Guest Post: Historical Fiction vs. Historical Novels

I’m thrilled to host historical fiction author, Margaret Skea, who is kicking off a discussion about the difference between “historical fiction” and “historical novels”. Please leave your thoughts in the comments below!

And without further ado…

By Margaret Skea

Last weekend I had the huge pleasure of appearing at an historical fiction festival in a little town in the Highlands of Scotland, organised by probably the most enthusiastic bookshop owner in Britain – a small lady (who makes me feel tall) with a huge heart, named Marjory Marshall.  It will be a big loss to Scotland’s literary scene if she ever retires.

The format was interesting and a little different. It was a whole day event, though folk could choose to come to the morning or afternoon sessions or both. 

Each of the authors had a chance to introduce their book and give a short reading, followed in both sessions by a panel discussion, with the audience also participating.

I was chairing the morning panel discussion, focusing on four historical periods – the Reformation, Mary Queen of Scots’ lifetime, the Covenanters, and the Cromwellian era. We covered issues including the influence and important of religious belief to characters and to plot; writing about conflict; handling the interaction between historical and fictional characters; conveying a sense of place; and the pros and cons of different tenses and viewpoint.

All good stuff, particularly the varied perspectives and approaches to writing which were revealed, and it was clearly of interest to the very responsive audience.

The controversy, though, came in the afternoon session, which divided us authors into two distinct camps. It began with a seemingly innocuous question about balancing fact and fiction and finished with Marjory suggesting a way of defining and dividing historicals into ‘historical fiction’ and ‘historical novel’.

Now, I’ve always thought of myself as an historical novelist, and it seems by Marjory’s definition, I may be right. Two authors were ranged alongside me, with the remaining two on the other side of the debate.

Of course my novels are works of fiction – they certainly don’t purport to be non-fiction – but two aspects are really important to me – creating as authentic a picture of the period as I can, based on solid research and, crucially, when I am dealing with an historic character, trying to present as close a reflection of the real person as is possible, given the historical evidence available.  I finish my ‘Authors note’ in my Katharina books with the statement:

‘This book is a work of fiction, and although based on extensive research, the Katharina depicted here is my own interpretation. I hope I have done her justice.’

It is that final sentence which really matters to me, and it is in this area of a ‘moral responsibility’ to historical characters, however long dead, where the division of opinion emerged. All five of us believe absolutely in the essential nature of good research to underpin our writing, but those who opposed my view, did so on the basis that the needs of story are paramount and trump the evidence.

Now, I don’t have a problem with tweaking minor points of history if the story demands it, though it’s unlikely to be controversial, and I will always confess any deviation from attested history in my author’s note; but what I won’t do is to ‘bad mouth’ an historical character, without good evidence. And this was the crux of the debate. One author was happy to make her main (historical) character have an affair because she felt it added to the impact of the story, despite the lack of any evidence. ‘This is fiction’ she said, ‘If the story demands it, do it.’

There are several counter arguments to this view – amongst them a responsibility to living descendants of the character in question, the realistic or otherwise depiction of the person concerned and, importantly, the fact that, like it or not, many people learn their history from fiction. That being the case, as well as a moral responsibility to the character, I also feel a responsibility to readers, not to mislead them. The opposing authors felt equally strongly that any misinterpretation of history remains the reader’s own responsibility.

And so to Marjory’s distinction between an ‘historical novel’, in which the author seeks to remain true to the history that underpins it, and ‘historical fiction’ in which, while the background is of importance, the story is king. Interestingly, one of the novelists who shared my view had written a novel in which all of the key characters were fictional, yet she still felt it was important to ensure she remained within the bounds of known history, for the sake of readers.  

Lest you think blood was shed, we all parted friends, but the vigorous argument indicated clearly that there are two distinct schools of thought in this respect and it’s a debate that’s likely to run and run…

What do you think?

Margaret Skea is an award-winning novelist and short story writer. Short story credits include Neil GunnFish, the Historical Novel Society, and Mslexia. Her debut novel, Turn of the Tide, the first book in a Scottish trilogy – including A House Divided and By Sword and Storm, gained her the Beryl Bainbridge Award for ‘Best First-Time Novelist 2014’. She is now a hybrid author publishing both through a mainstream publisher, Corazon, and under her own imprint, Sanderling Books.

Katharina: Deliverance, a fictionalized biography based on the life of the reformer Martin Luther’s wife, was placed 2nd in the Historical Novel Society new Novel Award 2018. The sequel, Katharina Fortitude, was released in July 2019.

She is particularly interested in the challenge of bringing relatively unknown historical characters out of the shadows. In an attempt to embrace the digital age she now has her own website at www.margaretskea.com and you can also follow her on Twitter , Facebook or Amazon.

