Why Anne Boleyn Is the Poster Girl of Historical Fiction
Irene Goodman discusses elements of commercially successful historical fiction.
It takes the right combination of an interesting life and commercial appeal to make a historical personage a suitable subject for a novel, and no one fits the bill better than the luckless Anne Boleyn. A member of the powerful and ruthless Howard family, Anne was trained and paraded before Henry VIII at a young age for the express purpose of becoming his mistress – and if all went well, his wife and the queen of England. Not an easy task for a teenager, and a tall order for even the most politically skilled courtier. Things didn’t go as planned; although Anne did become queen, she was accused of adultery and beheaded when she didn’t produce a son.
Anne’s life was not just an important historical event. It was also the stuff of juicy tabloid stories. While we like to think of ourselves as above all that, the fact is that her story pushes all the right buttons. It has sex, adultery, pregnancy, scandal, divorce, royalty, glitterati, religious quarrels, and larger-than-life personalities.
If Anne lived today, she would be the subject of lurid tabloid headlines:
RANDY KING DUMPS HAG FOR TROPHY WIFE
IT’S A GIRL! (BABY LIZ DISSED BY KING)
HANK BEHEADS SKANKY QUEEN
Too often authors think that any historical event is worth retelling in a novel or that anyone who really lived has a story that could be published. While I agree that living a life is an accomplishment, people are not created equal in how interesting, commercial, exciting, or compelling their lives may be. When it comes to fiction, affairs and beheadings are just more interesting than important treaties or laws that were passed. A novel is a story. While fiction can and should teach us something about the past, its primary purpose is to transport us to another time and place. All novels must have conflict and tension, and they must have characters we like and can root for. This is true even when the characters in the novel were people who really lived. Just because something is famous or true doesn’t mean it’s a good subject for a novel.
Let me add a word about this “commercial” aspect. Many writers feel that “commercial” is something they shouldn’t have to be bothered about. They want to write quality fiction and they don’t want to be burdened with rules or Madison Avenue ideas about what they should write. But “commercial” isn’t a dirty word. It simply means something that a lot of people want to read—something that has wide appeal. If you look at it that way, the Bible is extremely commercial, and so is the Rand McNally Road Atlas. We all want to sell books. If you write something that is both commercial and literary (and believe me, it is quite possible), then you will have a winner on your hands. So the consideration of commercial value is necessary – not a necessary evil, just necessary. And the fact is that the stuff of tabloids can make for very good reading and still be very classy. Even the most literary novel has to have some kind of hook or high concept idea that draws people in.
What is “high concept?” It means something that is instantly recognizable and appealing in a short phrase or sentence. “A village in 17th-century England that got the plague and decided to quarantine itself” accurately describes the novel Year of Wonders (Geraldine Brooks), and it’s all we need to know. “A banker survives the San Francisco earthquake and builds a new life” is not as powerful or as interesting. Why? England works better than San Francisco. Bankers are boring. Villagers are homey and appealing. The plague captures our imaginations more than the earthquake. There is also a great level of suspense with the plague book, because we know that plague killed off two thirds of a population before mysteriously stopping. So we know we will be presented with a cast of characters and that two thirds of them are going to die – but which ones?
Another factor in success with historical fiction is that the majority of the readers are women, and they like to read about other women. Much of history is dominated by men, which means you have to look for subjects that include women. The most common device is to take a woman who really lived and to let her tell her own story, free from the alleged “misrepresentation” of history. The Red Tent (Anita Diamant) did that brilliantly by taking archetypal Bible stories and presenting them back to us by telling us what “really” happened. This serves as a great eye-opener, and it’s also great fun. We already know the story, or we think we do, but the author gives it a delightful new spin.
You can use a person or event that really existed, or you can invent a story of your own. Either way, it has to have that special hook. The qualities that make fiction so entrancing – narrative drive, quality writing, larger-than-life characters, conflict, and convincing period detail – can apply to all novels. When you add that extra dollop of commercial interest, you will have the makings of a very successful book.
Irene Goodman has been a literary agent for over twenty-five years, specializing in career building. She represents major bestsellers as well as brilliant newcomers. Historical fiction is one of her first loves.
Published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, v.9 no.2 (Nov. 2005): 15.
Posted by Sarah Johnson