Q&A: What should I read?

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 | Dreamstime.com


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.


  1. says

    This is a terrific list.

    Well researched and important to the writer/reader. I especially back the Vogler book.

    The month of December is shaping up as a fabulous, resourceful time of the year as Writer Unboxed answers questions in an intelligent, thorough and helpful manner where writers and readers will benefit in a myriad of ways.

    Thank you,


  2. says

    Historical fiction is such a broad (and wonderful) category that you could read hundreds of novels without finding two that approach their time period in quite the same way. What a delicious reading project.

    For a book that combines fantasy and history, my favorite is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke — but should a writer emulate it? Tough to say. It’s thick and densely worded, and in lesser hands the same approach could be disastrous. So with any of these books I would read critically and analyze: what techniques are being used? would they be appropriate for my story? I hear too many writers say things like “It’s okay that my book starts slow — you know, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo starts slow”, or “My middle-grade book can be 150,000 words — look at Harry Potter!” Learn from your reading, but also set it in context.

  3. says

    Great lists! For craft I would add ON WRITING by Stephen King, and maybe THE OPPOSITE OF FATE by Amy Tan (which, like ON WRITING, is part memoir, part advice). For great fantasy, I would HIGHLY recommend Robin McKinley’s books. She’s won numerous awards, and I can personally attest to the awesomeness of THE BLUE SWORD and THE HERO AND THE CROWN.

  4. says

    This was a top piece, particularly with the emphasis on practice, practice, practice.

    My favourite craft book at the moment is READING LIKE A WRITER, by Francine Prose (her real name). I’m a sf writer, and Prose’s book focusses on what you can learn from close reading of literary fiction, but I rate the book extremely highly for (a) making me think hard about what I read, and (b) inspiring me to read classic, literary fiction, instead of just a steady diet of sf/crime/etc fiction. I always hated the stuffiness of literary fiction when I was younger, because it wasn’t sufficiently whizzy, like sf. As I’ve become middle-aged I’ve come to appreciate what literary fiction has to offer, and in the past year and a half I’ve had the most extraordinary journey through some great classics, and I’m sure all of this will in time help to make me a better writer. That, even though I’ve been a published writer now for 7 years, I’m far from finished learning everything there is to learn about writing.

  5. says

    I agree about the timing of when you read craft books, as being important. When I was just starting out I read a few and didn’t really understand how to use the advice they were giving me.

    Anyway, my recomendations for craft books are ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’ by Ray Bradbury which is a series of inspiring essays. Another one that is essays is The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter. Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Creative Writing by Jessica Page Morrel and How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N Frey are both very good.

    Historical fiction, well I love Mary Renault’s work, Robert Graves two Claudius novels, James Clavell’s Shogun, and anything by Bernard Cornwell.

  6. says

    Great list! I would add Donald Maass’ Breakout Workbook… I like that it’s more hands-on than the Breakout Novel original. And I’m loving Larry Brooks’ STORY STRUCTURE DEMYSTIFIED. Some of it is a little strangely worded, but his analysis of plot points was a game changer for me.

    I also love Orson Scott Card’s HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY, which covers a lot re:world building and consistency. His novel ENDER’S GAME is a wonderful read, as well. I’m more of an Urban Fantasy girl than pure fantasy anymore, so I think Jim Butcher is especially brilliant, especially for anyone who is looking to build an escalating conflict throughout a series arc. There aren’t any books in his Dresden Files series that feel like a re-tread: each one ratchets up tension and build toward a series climax.

  7. says

    I just reviewed a fantasy novel that feels historical that I would highly recommend: The Edge of the World, by Kevin J. Anderson. It has a very Age of Exploration feel as characters from rival, warring nations set out to discover new parts of the globe (for strategic advantage and because of religious legends).

  8. Satima Flavell says

    I got a lot out of Robert Olen Butler’s book on craft, “From Where You Dream”. His advice about starting your writing day before breakfast, while you are still sleepy, worked brilliantly for me.