Guest Blog

Guest Blog: Jagiellons: The “Tudor” Period of Poland – by P.K. Adams

Today I’m excited to host a guest blog by P.K. Adams about the Jagiellons and her new historical fiction novel, Silent Water , which released August 6. P.K.’s prose flows from the page to seep into your mind and whisk you away to another world. You can read my review of her debut novel here, but in the meantime, here’s P.K. Adams:

With my new novel, Silent Water, I am finally entering the Tudor-era mystery subgenre, but with a twist. What’s the twist? Well, my protagonists are not actually Tudor subjects. That’s because even though my story takes place in the first half of the 16th century, it is set in eastern Europe at the royal court in Cracow ruled at that time by the Jagiellon dynasty.

Map of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.

I have long wanted to set a novel there. It is a personal project in a way that my previous writing was not. I spent my teenage years in Poland, and my first serious study of history was not about the Tudors or the Borgias, but about a dynasty that, although powerful in its time, is little known outside of eastern Europe. The Jagiellons (pronounced Ya-ghye-lohns) ruled the union of Poland and Lithuania (as well as, at various times, Hungary, Bohemia, and several minor principalities and territories) for more than two hundred years.

Jagiellon Coat of Arms

Longer-lasting than the Tudors (founded in 1387 and dissolved in 1596), at its heyday the monarchy presided over a territory stretching from the Baltic in the north to the Black Sea and the Adriatic in the south. The reign of the last two kings of the dynasty – Zygmunt I (the Old) and Zygmunt II (August)—was the period in Polish history known as The Golden Age. Never before or after—until late in the 20th century—would Poland be so prosperous and peaceful as it was in the first seven decades of the 16th century.

Cameo of Bona Sforza

Interestingly, one of the most powerful and consequential Jagiellon monarchs was not actually Polish. Bona Sforza, who married Zygmunt I in 1518, was an Italian noblewoman who arrived in Cracow as a young royal bride, bringing with her new cuisine, customs, and fashions. But it was her ambition, forceful personality, and political astuteness that made the biggest mark on her adoptive country. She reformed its outdated agricultural sector, patronized artists, founded schools, built roads and bridges, and in the process accumulated a massive fortune. She was by all accounts a strong, fascinating, but also a tragic figure.

Silent Water (A Jagiellon Mystery Book 1) is the result of my fascination with the Jagiellon era in eastern Europe. I hope that it will give the English-language audiences a sense of how dynamic, diverse, glamorous, and intrigue-ridden the Polish court was. In that, it was no different from the Tudors, the Borgias, or the Valois about whom we love to read so much.

Synopsis of Silent Water

It is Christmas 1519 and the royal court in Kraków is in the midst of celebrating the joyous season. Less than two years earlier, Italian noblewoman Bona Sforza arrived in Poland’s capital from Bari as King Zygmunt’s new bride. She came from Italy accompanied by a splendid entourage, including Contessa Caterina Sanseverino who oversees the ladies of the Queen’s Chamber. 

Caterina is still adjusting to the life in this northern kingdom of cold winters, unfamiliar customs, and an incomprehensible language when a shocking murder rocks the court on Christmas night. It is followed by another a few days later. The victims have seemingly nothing in common. Gossip, speculation, and suspicion are rife, but the perpetrator remains elusive as the court heads into the New Year.

As the official investigation stalls, Caterina—aided by Sebastian Konarski, a junior secretary in the king’s household—sets out to find the killer. With clues beginning to point to the queen’s innermost circle, the pair are soon racing against time to stop another murder. 

Silent Water is a story of power and its abuse, and the extremes to which a person may go to find redress for justice denied. Although set at the dawn of the Renaissance era, its themes carry uncanny parallels to some of the most topical social issues of the 21st century. 

“This clever and suspenseful murder mystery casts a fresh and sparkling light on the world beloved by fans of The Tudors and The Borgias. P. K. Adams, author of two previous novels about the twelfth-century healer and mystic Hildegard of Bingen, masterfully brings Renaissance Poland to life without ever losing track of the human passions that drive her characters. A wonderful start to a new series.”
—C. P. Lesley, author of Song of the Siren and other novels


About The Author
P.K. Adams is a Boston-based historical fiction author, whose debut novel The Greenest Branch is the first in a two-book series based on the life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician. She has a bachelor’s degree from Columbia and a master’s degree in European Studies from Yale. When not reading or writing, she can be found hiking, doing yoga, and drinking tea (though usually not at the same time).

Learn more about P.K. Adams at her website and @pk_adams.

Guest Blog

Germany’s First Female Physician. A Guest Post by Historical Fiction Author P.K. Adams

I’m thrilled to host P.K. Adams’ discussion of the inspiration behind her book, The Greenest Branch, which follows the story of Germany’s first female physician.

Greenest Branch eBook Cover LargeSynopsis of The Greenest Branch

In The Greenest Branch the medieval era comes vividly to life in all its romanticism and splendor, but the societal strictures that prevent women from being able to access education and live independent lives are also on display.

