what historical fiction readers really want

Last week’s post on the challenges of writing historical fiction garnered more copious feedback than my posts typically do, including a book recommendation from my uncle; some thoughts on the benefits and challenges of research from my former student Kandy Crosby-Hastings, a historical fiction writer herself (read her savvy observations in the comments to last week’s post), and some comments from my dad, which I’ll return to shortly. I also received a nuanced response and respectful critique from another former student and my occasional Twitter interlocutor (occasional because I’m really bad at Twitter), @Andy__Ford, and it is his epic series of ten tweets that I would like to spend most of my post engaging with today. And that’s because I realized, after reading his comments, that my previous post presented an unfairly generalized portrayal of historical fiction readers. Today, I’d like to complicate that portrayal a bit.

My post last week was directed toward historical fiction writers, not readers. I was also trying to be amusing, which sometimes gets me into trouble. I was also trying to keep my post relatively short. So I fell back on the bogeyman story that I tell the students in my creative writing research class: If you don’t do your research, those cranky historical fiction fans will find all your mistakes and eat you alive in a public forum!!! Although it supports the basic premise of my course—research is important—this story is based on a caricature, and like all caricatures, it is rather unkind. Here is Andy’s response: “I don’t think those Goodreads trolls actually exist, and if they do, they’re probably in the minority….As a reader I am happy to suspend my disbelief so I can enjoy a story, and I think most readers are like that.” In other words, historical fiction fans aren’t waiting to pounce on writers for committing an anachronism; they just want to enjoy a well-told story like readers of any genre do. My conversation with my dad reinforced this point: he sent me a really bad review that he gave a book classified as historical fiction. But he criticized the book for bad writing, not for historical inaccuracy, and so he applied the same standards that he would to any book. As Andy said in another of his tweets, “I don’t think the details matter as much as the feeling”–the feeling, that is, of what it must have been like to live in the world where the story is set.

While writing this post, I remembered something. Last week, I claimed that I had never written historical fiction except for a Civil War story I handwrote in elementary school. But just now, I remembered the short story called “Dinner Party, 1885” that I wrote at the end of the summer between the two years of my master’s program. I had spent the summer maxing out my check-out limit at my university’s interlibrary loan department, reading everything I could get my hands on from and about the Victorian period, including a number of 19th-century health and hygiene manuals, which related directly to the topic of the thesis I was about to start writing. By the end of the summer, I felt like I was a Victorian, and so that short story flowed out of me in a way that no piece of writing has since then (certainly not these blog posts!). I was proud of that story, and it ended up being published in my university’s literary magazine. (P.S. A long shot–If anyone still has that issue of Lamp, could you scan a copy for me? I don’t have the story anymore.) But here’s the key: I don’t think I spent much if any time looking up details like what the exact cut of my protagonist’s waistcoat would likely have been. I wrote the story from the feeling I got from reading all those books, from immersing myself in the period. Yes, if I were to expand that story into a book and/or try to market it to a wider audience, I would probably do some fact-checking. But that would be an afterthought, not the heart of the story. And so we return to the point I made at the end of my last post: no amount of accuracy can make up for a bad story with stilted characters.

I hope I’ve done some greater justice to historical fiction writers and readers this time around. Keep the comments coming!


The child is father to the man

Well, so much for posting every week. My last few weeks have been busy, but I’m hoping to get back on a regular schedule. The purpose of today’s post is clear: I want to show you how darn cute I was as a child. Also, I want to point out how some of my interests were established at a very early age. Photo credits are shared by whichever parent took them ages ago and Sarah, who recently scanned them. P.S. If you know the origin of the quote in the title, and/or what it’s supposed to mean (without Googling it!), feel free to show off your knowledge in the comments.

I still enjoy . . .


being feted, especially when presents are involved.


wearing costumes.


being in charge.





Goat cheese biscuits

This post doesn’t have a clever title, partly because I couldn’t think of one, and partly because I figured the phrase “goat cheese biscuits” would sell itself.  This is a follow-up to my review of Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life around the Table by Shauna Niequist.  Last Saturday morning, a small contingent of our book club (only four of us could make it) gathered at the lovely home of one of our members, the same one who got us the free copies of the book, to share brunch and our thoughts on the book.  Maybe because what we were doing (eating) was for once related to the book topic, and maybe because we’d all read the book, we actually managed to carry on a sustained discussion about the book for, like, at least ten minutes.  (What normally happens in our book club is that somebody introduces a discussion, it peters out quickly, and we talk about other things until somebody awkwardly revives the topic of the book.  All this is fine with me; it’s a club, not a literature class.)

Each of us chose a recipe from the book and brought the result to share.  Although we didn’t know ahead of time what the others were bringing (well, I did; I got to cheat because I was the person who sent out all the emails about this particular meeting), the four dishes turned out to constitute a perfect, (mostly) healthy yet comforting meal for a quiet, overcast Saturday morning in the summer.  We ate Bacon-Wrapped Dates, Robin’s Super-Healthy Lentil Soup (I forget who Robin is, but she’s probably one of Shauna Niequist’s many friends), Goat Cheese Biscuits, and Gaia Cookies (named for a cafe, though you are perfectly free to imagine yourself as an earth goddess when you eat them).  The consensus was that all of these recipes were delicious, relatively simple to make, and versatile–for example, the dates would perform equally well as an appetizer at a fancy dinner, and the cookies could function as either a dessert or a breakfast.  You can see pictures of the food in this post by another book club member, whose blog is a lot more fun than mine.

