Lin Wang asked: As a writer and reader of fantasy and historical fiction, what are some good books that I should read and authors I should learn from?

I’ll talk about craft books first, and then list some examples of outstanding recent fiction in the genres of historical fiction and historical fantasy. First up, I should tell you that I didn’t read a single book about the craft of writing until I was an established writer with several published novels under my belt. I learned my craft by (a) getting a good general education (b) being an avid recreational reader and (c) putting in a lot of writing practice.

Once established as a novelist, I found I was often asked for writing advice. So I thought I’d better start reading craft books. But which to choose?

In fact I got good recommendations via Writer Unboxed, and I’m grateful for those. I’ll recommend in my turn, with the caveat that learning comes more through practice than through study. A person doesn’t learn to bake a perfect fruit cake by following the recipe. She does it by being in the kitchen alongside her mother, touching, tasting, smelling, finding out in a hands-on way. And writers learn by keeping journals, scribbling in notebooks, trying out different styles and genres, chatting with their peers and (sometimes) reading craft books and doing courses in creative writing. They learn most through their recreational reading. Only keen readers become serious novelists.

The best time to start reading craft books may be part way through your writing journey. Read up on craft when you’re a newbie and you may become paralysed by too much good advice.

So what’s on my bookshelves? As a writer of historical fantasy I have an extensive library of reference books dealing with general and specific aspects of the settings I use in my novels. I have essentials such as a big dictionary, a Roget’s Thesaurus, a world atlas and some non-English dictionaries and grammars. I have a shelf of books related to fairytales, myths and legends. My collection of books on writing is quite small. All those listed below have been useful.

Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph M Williams
Eats Shoots and Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss
A Dash of Style: the Art and Mastery of Punctuation by Noah Lukeman
Finding Your Writer’s Voice: A Guide to Creative Fiction by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall
The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri
Flogging the Quill: Crafting a Novel that Sells by Ray Rhamey
Save the Cat! and Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies by Blake Snyder
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

Here are some books I’ve found especially useful as a writer of historical fantasy:

45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt
The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler
The Virgin’s Promise: Writing Stories of Feminine Creative, Spiritual and Sexual Awakening by Kim Hudson
The Encyclopedia of Fantasy
ed John Clute and John Grant

Now for the second part of the question: Which authors should I learn from? There’s such variety in the genres of historical fiction and historical fantasy that it’s hard to know where to start. I think any writer should be familiar with the great classics of her genre, not so she can imitate them, but to see her own work in the context of the genre’s development over time. It’s also good to keep up with what’s current. But then, if you tried to read everything you’d have no time to write. Watch out for reputable reviews of new publications in the genre  – they are generally a good guide.

Here’s a short reading list of fairly recent novels that fit broadly within the genres of the question. I’ve chosen them because they demonstrate both fine craft and compelling storytelling.

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie (epic fantasy with a twist. Great use of tight third person, using several contrasting POVs)
Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey (epic historical fantasy. Elegant use of a single, first person voice; intricate and imaginative world building)
Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan (a dark folkloric fantasy based on the fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red. Winner of World Fantasy Award)
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (literary fiction with brilliantly evoked historical settings and a touch of the supernatural)
Music and Silence or Restoration by Rose Tremain (literary historical novels)
Novels by C J Sansom (mysteries set in Tudor period)
Historical novels by Elizabeth Chadwick

That’s just for starters! I’d love to hear both craft book recommendations and fantasy/historical novel recommendations from the WU community. What do you love? What do you learn from? What is a must-read?

Photo credit: © Willeecole |


About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.