The year is 1115, and Germany is torn apart by a conflict between the Emperor and the Pope over who should have the right to appoint bishops and control the empire’s vast estates. In that atmosphere, young Hildegard is sent to the Abbey of St. Disibod in the Rhineland as her parents’ gift to the Church in accordance with a custom known as the tithe.

Hildegard has a deep love of nature and a knowledge of herbal healing that might make more than one Church official suspicious of witchery, and she hopes to purse medical studies at St. Disibod. But no sooner does she settle into her new life than she finds out that as a girl she will not be allowed to attend the monastic school or use the abbey’s library; instead, she must stay at the women’s convent, isolated from the rest of the community and from the town. It might seem that Hildegard’s dreams have quickly come to an end. Yet she refuses to be sidelined.

Against fierce opposition from Prior Helenger, the hostile head of the monks’ cloister, she finds another way to learn – by securing an apprenticeship with Brother Wigbert who runs the infirmary and is in dire need of a capable assistant. Under his supervision, she begins to train as the abbey’s first female physician and makes rapid progress. When Hildegard’s reputation starts to spread throughout the Rhineland, Helenger’s persecution escalates as he fears losing control over the women’s community. But that is not the only challenge she must grapple with. She has also developed feelings for Volmar, a fellow Benedictine novice, that force Hildegard to re-examine the fundamental assumptions she has made about her life. Is the practice of medicine within the monastic confines her true calling, or is a quiet existence of domestic contentment more desirable?

With the pressures mounting and threatening to derail her carefully-laid plans, Hildegard becomes locked in a struggle that will either earn her an unprecedented freedom or relegate her to irrevocable oblivion.

The Greenest Branch is the first in a two-book series based on the true story of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician and one of the few women to attain that position in medieval Europe. Set against the backdrop of the lush oak forests and sparkling rivers of the Rhineland, it is a tale of courage, strength, sacrifice, and love that will appeal to fans of Ken Follett, Umberto Eco, Elizabeth Chadwick, Margaret Frazer, Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden, and to anyone who enjoys strong female protagonists in historical fiction.


The Inspiration Behind The Greenest Branch, an account of Germany’s First Female Physician

Guest post by P.K. Adams

I first heard about Hildegard of Bingen (c.1098-1178) in a history of music class in college. Her chants are sublime, and as I fell in love with them I started to read more about their composer – the first woman in the Western world to do so.

It turns out Hildegard did much more than that – she was a pioneer in many fields thus far reserved as a man’s domain. One such field was medicine. She was a skilled herbalist who applied treatments in a way most medieval physicians did not, namely by observing the outcomes of the cures rather than relying on ancient texts for guidance, irrespective of whether they worked or not.

As I researched Hildegard’s life, two things began to puzzle me in the (admittedly sparse) historical accounts. One is that she was enclosed at a young age (possibly as young as eight or ten) at a very strict women’s convent, where the residents lived in enforced poverty and isolation from the world. In such a place, historians tell us, she lived for the next three decades.

This, to me, is hard to believe. The psychological and intellectual toll such privations would exact on a child would be extremely damaging. Yet Hildegard re-emerges in contemporary chronicles, around the age of forty, as an accomplished physician, writer, and composer, and a diligent student of nature. She is already well-known in the Rhineland, and her theological writings are about to catch the attention of Pope Eugenius III. She is also preparing to leave the abbey of St. Disibod, where she had been enclosed, and start her own foundation.

Clearly, something happened during those decades that allowed her curiosity to be fostered, her intellect to develop, and her creativity to flourish. There is no reliable record of her early life beyond the few basic facts of her provenance and enclosure, and that is what inspired me to imagine what that life may have been like.

The Greenest Branch is a fictionalized account of the early life of Hildegard of Bingen, but it is rooted in what we know about her and the world she inhabited. It is a world, needless to say, that is not conducive to female empowerment. That she managed to accomplish so much is a testament to her fierce intelligence, strength, and determination.

The second book in the series, titled The Column of Burning Spices, traces the second half of Hildegard’s long and eventful life. It will be released in early 2019.

Greenest Branch eBook Cover Large


Order the The Greenest Branch on Amazon US  and Amazon UK

GoodreadsjpgLearn more about the book from GoodReads


“Hauntingly beautiful and meticulously researched. P.K. Adams writes about the Middle Ages like someone who has lived there. Hildegard’s story is inspiring, and her voice feels so real that it’s almost spooky.” – Jessica Cale, author of Tyburn.


About The Author
P.K. Adams is a Boston-based historical fiction author, whose debut novel The Greenest Branch is the first in a two-book series based on the life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician. She has a bachelor’s degree from Columbia and a master’s degree in European Studies from Yale. When not reading or writing, she can be found hiking, doing yoga, and drinking tea (though usually not at the same time).

Learn more about P.K. Adams at her website and @pk_adams.