Here at Discovering Diamonds, we look at hundreds of books in a year. Sadly we reject some from the outset, then sometimes we read and still decide not to review, because we only publish 4 and 5 star reviews and not all the books submitted are deemed by our review team to be of that standard. [See Helen’s article]
Thankfully, many of the books not only receive a review, they can also end up with a Discovering Diamond, a Reader’s Choice nomination, and now can even be longlisted for the Richard Tearle Award.
So what is it that makes me excited by a book? Here’s what I love to find in an historical novel.
Working from the outside in, I love to see an eye-catching, professionally designed cover that suggests the subject matter. I like a good, not too long, blurb which hooks me in, and it's worth bearing in mind that in this digital age it’s very important to check to make sure that your 'Look Inside' sample on Amazon is formatted correctly and is free from typos.
A good blurb will draw me in, yes, but often I’m sent Mobi files which don’t include the blurb, (or even the title!) and as I often have a substantial stack of review books to read, I frequently go to the book having forgotten the premise. So I enjoy a strong opening where I discover as quickly as possible where we are (time and place), and who’s telling the story (their age, gender etc). When it comes to setting, I'll always feel more involved in the story if it really couldn't be set in another period. I don't want a history lesson, but I do think stories are stronger if they are attached firmly to their time and place.
It’s a comforting feeling to settle down with a book and sense that you’re in good hands. Several things can contribute to that. Firstly, a strong opening with an action scene that really drops me, the reader, into the set. Perhaps I’ll have a few questions - not too many; I don’t like to be confused - that will be answered in the following pages. What’s even better is if those answers are presented lightly. If there’s a lot of exposition*, I’d prefer a prologue, even though they’re not popular these days, to set up the story if it really needs setting up (although as Helen has pointed out, a prologue shouldn't be used instead of setting the story up, and should be short). I’m always appreciative if the author can show me they’ve done their research by sprinkling the results of that research lightly across the pages.
Secondly, I like a 'non-X-Factor' moment. Let me explain. When I watch such shows, there’s usually a bum note or two when the singers perform. This makes me cringe, but worse than that, I can’t relax, because I know the likelihood is that there are more to come. When I watch a performance from an established, old-school singer who is pitch perfect, I uncurl my toes, drop my shoulders, and sit back to enjoy the song. That’s how I like my reading experience, so I appreciate the lack of bum notes or, in this case, the lack of mistakes. No, I don’t mean typos, because there are some which are experts at hiding from editors and proofreaders and if there aren’t too many, we forgive. (Typos should be added to the list of things that will survive Armageddon!) What jars is a mistake which will lift me out of the moment, and leave me tense in case more are on their way. I like being confident that I’m in good, capable hands. I’ve recently read two mainstream books which left me slightly on edge because one author did not understand the different verbs to lay and to lie, and the other couldn’t spell a particular word (this was more than a typo, since the word appeared several times). Perhaps it’s wrong of me, but it left me feeling that they hadn’t read many books themselves, or taken great enough care when writing. I don’t think you need to understand or even know all the different past tenses (simple, imperfect etc) but if you don’t know that it’s not good English to say “She lay the scarf on the bed” then it might be that you need to work on your craft a bit more. I know the lay/lie thing confuses a lot of people; Helen Hollick (founder of Discovering Diamonds) told me that she remembers the difference between lie and lay by: 'The hen lies on her nest to lay an egg.' My own aid is that lie has the same vowel sound as recline, and lay has the same vowel sound as place. But these only help with the present tense so, since most authors of historical fiction are using the past tense, here's a really useful guide.
Characters using period-appropriate language will always get the thumbs up from me. Again, it’s nice not to be lifted out of the story by thinking, “Would s/he really have said that?” Strong world-building is also incredibly helpful in drawing the reader into the story and, again, it’s satisfying if you can stay there, and not be wondering if the period detail is correct; I like to see little snapshots of what the author can see - what's happening in the background while the main characters are centre-stage - that give me a realistic flavour of the period. Like I said, it’s a confidence thing.
If the book is written by an American author, I’m absolutely fine with favor, honor, and color etc. Why should US authors change the way they spell when writing a story set in England? What I’m not so keen on, and again it will jar, is if the British historical characters use US idioms, and vice versa. Again, it goes back to confidence, that the author has done their research, not just into the period, but the culture, as it were. So, I do like Victorian characters in England to speak of autumn, not fall, just as I’d expect 20th-century New York characters to be on a sidewalk, not a pavement.
And those characters always grab my attention if they’re strongly drawn. I need to see them in action and if someone’s falling in love with them, I want to as well. For that, I have to see what others find attractive about them. Conversely, I’m happy to hate a villain, because as long as I’m reacting to the characters I’m engaged with the story, even if I hate some of the people in it. It’s even better if the villains aren’t pantomime baddies and I’m shown why they went bad.
I was never much a fan of first-person narrative but it is very popular and I do use it for my short stories. Done well, it's effective, and I take my hat off to anyone who writes a whole novel in first-person, because I think it’s incredibly difficult to present that character, who always narrates and never gives us the option of looking at them through the eyes of others. I prefer a narrator who can show me what they see, not tell me what they do, by which I mean describing directly what’s in front of their eyes: “The men were gathering for a fight,” rather than “In front of the path where I stood, I could see the men gathering for a fight.”
I’m always in awe of the master of the plot, of the author who can get their characters into, and out of, scrapes and dangerous situations and I especially enjoy it when the resolution is plausible and I find myself thinking, “Oh, that’s why we were told about the thing left in the barn,” or “Crikey, I didn’t realise it was him but yes, now he’s revealed his identity, it all makes sense.” It makes for such a satisfying read when all the little loose threads are tied together at the end and you’re not left thinking, “So, what did the dog have to do with it all? Why was the aunt so dead set against the marriage; that wasn’t really explained.”
I prefer it all wrapped up at the end, rather than a cliff-hanger ending but that’s personal choice; I like the story to be finished, with the possibility of more if it’s part of a series.
Oh, and I do love a good chunky author’s note section at the end. Some readers might not, but I do like to know which, if any, of the characters were based on real historical people, or some extra background detail on a particular part of the story. As the person who lives with me is fond of saying at the end of every film we watch, “Is it based on a true story? We need to be knowing.”
And finally... the 'afterburn': those delicious novels whose characters and setting stay with you for days, weeks, or even months afterwards. Those books have all (or most) of the above and maybe a bit of magic sparkle too. Where does that sparkle come from? Probably individual style, that mystical 'author's voice' - a way of 'speaking' on the page which becomes distinctive and more prominent with each novel written. So please keep writing - and sending us your books!
*'exposition' is sometimes known by readers/reviewers as 'info-dump' - a chunk of explanation about the history or backstory which slows down the action.
Find Annie's books and blog at anniewhiteheadauthor.co.uk
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