I love historical fiction. I love being transported to a time and place so different from my own, and forgetting about the world for awhile. While any great novel can do this, there’s something about historical fiction that takes this escapism to another level, at least for me.
I get a lot of historical fiction submissions that don’t achieve this immersive quality, and it’s usually for one of a few reasons. So, without further ado, here are the six most common reasons I turn down historical fiction.
1. Voice is too stilted and formal to be relatable.
Anyone who’s read 18th or 19th century literary can tell you that people used to speak much more formally than they do now. They were more likely to use big words (even in dialogue) and complex sentence structures. There was a layer of politeness and decorum in how writers expressed the simplest of ideas.
So many well-meaning contemporary writers try to mimic this formality when they write historical fiction. The problem is that today’s average historical fiction reader has different tastes than readers of earlier centuries. With all the lovely distractions of our modern world, attention spans have shrunk, and readers are less eager to wade through the heavy prose of Charles Dickens or Henry James. They want something more immediate and accessible.
While your historical characters should not use contemporary slang, there is a way to use some period-appropriate language AND keep the voice fresh and relatable to modern readers. Philippa Gregory has perfected this balance. I highly recommend her books to anyone who’s unsure how to approach the voice in a historical novel. Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Dan Simmons also do a great job. Their books feel undeniably appropriate for their time period, and yet the language they use doesn’t bog down the reader with SAT words.
2. Characters are distant and unrelatable.
One reason a character can be unrelatable is too formal of a voice. The Victorians were very good at hiding their emotions behind prim, abstract expressions. If you try to mimic this tone in your book, the reader will have an equally hard time understanding your characters’ innermost feelings, and your characters will come off as emotionally distant and unrelatable.
I also see plenty of submissions where the time period feels so far removed from the present that the characters are unrecognizable. There’s nothing to them. I see this most often with books set in the far distant past, like ancient Greece or Rome. What I think this ultimately comes down to is the author not taking the time to establish the character. It’s sort of like the author wanted to write about this time period, but couldn’t imagine what everyday life would be like for the characters, and so the author just focused on the major historical events. These books typically open with a discussion about battle preparations or how to please the king. We don’t learn many specifics about the protagonist, he could literally be anyone. As a result, it feels like every other book about this time period. It’s missing the specificity that character depth can bring to a novel. And it hasn’t shown me a new side of the time period than what I can find in a history textbook.
3. Sense of place and time isn’t immersive enough.
Historical fiction relies on rich details that bring the setting to life. This can be sensory descriptions about the location of your story (the stink of garbage in Victorian London, the thickness of smog from the factories), but it can also be the foods your characters eat, the clothes they wear, the jobs they hold, the way they parent their children, and so on. Setting is more than location, it’s the minutia of everyday life. So if the author gives only a surface level description of setting, it won’t anchor the reader in the time period and place. You don’t want your historical novel to feel like it could’ve taken place anywhere at any time. You want those historical details to give specificity and uniqueness to your story.
4. Relies too heavily on the social mores of the time.
Let me tell you a story about a woman who wanted more for herself. Her family thinks all a woman is capable of is raising children and maintaining a house. They’re looking to marry her off to an appropriate gentleman. But she doesn’t want to get married. She wants to be independent and have her own career. She wants to have her own life. What book am I talking about? ALL OF THEM. I could probably name a hundred historical novels with this plot, yet I continue to receive submissions with the exact same premise. Are these books illustrative of their time period? Yes, absolutely! There are numerous cultures and settings that have these social mores (even today). But your story has to be about more than just that. Your protagonist needs to have a more pressing goal and focus, or else your book will be missing the nuance and depth required to set it apart from a million other books.
The social mores of the time can help establish the setting, so I’m not saying they shouldn’t be included in your book. I’m just saying, don’t stop there when you’re coming up with the plot. Go beyond the standard conflict of society’s expectations vs the protagonist. This probably one of the most common conflicts in historical fiction, so your protagonist needs more to do than worry about what society will think of her.
5. Pacing is too slow.
Life was slower a hundred years ago than it is now. Everything took more time—from household chores to communicating with loved ones. (Imagine waiting weeks for a letter in the mail to hear how your friend is doing, as opposed to getting annoyed when she hasn’t texted you back in an hour.) Yet regardless of the time period your book is set in, the pacing of the story has to be strong. Sometimes in historical fiction, the slower pace of life at that time leads the author to create slow pacing. The conflict doesn’t appear quickly enough, and the action doesn’t continue to build. There are lulls of inaction and waiting for things to happen. Though it may be historically accurate, readers will put down a book if the plot is too slow, so just make sure the story continues to change and evolve, even if things take a little longer.
6. It’s already been done.
There are certain time periods and historical figures that have been written about so extensively that’s very hard to get publishers excited about a new book on this topic. A couple examples off the top of my head are WWII and Jack the Ripper. I remember one time I visited NYC to meet with editors, the topic of WWII historical fiction came up over and over again, and of the maybe seven editors I discussed it with, only one wanted to see it. The rest said it had already been done so many times that it didn’t feel fresh. They weren’t sure how to break out a new WWII novel amidst all the other ones already available. So whenever I get a submission set during WWII, I’m already hesitant to take it on, because I know the market is oversaturated. But most of the WWII novels in the market are set in the US or Europe, so a WWII novel set somewhere else (like Australia or Africa) could potentially be fresh enough to grab publishers’ interest.
Jack the Ripper is another topic that’s been covered so much in fiction that it’s hard to find something new to say. Maybe if the author took the basic outlines of what happened and moved them to a different time period and place, it would feel fresh. For example, Hannah Capin’s The Dead Queens Club takes the story of Henry VIII and his six wives (another topic that has been written about extensively) and reimagines it as a contemporary YA novel. The result is amazing. The characters of the wives and Henry are recognizable to anyone who knows their history, yet the story has been translated to the modern teen in a way that makes it its own thing.
So be mindful of what books are already available on your topic, and try not to write about something that’s already been done a lot. Or if you really do want to write about Jack the Ripper, do it in a new way.
If any of these reasons remind you of your book, take a moment to ask yourself how you can make your historical novel come to life in a way that will feel fresh and relevant to contemporary readers. Maybe read books set during a similar time period or on a similar topic to see how other authors approached these areas. If you find yourself swept up in the world of these novels, try to figure out why. Is it the character that has you turning the pages? Is it the richness of the setting? The pacing? Hopefully, it’s all of the above.