    My favourite historical novelists are Bernard Cornwell and Elizabeth Chadwick. And in fantasy, of course, there’s Juliet Marillier:-) Her books sit side by side on my shelves with those of Joe Abercrombie, Robin Hobb, Glenda Larke and Karen Miller. If I’m stuck for inspiration, re-reading one of those authors will always give me some pointers.

  9. says

    A few to add to Juliet’s list:

    Anything by Donald Maas.
    How to write a bockbuster by Lee Weatherley and Helen Corner.
    Spirits, Fareies, Gnomes and Goblins by Carol Rose (wonderful encyc of characters from the world’s myth and legend)
    The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Manguel and Guadalupi
    Annotated Classic Fairy Tales ed by Maria Tatar
    Dorothy Dunnett’s historical fiction (a lesson in the art of research and twists and turns in plot development)
    Cecilia Dart Thornton’s fantasies
    Juliet’s fantasies
    Anna Elliott’s fantasies
    Guy Gavriel Kay’s fantasies
    Mary Hoffman (YA fantasy)

    So many more but that’ll do to start!!!

  10. Heather Reid says

    Fantastic post! I’ve seen a few titles I’m adding to my Amazon Christmas wish list! :)
    Here are a few books I recommend that have not yet been mentioned.
    A Wave In The Mind-Ursula LeGuin
    Steering the Craft-Ursula LeGuin
    Bird by Bird- Anne Lammont

    Robin Hobb-Particularly the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies.
    George RR Martin-A Song of Ice and Fire series
    Ursula LeGuin- Earthsea series
    The Name of The Wind-Patrick Rothfuss
    The Adamantine Palace-Stephen Deas
    Guy Gavriel Kay-Tigana
    Anything by Neil Gaiman
    A Great and Terrible Beauty-Libba Bray (YA)

  11. says

    It’s terribly vulgar to say this, but one must first decide whether one is writing for oneself or whether one hopes to sell the book.
    If the former, then good luck.
    If the latter, look at Amazon’s list of best sellers; they also give the NY Times mysteriously contrived list of best sellers.
    Historical fiction sells best if it’s essentially a romance, lead character female, and rather slight on historical fact. Were I to give names of the most successful, it might seem I’m putting them down, or I’m jealous, or both!

  12. says

    Ray, you’re welcome! I’ve found your book both useful and entertaining. The illustrations really enhance the text.

    R Clement Hall, I hope someone picks up the point you’ve raised and writes a full post discussing it. It can be depressing to see poorly-crafted novels on the best seller lists. On the other hand, the novels I listed above, and many of those other people mentioned, are recent publications. All on my list combine great storytelling with expertly crafted writing. That such books continue to succeed helps me not to fall into the depressive state that might otherwise be induced by those shelves and shelves of look-alike paranormal romances. I write both to make a living and because I love doing it. I do sometimes have to compromise, yes. But I don’t think it’s necessary to sacrifice good writing in order to be published.

  13. says

    I would also recommend “Writing Down the Bones” and “The Long Quiet Highway” by Natalie Goldberg, “Take Joy” by Jane Yolen, “Put Your Heart On Paper” by Henriette Ann Klausner and “Zen in the Art of Writing” by Ray Bradbury…that last one is one of the greatest books on writing ever written by a master storyteller.
    There’s also “Steering the Craft” by Ursula LeGuin and Rita Mae Brown wrote a Writers Manual of some kind about 20 years ago that I recall with great fondness. John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction” is just brilliant, and I have heard nothing but rave reviews about the writing guide that Stephen King wrote a few years ago.

    Meanwhile, I am surprised that you didn’t recommend the World Fantasy Award winning Patricia McKillip, whose fantasy books are so well written they transcend the craft and become art. Her prose is just breathtaking, beautiful and luscious.
    Also, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller have written a series of books in the Liaden Universe that are so intricate and detailed in their world building that you swear these people are real.
    Finally, Linnea Sinclair writes fabulous science fiction/romance hybrids that are just a joy to read, full of fun characters and un-put-downable plots. She’s also a very approachable author who cares about her readers/fans and is always willing to help fledgling writers.
    I agree with you about Jacqueline Carey, though…her Kushiels series is so gripping that I’ve lost many a nights sleep to those juicy novels!