s love and hate. Leisel is a fairly young girl with life, passion, and spirit that is willing to stand up for what she believes in. This makes a beautiful contrast to the wearied Death who tires of the constant questions that suffering brings him.

What do you think makes for a memorable character in general?

I think any character with strength makes for a memorable character. And it doesn’t have to be strength of body or mind. It just has to be a strength of heart: A character who believes in something, fights for something, and, ultimately, is willing to sacrifice themselves to win. I think Edmund Dantes from The Count of Monte Cristo is a good example of this.

Is there a type of character in general you think is overdone in the historical fiction genre?

YES. That would be the character who is “ahead of the times” from the very beginning of the book. You know the ones: the girls who refuse to marry for convenience, the boys who don’t want to grow up to inherit the family business and live lives just like their failed fathers. Admirable qualities, yes, but those kind of determined, counter-culture personalities don’t just happen. I want to know why the characters are ahead of the times. I thought The Help did a brilliant job of this, as did Girl Waits With Gun.

How about any television series or movie adaptations of historical fiction books: do any stand out as being decent adaptations to you?

I think that the adaptation of Tevye the Dairyman by Sholem Alchiem into the musical titled “Fiddler on the Roof” was done very well. The characterization was spot-on. And, while True Grit falls into the Historical Fiction realm rather loosely, I think the Jeff Bridges adaptation was brilliant. It fit the book almost exactly. I’d also say that The Help, Gone with the Wind, North and South, and The Book Thief ended up with good adaptations.

Lots of powerful points you bring up, Hannah. But how about when you’re shopping around for a new book to read…

Where do you typically go to find a new historical fiction book to read?

There’s this little local bookstore about ten minutes from my house called Farenheit 451. The name makes my bookish heart happy, but it’s also full of great historical fiction novels, so I like to pick up a lot of mine there. If I don’t find the books I fancy there, then I just poke around on Goodreads, find something that looks good, then head over to Abe Books or Half.com. Not as romantic as going to a used bookstore, I know.

When you’re shopping around for a new historical fiction novel to read, what are the top three to five things you look for in your next surefire read?

1. I look for a unique premise, not the run-of-the-mill storylines about a girl crossing social boundaries to marry the guy she loves. Not that those kind of books can’t be interesting, but I tend to look for historical fiction novels that cover new ground or old ground in a new way.

2. Deep characters. I usually check a couple of book reviews first, specifically focusing on what people say about the characters. If they say they’re strong and realistic, then I’m in.

3. Credible authors. If I’m going to read a book set in Russia, I’m always excited to find a book written by a Russian. If I’m reading about the 1920s, then it makes me happy to know that the author is a collector of all things flapper and really knows his/her stuff.

4. Pretty covers. Yup. Sometimes I just buy books because I like the cover. Is that bad?

-Not at all, we’ve all been there!

Are you more influenced to read a book that your friends suggest? Or do you like to go out on a limb and try a completely new book?

I’m definitely more likely to read a book if a trusted friend thinks I might like it. That being said, sometimes I just like to buy books at random and hope I get lucky. It’s like a bookworm’s version of gambling.

What would instantly turn you away from reading a book?

Bad writing. If I pick up a book and don’t like the way the first page reads, then you can be sure that I’m going to put it back on the shelf and look for something else.

What sort of book covers stand out to you when you’re book shopping? Any examples to share with us?

I LOVE covers that fit the era and setting of the novel. I’m also the first to admit that I like brightly-colored or somehow shiny looking books. And now that I’ve succeeded in making myself sound really shallow, here are some examples:

Are there any sort of covers that make you cringe?

Ha! Don’t get me started. I generally don’t like movie-edition covers. A little bit of me dies inside when I see those. And I’m not a fan of ones that are portraits of a random person (presumably the main character). Like these:

Fair enough! Now for some personal taste questions: 

Do you like historical fiction novels that air closer to actual historical details? Or do you prefer a more imaginative tale of fiction with a dash of history? Or perhaps you like both?

I generally like my historical fiction to read like a story but to have actual historical details in it.

Do you like historical fiction novels that feature more Romance? Or perhaps more gritty scenes of war? Or perhaps you like both? (Or neither!)

I’ll take anything, really, just as long as it’s realistic to the time period and has a decent amount of conflict for the characters to have to overcome. I’m fine with romance, just not a lot of it.

What is your biggest pet peeve when it comes to reading a new historical fiction book?

Info-dumping. This drives me crazy, and usually makes me feel bad for the author. It’s clear that he/she is really interested in the topic of his book, did a ton of research, and then included far more information than necessary…or included the right amount, but in a completely incorrect way.

Has there ever been a book that you just totally flat-out hated? If so, what was the ‘final straw’ for you when reading that book?

As far as historical fiction goes, I actually can’t think of any that I’ve actually hated. Unless we’re counting Shakespeare, in which case, yes, I hated all of his historical plays. I know I’m committing heresy by saying that, but I just don’t like his writing. The “final straw” was the fact that he continued to stoop down to bawdy humor when he clearly didn’t need to.

Do you prefer to read eBooks or physical books? Or no preference?

That’s a hard one. I prefer physical books because of the way they look, smell, and feel, as well as the fact that I actually own them. But I think eBooks hold a lot of merit because they’re cheaper and easier to store, which is helpful if you’re a poor bookworm like me.

Thank you Hannah, you’ve been more than patient with my many questions! But I have just two more questions for you that should greatly help my fellow writers out there:

What, to you, is the formula for a great historical fiction novel?

Formula, huh? I can do that:

Good writing + research (character development + historical conflict) ÷ good editing = a great historical fiction.

Sorry. Sometimes I can’t help myself. If you want that in real terms, a great historical fiction novel features a well-edited, unique writing style, plenty of research, and deep characters that struggle with a difficult event or standard in their time period.

And do you have any tips or pointers for my fellow writers looking to make the next great historical fiction novel?

Yes. I have three words: Make it real. Research real events, paint real emotions, create real characters, target real problems. Do that and you can’t fail. Though that’s probably the case for every genre, not just historical fiction.

Thanks so much Hannah! Your insights have greatly helped us writers get a peek into the mind of our audience. Thank you so much for your time!

Thank YOU! Those were all great questions. You really got me thinking. Now, off to go find my next historical fiction read!

Be sure to check out Hannah's newly released short story!:

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