I made the biscuits.  I think it would be ungracious of me to post the recipe here after receiving the book for free from the publisher, but you may be able to recreate it, or something like it, on your own, especially when I tell you that you’re basically taking biscuits and putting goat cheese in them.  I mean, it’s a little more complicated than that, but those are the essentials.  I thoroughly enjoyed preparing, eating, and sharing these biscuits.  My whole apartment smelled like butter while I was baking them (that’s another hint), which usually means something good is underway.  I do want to give you one modification and one piece of advice in order to enhance your goat cheese biscuit experience.

The modification: Niequist says that if you make golf-ball sized balls of dough, you’ll get about 12 biscuits.  I’m thinking Niequist isn’t a golfer (which surprises me; see my review), because I got 17.  Maybe she meant to say “baseballs.”  My point here is that you don’t need to skimp; make your biscuits a size that you would actually want to eat, and you won’t run out of dough.

The advice: Please reheat your biscuits before enjoying them.  They are okay at room temperature, but they are best when the cheeses (hint!) are melting.

Top three places to read at my house

If you love to read, you know that there’s really no inappropriate place for reading (except, perhaps, in the driver’s seat of a moving car).  However, some places are more conducive to reading than others.  This post gives you a tour of the three best places to read in my apartment.  Sure, the kitchen table is great if the reader needs a flat surface to take notes, but that’s not really the kind of reading I’m talking about.  And the bed may look tempting, but there’s a reason why chiropractors says it’s bad to read in bed.  So the three places below are the top choices for someone who wants to read for an extended period of enjoyable time.

1. The guest room/office


Here you can sit on my slouchy old friend, the futon, and cuddle up with your book and a pillow.  Though you can’t tell in this picture, which I took at dusk, the window lets in some excellent reading light.


Possibly the presence of the Triwizard Champions and friends in the previous picture clued you in to the fact that this room is also home to my Harry Potter artifact collection.  In this picture you can see the Triwizard Cup (it can serve as a reading lamp too), the Marauder’s Map, and my wands.


Now that I have a designated office space, working on the computer isn’t so bad either.

2. The living room


Here you have two options: the couch or the recliner.


I prefer the recliner for reading and the couch for watching TV.  As you can see, the living room is also a great place to dabble in amateur geography.


This bird artwork has very little to do with reading (though it does have a lot of words on it), but I wanted to show it off because it’s the newest addition to my living room.  I just bought it this morning from Sassy Sal Sells.  The bird painting also gives a clue to something you might see if you go through the door right next to where it hangs.  Read on!

3. The balcony


Especially when it isn’t pollen season, the balcony is a great place for open-air reading, as you can see in this post-reading still life.  In case you’re wondering, the book is Barnaby Rudge, the final Charles Dickens novel I need to finish before I can say I’ve read them all.  Barnaby sure ain’t no David Copperfield, which may be why I’m taking pictures and blogging instead of reading.


The great thing about reading on the balcony is that when you look up from the page, there is natural beauty to behold.  Each season has its own special feature to focus on; in spring it’s the dogwood tree that I hope you can see fairly well in this picture despite the crummy lighting.


“Muggles think these keep evil away.  But they’re wrong.” –Luna Lovegood

The balcony is also home to my wind chimes, which I’m sure my neighbors love.  Well, they’ve never complained, anyway, and perhaps the reason is that both chimes are well-crafted and unusually melodious, and since they’re made of two distinct materials, their sounds don’t clash.  This traditional metal chime was a Christmas gift from my brother.  I also have an exotic-sounding bamboo one that I bought in the Outer Banks.

Not pictured: I recently bought a hanging basket of pansies.  Less than a week after I hung it up, I noticed that a bird had built a nest among the flowers.  (I posted an early picture of the nest on Instagram–my username is tessrs.)  Today I discovered that the nest now holds two tiny blue eggs, which I decided not to photograph, not only because of the crummy lighting but also because I thought the bird deserved some privacy.  The past few times I’ve gone out onto the balcony, I’ve noticed the small, gray bird flying away from the basket and over to a neighboring evergreen tree.  Apparently she doesn’t want to hang out with me while I read.

So if you come visit me, bring a book!  I won’t think you’re a rude guest if you slip away to one of these three special spots for a while.

Today’s special guest: Julian of Norwich

I hope everyone had a happy Christmas.  I did.  This week I’m “working from home,” which generally means working on projects that are not directly connected to my job but that will ultimately make me a better contributor to academia, thus improving my job performance.  That’s what I tell myself, anyway.  One of my projects is a half-hearted pretense at working through the “reading list” (a pleasant fiction) for my candidacy exam coming up in May.  In between more enjoyable reading (the Life magazine retrospect on George Harrison, Harry Potter Film Wizardry, and the 1950 Betty Crocker cookbook), I’ve been struggling through some heavily footnoted excerpts from A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich, more commonly known as A Revelation of Divine Love.  But this morning I came across a passage that required no footnotes and that I thought was lovely.  Without further ado (there’s already been way too much ado), here it is.

From Chapter 61.  “He” is Jesus.

“…when we fall, quickly he raises us up with his loving embrace and his gracious touch.  And when we are strengthened by his sweet working, then we willingly choose him by his grace, that we shall be his servants and his lovers, constantly and forever. 

“And yet after this he allows some of us to fall more heavily and more grievously than ever we did before, as it seems to us.  And then we who are not all wise think that everything which we have undertaken was all nothing.  But it is not so, for we need to fall, and we need to see it; for if we did not fall, we should not know how feeble and how wretched we are in ourselves, nor, too, should we know so completely the wonderful love of our Creator.

“For we shall truly see in heaven without end that we have sinned grievously in this life; and notwithstanding this, we shall truly see that we were never hurt in his love, nor were we ever of less value in his sight.  And by the experience of this falling we shall have a great and marvellous knowledge of love in God without end; for enduring and marvellous is that love which cannot and will not be broken because of offences.”