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Want Insights on Reading and Writing Historical Thrillers?

What about you? Have you read any historical thrillers you'd recommend? Do you have any questions for Chris?

Historical Novels: The Thrill of History

The oft-repeated cliché goes that those who are not aware of history are doomed to repeat it. Like all clichés, this carries a grain of truth–which is why there has been continued interest in historical novels.

To provide insight into this genre, we have with us today author Chris Ambrose, who writes historical thrillers. Chris writes knowledge-inspired adventure fiction including the Bone Guard archaeological thrillers, and interactive superhero novel, Skystrike: Wings of Justice for Choice of Games. In the process of researching her books, Chris learned how to hunt with a falcon, clear a building of possible assailants, and pull traction on a broken limb.

She will be delving into her experience of reading and writing historical novels to bring us nuggets of wisdom on how to write and enjoy reading this genre.

Take it away, Chris!


It wasn’t until I started writing historically inspired novels that I really understood history is an adventure! Historical facts and backdrops form the underpinning of a variety of works—so how do you employ those historical elements in a compelling narrative for a contemporary reader?

A Thread of Grace, by Mary Doria Russell

Historical Novels: The Thrill of HistoryJewish experiences during World War II are a large and complicated topic, fraught with emotional weight, creating a complex historical space to write into. In her book, Russell manages this difficult historical moment by choosing a very specific location, a small region in northern Italy, beginning in 1943, to constrain the scale of the narrative. She then expands the emotional scope of the story she wants to tell by employing a variety of historical perspectives that offer different angles on that very particular place and time. A priest, a Resistance leader, a hidden Nazi, a Jewish refugee family hiding out in Italy all serve as narrators who deliver their unique insights.

Russel’s novel helped me understand that using a specific time and place, rather than try to include everything I find compelling about the historical event, allows me to focus on revealing the human characters within the sweep of history, and employing multiple perspectives can give a three-dimensional view.

The Emperor’s Tomb, by Steve Berry

Historical Novels: The Thrill of HistoryBerry’s work, by contrast, weaves historical information and settings into contemporary adventure plotlines. Here, the challenge is to make this quest into the past reveal implications for the modern reader. In this book, Berry creates a hook using the premise that a historical artifact (an oil lamp taken from the tomb of China’s first emperor, the one famous for its terra cotta army) might contain evidence vital to proving a theory about fossil fuels. While readers engage with the adventure story of Berry’s characters, they’re also exploring this theory and what a historical revelation might mean in the real world.

Bringing together a historical angle on a topic that concerns you, or deploying a contemporary twist on a historical tidbit can make the historical side of a plot-focused novel more engaging.

 

The Thief-taker, by D. B. Coe/ D. B. Jackson

Historical Novels: The Thrill of HistoryBased on extensive research into the Colonial period just prior to the Revolutionary War, this book re-imagines a familiar historical period with the introduction of historically inspired magic. Set in Boston, Coe’s series follows a thief-taker, an actual historical role that might be the equivalent of today’s bounty hunters. The character gets paid by bringing in people wanted for crimes. His life is upended, as were the lives of many, when the Colonies tilt toward rebellion.

Many readers learned about Colonial Boston in school, so Coe brings the moment new life by crafting his story around an unfamiliar type of character, and incorporating a fantasy element. This approach makes the period seem fresh and encourages the reader to see history through new eyes. So one way to bring excitement to history is by infusing the familiar with something strange and unexpected.

Beheld: Godiva’s Story, by Christopher M. Cevasco

Historical Novels: The Thrill of HistoryCevasco takes the prinicple of illuminating history through less familiar perspectives to another level in this unique thriller about the life of the woman we know as “Lady Godiva.” People might think of her only as the logo for a brand of chocolate. If pressed, they might be aware of the legend about a woman riding naked through the streets of Medieval Coventry, but they’re unlikely to know more than that—including that the woman, and the ride, are events that really happened. Women’s perspectives are often left out of the history books, and it’s refreshing to see the new works coming out that return these forgotten people and voices to the prominence they deserve. Cevasco delves into this historical anecdote and unpacks it by showing Godiva/Godgyfu in context as a woman of wealth and influence. He employs the perspectives of her husband, and of the notorious “peeping Tom” who dared to look upon her nakedness as she rode.

This novel explores the role of Catholicism and of religious houses in the culture and economy of the time, as well as delivering a clear-eyed view of the power and limitations of women’s roles. While we often look back in time and reduce historical figures to iconic images, like that mounted figure on the chocolate box, historical fiction can restore them to full humanity. Giving voice to someone left out of history is an important role that fiction can fill.

In my own historical thrillers, I incorporate a variety of these approaches, looking for historical insights into contemporary questions, and bringing less familiar characters onstage. For my fantasy series, The Dark Apostle, I explored the role of a lower-class 14th century medical practitioner, a barber-surgeon, to show a new perspective and envelope the reader in a historical milieu.

In my recent Bone Guard novels, contemporary characters encounter unexpected richness in historical artifacts and knowledge as they race to reclaim hidden treaures—like the mechanical Byzantine Throne of Solomon or, in the latest volume, The Fascist Frame, the stolen Jewish library of Rome. I hope that, by bringing little-known historical moments on stage, I can introduce new audiences to the thrills of history.


Chris’s adventures have included rock climbing in Colorado, diving at the Great Barrier Reef, horseback riding in Mongolia, searching for tigers in India, and going behind the scenes at the Papal Palace in Avignon. Who knows what could happen next? Follow Chris on Bookbub for new release announcements, or get a free short story collection when you join Tomb Reader!


What about you? Have you read any historical thrillers you’d recommend? Do you have any questions for Chris?


My literary crime novel, The Blue Bar is on Kindle Unlimited now. Add it to Goodreads or snag a copy to make my day. The sequel, The Blue Monsoon is up for pre-orders! And if you’d like to read a book outside the series, you can check out You Beneath Your Skin.  Find all info about my books on my Amazon page or Linktree.

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Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

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