Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sagas and Saga Writing

'Work' by Ford Madox Brown, by courtesy of Wikimedia Commons1. What is a saga? In today’s fiction market a saga is part of the larger romantic genre. A saga is a family story, usually set some time in the past and focussing on several characters from the same or contrasting extended family and following their ups and downs over many years - possibly down several generations. Nowadays, the regional saga, homing in on a particular geographical region in the UK, is very popular.

2. What is the common length of a saga? 100,000 words and upwards. This length is to accommodate the various storylines that a saga plot usually encompasses. Anything over 150,000 words may become harder to sell, because of printing and paper costs. Usually, sagas are between 110,000 - 130,000 words in length.

3. What kind of viewpoints within a saga? Usually third person plural, often with a woman, or several women, as the main and ‘leading’ protagonists. Writers have written sagas from single third person viewpoint and from first person, but the third person plural, where the reader can enter the heads and thoughts of many characters, remains popular. Usually only the main characters’ viewpoints are explored - perhaps no more than 6 or 8. After that, readers tend to become confused and the story can lose power since the readers aren’t sure who are the main characters with whom they are expected to follow.

4. Time periods when sagas are set. ‘Period’ settings were and remain very popular - I.e. Victorian, Edwardian and World War I. These time frames have been done a lot, so it might be more difficult for a new writer to break into the saga market with those time periods. More recent time settings - WWII, 1950s, even 1960s are becoming popular.
If you want a good example of strong regional sagas based around WWII, take a look at Freda Lightfoot’s sagas. Freda specialises in regional settings, unusual occupations for her heroines and times of strife before, during and after WWII, when many women worked in jobs that had been previously done almost exclusively by men. This scenario and the time period gives Freda lots of scope for trouble and strife. In her novel ‘Gracie‘s Sin,’ she looks at women in WWII who worked in forestry land, doing what had been men’s work.
Freda researches her novels by talking to the women who worked in either the mills, or the timber areas, or whatever job her fictional characters have to do. From these talks she gains insight and the telling detail that she can thread into her work. Sometimes she is given photographs to borrow or keep. In the case of her novel ‘Gracie’s Sin,’ she was given a photo of a group of timber girls that appeared as part of the cover art of the novel.

Freda Lightfoot has a website at
Audrey Howard is another excellent saga writer, as are Benita Brown and Harry Bowling. Harry Bowling wrote London West End sagas full of strong, immediate settings and speech - not so much as to be impenetrable to those not from London, but enough to give a flavour. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles has written a long series of novels covering the fortunes of a particular family, (The Morland Dynasty) down from the middle ages to the present day. These are richly plotted novels that are excellent examples of the saga - the more ‘aristocratic’ type of saga. Cynthia has a website at

For the outer reaches of the saga, and how you can adapt and extend the genre, take a look at Philippa Gregory’s ‘Wideacre’ trilogy. The first book ‘Wideacre’ has a wonderful Scarlet O’Hara ambiguous type heroine. The second novel, ‘The Favoured Child’ has many of the family elements of a saga - concern with family property, inheritance, birth-rights, family survival, births, marriages deaths - with a heroine who experiences an almost mystical union with the land that is her family’s. ‘Meridon’ completes the trilogy.

5. Conventions in sagas. These conventions have been done over and over and reappear, so if you are thinking of writing a saga you will need to apply them in a fresh way, find ways of writing about them in a fresh way.

1. Working class, lower middle class protagonists are common as the heroes and heroines of sagas, especially the regional saga. This helps reader identification. There is also an aspirational element in many sagas, where a working class hero or heroine struggles against overwhelming odds and privilege to win though. There may also be a clash of classes - working class verses upper, or perhaps working class and upper fall in love and are forbidden to see each other.

2. The heroine who is or who becomes her own woman, who develops and grows through the novel. She may have ideals from the start of come to have them. She may wish to excel ‘out of the box’ - that is, what is expected of her because of her class, or age, or experience.

3. The hero may have a similar story arc as the heroine (above) and he learns to appreciate the heroine. The brooding Heathcliffe-style hero is less popular now than in the past.

4. Characters who suffer, who learn, who are set back but usually ultimately win through. Villains may get their comeuppance.

5. Plot threads that go down through generations. A family secret. Revenge and counter-revenge. Forbidden love. Events that impact down generations. Enmity coming down generations. People living in the past and affecting the futures of themselves and their family members.

6. Heroine or hero or both may be wounded in some way - physically or psychologically - and the novel shows their healing, coming to terms. Other wounded characters within the saga may grow or diminish.

7. A ‘mirroring’ of stories down the generations - the 3 women thing, working either down the generations or as contrasting or mirroring characters all at the same time. 3 sisters. 3 cousins. 3 friends in the same street.

8. Suffering and set backs. Struggle against great odds. Grinding poverty. The good-heartedness or narrowness of other family members or neighbours.

9. Family ties and pressures - marriages, births, deaths. Whole lifetimes. Multiple subplots. A richness that readers can enjoy. Several key characters and their stories.

10. Various Cinderella type themes for both sexes. The plain girl in a society household who is made to feel useless and excluded. The young woman who wants to be a doctor when only nursing was considered acceptable for women. The man who wants to succeed in a world where privilege is considered essential. In sagas, the reader sees their struggles impact not only on themselves but on the larger family unit.

11. ‘Family’ can be thought of as extended family, or people who regard themselves as family - not just simple blood ties.

These are only guidelines and certainly not set in stone! If you want to learn more, have a look at the new blog group, Historical Saga Novels, There are many wonderful writers of this rich and varied genre.


Linda Banche said...

It's nice to find those big, long books still exist in today's world where everyone seems to want everything short and fast.

Celia Yeary said...

LINDSAY--Sagas aren't so popular anymore in the US, at least with publishers. I have submitted to larger traditional houses, and one set of novels I have I called a series, when in fact, they constitute a family saga. I learned right off-no sagas. Nope, nada, zip.Personally, several view points in a novel doesn't both me, either, but again, it's up to the publisher. Thanks for the enlightment--I did not know sagas were popular in the UK. Celia

LK Hunsaker said...

Hi Lindsay, nice info on sagas. They are out there, but yes, very hard to sell since as Linda said, most readers want short and fast. My Rehearsal series is actually a family saga disguised as a romance. ;-) I have a sequel that continues the story already started and a prequel in mind, all family centered, focusing strongly on both the hero and heroine's family history. It's mainly set in the 1970s, so there's my little twist.

John Jakes's Kent Family Chronicles is my favorite family saga. Interesting about the regional sagas in the UK being now popular.

Cheryl said...

Thanks so much for this post. I LOVE SAGAS! I've got one written already that I need to go back and "re-work"--this gives me a great guide. I have always loved long GOOD books. Short doesn't necessarily mean "better."

Lindsay Townsend said...

Hi and thanks, linda, Celia, LK and Cheryl.

I know that at the moment, Sagas do seem more of a UK thing than a USA - however that may be changing.

If you are interested, I would urge you to join the new Historical Saga Novel group and take note of the authors there.

Publishers - I'm not sure for USA but in the UK you could look at Robert Hale.

Rebecca J Vickery said...

Great info and tips, especially for someone like me who doesn't know much about Historical Sagas except I enjoy reading them. Thanks for posting this and inviting me over to read it.

Free Blogger Templates by Isnaini Dot Com . Powered by Blogger and PDF Ebooks