How can a historical novel ever be a bestseller?

How to write a historical bestseller?

People say that a key feature of a bestseller is that it must be written in short sentences in modern colloquial English. (Unless you are writing in French or something, I suppose.) Of course, you want your readers to be able to read it without having to open a dictionary every few minutes. However, in the case of historical novels, can they not sound too modern? I raised this in an article I wrote some time ago about the language in Highwaypersons and previously I asked about the kind of words I am allowed to use, but I feel I need to think again, if I ever hope to write a bestseller.

A historical novelist writing an early bestseller
A historical novelist writing an early bestseller
What about a modern bestseller?

I am also concerned that, even choosing novels set in the present, some readers might like to get away from modern colloquial English. They might want to feel authors are preserving at least some of the language. Not pickling in aspic, but not so modernising as to lose all sense of our linguistic heritage. (There’s a couple of posh words, for a start!)

A quill pen: the tool of the bestseller writer of the past
A quill pen: the tool of the bestseller writer of the past
How conservative am I?

I want to see progress in many aspects of life. Innovation is good, where it actually makes life better for people. Reform is overdue in many institutions. But I do not want to lose touch with our past, whether in architecture, traditions or our language.

Have I read a modern bestseller?

People used to tell me to read a lot, because that would improve my writing, and perhaps even my speech. Is that advice out-dated now? Fortunately, I have read the occasional modern bestseller that was well-written as well as having a good story, so all is not lost. Yet!

I would love to hear what you think. 

3 thoughts on “How can a historical novel ever be a bestseller?”

  1. Interesting post. Some historical novels have been bestsellers, Wolf Hall for example, but I do take your point. Books have to be understood, therefore modern. However, they do have to have the essence and feel of the period in which they are set. I read one last year about gladiators, and not only was the language modern, it was so 21st century with ultra-trendy cliches. In twenty years time I doubt if the next generation will understand it at all. Was it a best-seller? Probably.

    I read a Dickens story a couple of days ago. It seemed a little formal but I understood it all. Would it be a bestseller today? Could be. Or maybe we should opt for quality upmarket fiction with lasting power. Like pop music, who will remember today’s number one? Pik Floyd and Beehoven are still selling, too.

      1. I had guessed you meant Pink Floyd but thanks for the clarification. Your point is well taken. I will try to tread a middle path. I’m afraid Dickens wouldn’t be a big hit today if he was not already established. Thanks for your thoughts. Geoffrey

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