7 Steps to Picking Out a Great Historical Read

We all have our strategies for choosing what we read, whether it be historical or not. In the list below you might very well see methods which you use for all kinds of books, as do I. Here are just a few elements which help me choose books I’ll treasure forever.

  1. Look at the cover, either in person or online. Does it intrigue or annoy you? Are the colours compelling? Personally I like covers to offer a  clue, subtle or not, as to the story/history inside as well as the period. In my post last week I showed a cover for the Henry VIII book by Margaret George. That famous Holbein painting of the man just cries out to be investigated, it is so dominant, so richly endowed, and so much of a closeup. There is no ignoring King Henry.
  2. Check out the author. Do you recognize her? Have you enjoyed other of his books? Whenever I see Bernard Cornwell, I know the novel will be historically accurate, gritty, full of battles and brawny characters, but most of all, compelling. On a road trip in January we listened to one of his audio books and the two-day journey’s miles just disappeared so caught up were we. If you don’t recognize the author, move on to the next step.
  3. Read the hook on the inside flap on a hard cover book or on the back of a paperback. Only you can tell if the author’s words make you want to put the book back on the shelf or crack open the spine. My new novel’s hook can be found here. I tried to give an overview without spoiling the story for my readers. “When American colonists resort to war against Britain and her colonial attitudes, a young couple caught in the crossfire must find a way to survive. Pioneers in the wilds of New York State, John and Lucy face a bitter separation and the fear of losing everything, even their lives, when he joins Butler’s Rangers to fight for the King and leaves her to care for their isolated farm. As the war in the Americas ramps up, ruffians roam the colonies looking to snap up Loyalist land. Alone, pregnant, and fearing John is dead, Lucy must fight with every weapon she has.” (The Loyalist’s Wife)
  4. Check to see if there are any quotations from reviewers on the cover. Do they make you want to run to the front desk, plop down your money, and race to the car to sit right there in the parking lot and begin? Do you recognize the people quoted? Of course if there are no quotations the book could still be amazing but just hasn’t been found. I have lots of excellent books on my shelves with no such quotations. They stand well enough on their own without the crutch of someone’s endorsement.
  5. Check the length of the book. I really prefer long, long historical novels which keep me company for weeks at a time. The characters can be so much more a part of my life because I know them so well. McCullough’s Caesar books are deliciously long, a happy circumstance as getting to know all those Roman-named characters like Gaius Marius, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, and Scipio Aemilianus, full name Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus Numantinus, can be daunting. For a reader like me who loves the sound of the words and who has studied Latin, this was fine but I needed a big book to get comfortable with them. Once I did I loved the whole series. McCullough is much more than the very talented author of The Thorn Birds.
  6. Read the first few paragraphs and see how easy it is to put the book back on the shelf. Look for something which makes you want to read on, be it lovely language, intriguing plot details, characters you want to know, whatever. This is the page the author has been told to spend hours and hours on so it should really grab you. Of course you may see that the writing is not to your taste. Pick up another and try again. Like one of those choose-a-plot books where the reader is in charge of the story, you hold all the power.
  7. Finally, I like to open the book in the middle a few times and just read a few sentences, again for the style, the quality of the story and of the writing. If I find nothing that sends me away at this point, the book will be going home with me. I get to lug it to the checkout, stand in line and savour it, and flip open my wallet.

Do you have strategies for book choosing that I haven’t mentioned? Consider leaving a comment below to tell us about them.

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The Loyalist’s Wife by Elaine Cougler


15 thoughts on “7 Steps to Picking Out a Great Historical Read

  1. The cover usually catches my eye first, then the title, then the author’s name. I look for familiar names and intriguing topics. What I’m finding disconcerting is the new habit of putting the author’s name in huge font then the title of the book somewhere below. Don’t like that. I’ve been burned into buying an author’s work because of their name and what I knew of their style from reading past publications, and then discovering that the book was second-rate or even worse, a re-issue of a back listed version tarted up to look new. So the marketer is selling the author first, when, in my opinion, it should be the quality of the contents that is more important. For the some reason, I am not as swayed by endorsements by other famous writers – it frequently seems that they are praising each other’s work generically, without having read it. I rely on the first few paragraphs to pull me in…


  2. Interesting, Elaine. I don’t think I’ve ever chosen to read a book because it’s historical. The author may hold some sway, but for me, it’s the blurb on that back cover or inner flap that will encourage me to buy and read. Cover and friend recommendations help, and yes, I can be swayed by popular opinion and sometimes awards.


  3. It’s interesting to hear how other readers choose books. If I am browsing in a store or online, I tend to look at covers first. I know that’s terrible. Then I read the back blurb. I might read the first paragraph. I decide on that info.

    Online is very different. I do tend to look at the stars given on Amazon. If the stars are all over the place, it might not deter me from buying. If the stars are from 1000 readers who gave it a 3 average, I probably won’t buy.

    I don’t tend to read historicals at this time. My taste changes periodically. Your blurb sounds wonderful.


    • Well first, thanks for your lovely comments about my blurb. You know how we sweat over those things, don’t you, Brinda. And secondly I think your method of picking out books is the one most people use, a note to writers yet again about cover, back cover, and first paragraph. Thanks, Brinda.


  4. Hi Elaine,
    I usually try to see what others have recommended, then I look at the cover and the blurb. Right now I’m only purchasing a few online books, most of my reading comes from the bin of free books I picked up last year at all the conventions. Those books definitely better have a good cover and a good blurb because I don’t have any friendly recommendations!

    (Sorry I’m so late here, I’m working again and still adjusting to my schedule. I’m hoping this week will be better!) 🙂


  5. I’m a big fan of Bernard Cornwell – particularly his Sharpe series – so checking out the author is a big one on my list.

    I never trust covers. I know that it’s awfully easy to slap a mind-blowingly wonderful cover onto a piece of dreck and say – there, that’s a masterpiece.

    I’m ALWAYS big on checking out the first few paragraphs. I’m looking for a style that feels readable and compelling. I’ve checked out way too many yarns that simply involve a couple of characters blathering on at each other for chapter and chapter while the author ticks off the major events of whatever chunk of history from whatever Coles Notes he happens to be referring from.

    It’s always a gamble picking up a new or new-to-me author.


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