Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Saturday, 8 March 2014

A Woman's Choice - Annie Thomas - Author Guest Post

I am very pleased to welcome Annie Thomas, author of the novel A Woman's Choice, to the blog today and to share with you her brilliant guest post, below, discussing historical fiction. 

Who wants to see history in a great historical novel?

by author Annie Thomas

What is it that separates a magnificent historical novel from the rest?

The answer lies not in superb writing, compelling plot, characters we can believe in, and a book that reveals some truth about the human condition – although all of that is of course a pre-requisite for magnificence.

It’s the history.  The history that we don’t notice but which we absorb with every word we read.

We recognise that the world we have entered is entirely authentic, while remaining unconscious of the research that made it that way.  This is not about accuracy of historical detail – right food, right clothes, right transport - that just has to be a given.  It is about understanding that the past is not always a foreign country, as L.P Hartley believed in ‘The Go-Between’. Sometimes they may do things differently there, but there are also times when they behave and think very much as we do.

It is the history that gives us the social and political context, the public landscape in which lives are lived. Historical fiction brings us vicarious experience; we can read about the impact of anti-German rhetoric and prejudice in early 20thC America on the lives of individuals we have come to know and care about, for example. It tells us something about the human capacity for bigotry, while the ways our characters respond to that tells us something about the strength of friendship.

Anne Fine, UK Children’s Laureate in 2002, described ‘The Seeing Stone’, Kevin Crossley-Holland’s wonderful historical novel, published for children but read by all ages, like this:  “a world so real that you can run your fingertips over its walls, feel its morning frost bite at your throat, and remember the people who lived there for a lifetime.”

What a testimonial.

As a relatively new writer, I know the temptation to expose rather than conceal the research.  So many hours are spent reading and thinking, making notes and making connections between the imaginary world and the real one.

Sometimes I have come across a contemporaneous description of an incident or place, and instantly seen my characters there. I know just what they would have said and done, and have even written whole chapters of many hundred words to add texture and credibility by putting them there.   It is a hard learned discipline to go back over the draft; recognising the slowing of pace, or the inconsequential diversion, and cut, and cut again, until the story is released to flow again as it should.

However, it is also undoubtedly true, that sometimes the research helps to shape the narrative.  In my own novel, set in New York, the books and newspaper accounts about the lives of emigrants at the turn of the century, (particularly women), became translated into the lives of my characters.  Sometimes they even helpfully provided the inspiration for a pivotal moment in the plot.

Philippa Gregory has described the period when Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton and Georgette Heyer were at their peak as a ‘golden age’ of historical fiction.  She is now herself part of a group of contemporary writers which could rightfully claim to be leading a new golden age.  Others include Elizabeth Chadwick and Hilary Mantel, and now Eleanor Catton.  All have very different styles and approaches.  All have that necessary lightness of touch, that deft ability to interweave narrative and context that creates the best in both popular and literary historical fiction.  All are wonderful storytellers, but never at the expense of the history, so we come away even more enriched by our reading.

As a reader I want to feel enthralled and fulfilled.  I want to unconsciously absorb a perspective about the times and the humanity - and to do that through the imaginative leap of seeing through the eyes of another person.

As a writer of popular rather than literary fiction, I want to get it right, to be a good historian – and then to conceal that scholarship with creativity and an absorbing read. Popular fiction may not bring readers a profound truth.  But it can bring insight, perspective, and a measure of understanding, in a cracking good story.

I guess that’s something we all keep striving to achieve.


About the author...

Annie Thomas is a British writer, and the author of ‘A Woman’s Choice’.  Brought up in London, after a degree in English and History she now works in an English university, and lives in a rural converted Victorian converted pub where rumour has it that Tolkein and C.S.Lewis once stopped for a beer on one of their many walks together.

About the novel...

Set in the vibrancy of early twentieth century New York, the story follows the young emigrant Clara and the people she meets on the way, through tenement living and sweatshop labour to success. But as the horror of World War One in Europe threatens to engulf America, Clara learns that personal lives cannot be lived apart from public events, and finds that the people she has loved, and who love her, are not always what they seem. All the incidents in ‘A Woman’s Choice’ are based on what really happened to many thousands of emigrant families. It is a compelling saga of friendship, love and ambition.


  1. What a great post. 'The history that we don’t notice but which we absorb with every word we read' - brilliant.

  2. "I want to unconsciously absorb a perspective about the times and the humanity - and to do that through the imaginative leap of seeing through the eyes of another person." So aptly put. I love historical fiction and I love this article for making me realize why I like it.

  3. Superb essay.

    I must admit that previously I would look to the more traditional aspects of a narrative (The characters, writing, plot, etc) to ascertain whether or not historical fiction novel was great. However, this has given me a fresh perspective as well as food for thought.

  4. This was lovely to read! I'm always disappointed when a historical novel tries to hit you over the head with historical research and facts instead of getting the 'feel' of it. I love the research but I love the atmosphere more.

  5. This is such a fabulous idea. I'm in my 50's and know lots of intelligent, funny and wise women beyond my years. They are my inspiration. I can't wait to read this book.


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