Sagas – UK Style

Please
Note:
This  article first appeared in RWA’s official monthly newsletter, Hearts Talk, in October, 2009. Due to the passage of time, some information in the article may no longer be relevant. Please ensure you research your chosen genre thoroughly before submitting.

WHAT IS A SAGA?

In the UK, sagas are a clearly defined and very popular historical genre with its own shelving in bookshops. They’re not usually generational stories but are more like the old Norse sagas. Protagonists, especially the heroines, battle against overwhelming odds—and win, thus providing an uplifting tale of personal triumph.

I would call sagas romantic fiction, not pure romances. Basic elements include:

  • working class woman (or women)battling the odds
  • very carefully researched historical background, especially of working class life
  • regional focus
  • central romance (often sub-plots also include romances)
  • a complex story with severl sub-plots, often leading to several books in a series
  • happy ending

 HISTORICAL DETAIL

Saga author Jean Fullerton says: ‘The historical detail in a good saga is almost a character in its own right. Fans of the genre tell me time and time again how much they love reading about everyday things that they either remember as a child or that their mothers told them about. If I want to give my readers the maximum enjoyment out of my books, which I do, then I have to work hard to ensure that all my period detail is spot on.’

I agree with Jean. I have a wall of research books, folders full of notes and other research storage and retrieval systems. It’s not enough to nip on the Internet to check a fact. You have to be sure of the historical background and tone behind that fact. Authors are not giving history lessons, but slip in the history smoothly as part of the story background. It’s how daily life was lived that’s important: cooking, clothes, pastimes, work.

Benita Brown says, ‘sagas are linked to the past by the memories of generations of the readers’ own families. Of course there is romance in them but also so much more: birth, love, ambition, success, tragedy, death, the whole of life!’

That’s why they’re so enjoyable to write!

HEROINES

The heroine usually starts off poor and vulnerable, though rags to riches stories are popular. Catherine Cookson’s early books were ground-breaking, because until then the middle and upper classes had dominated fiction for a long time.

Janet Woods says, ‘I often write my main female characters from a young age. For instance, in my current release Hearts Of Gold the heroine is fourteen when she’s left destitute on an Australian goldfield. It’s a hook that draws instant reader sympathy, and one that wouldn’t fit easily into a pure romance.’

HEROES

There is more latitude with heroes than heroines, but many of them are working class too, very rarely upper class. Even if they’re alpha males, it’s not they who dominate the story, it’s the heroine. But they can form wonderful partnerships with the heroines to beat the odds stacked against them. I love the freedom to create any sort of hero to suit a particular story.

COMPLEX PLOTS

Most sagas are complex, with several sub-plots. They’re usually told “herringbone fashion” with plot threads, characters and POVs alternating. (NB this does not mean ‘head hopping’!) As a reader, I sometimes wonder how it’ll all come together, but it always does in the end. As a writer, I find it stimulating to keep so many plot threads alive and weave them together into an inevitable and compelling conclusion.

Jean Fullerton says, ‘They are multi-layered stories that affirm women of all ages as wives, mothers, daughters and sisters, and are absolutely packed with adventure, intrigue and painstakingly researched period detail.’

THE ROMANCE ELEMENT

There is always a romance at the heart of a saga. Indeed, my first visualizations of the plot are of the heroine’s story and then the hero’s, and how they get together. They might not be together at the start, but they move steadily towards deep involvement.

Sagas are not usually graphic sexually and I think most of my readers would recoil from that, but I’ve seen many wonderful love scenes that make you sigh with the pleasure and rightness of the pair-bonding.

In addition, sagas offer great emotional depth, what my editor calls ‘heart’. If I don’t bring tears to my own eyes several times when I’m writing a story (both happy and sad tears) then I don’t consider it good enough.

HISTORICAL PERIODS

Most sagas these days are set in the twentieth century, with fewer in the nineteenth century. The genre has been dominated by World War II stories for a decade or so, with a fair sprinkling of WWI stories (which I prefer writing). But authors seem to be moving on now to the postwar period. I’ve written sagas set from 1760 (Like NoOther) to 1926 (Freedom’s Land) so far.

REGIONAL SETTINGS

Sagas tend to have strong regional UK settings. Indeed, authors usually specialize in a certain area. I started by writing books set in Lancashire because I grew up there. When I want to include dialect, I only have to remember how my grandma spoke. However, once I was established, I started setting sagas in Australia, where I now live, and these have sold well, too.

CLOG AND SHAWL SAGAS

Sagas set in the northern industrial areas of England (e.g. Lancashire, Yorkshire, Northumberland) were originally the most popular of all and have become known as ‘clog and shawl sagas’ or ‘trouble at the mill’ tales. However, the genre has broadened its base considerably since then.

LENGTHS

Most sagas are at least 100,000 words long, but I think they’re shorter on average than they used to be. My contracts now ask for stories ‘of at least 100,000 words’, where they used to ask for ‘120,000 words’.

MARKETS

The genre has been selling really well in the UK for decades. I notice that Harlequin UK has put out one or two sagas recently and Penguin Australia has just released one. The genre is not hitting the heights of popularity at the moment, but the main authors are still selling solidly. (My editor approves of this market summary, by the way.)

THE DISADVANTAGES

I see two main disadvantages to writing sagas. Firstly, it’s not as easy to sell foreign language rights – presumably because sagas have such a regional ‘Englishy’ flavour. It is, however, easy to sell large print and audio rights. Secondly, it’s not easy to sell to the US because editors at the publishing houses there seem to think sagas won’t sell. This attitude is surprising because LaVyrle Spencer’s ‘Morning Glory’ is an archetypal saga in format, as well as being a brilliant story. It just isn’t labelled a ‘saga’.

WHAT YOU CAN LEARN FROM THIS GENRE

Whether you want to write sagas or not, I think there’s a lot to be learned from reading and studying them. There is a skill to writing complex plots, creating realistic historical backgrounds and plumbing great emotional depth.

Anna Jacobs grew up in the UK, in industrial Lancashire, and emigrated to Western Australia in 1973. Her 46th novel, Freedom’s Land was published in July of 2009. You can visit her at: www.annajacobs.com

Since writing this article, Anna has been cracking right along writing several novels since ‘Freedom’s Land’. ‘The Trader’s Wife’ was published this year.

 

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3 Comments

  1. Interesting topic Anna and I must say I love a good saga.
    All the points listed above are noteworthy to aspiring writers.
    Thank you for giving us an indepth look at what Saga’s are, because we hear so many terms and not always are they explained as well and clear as you have here. 🙂
    Mary

    Reply
  2. Suz Hamilton

     /  September 21, 2011

    Lovely post, Anna and very insightful. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this as I also love sagas (not that I write them- lol). Thank you also, Sandra, for placing this on the blog as I must have missed it in our Hearts Talk.

    Reply

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