People that read historical fiction primarily want two things: they want to be entertained (something common to every reader) and they want to be educated (something that is not common to every reader). Moreover, they want the education aspect to be pleasant and painless. Many of them avoid the reading of history books because they find them dull. They want their history to be as exciting as an action film with lots of layers of plot and character development and intrigue and romance. The writer of historical fiction is expected to deliver if he and she want to have a growing fan base and better than average sales.
So the entertainment part is a given for any genre of fiction: offer up characters the reader soon begins to care about, create an intriguing plot with plenty of subplots and dramatic twists and turns, and bring about a conclusion that satisfies, even if the tears are flowing.
The education part is trickier. Historical fiction fans want to feel like time travelers. They are excited about living in the past, not just reading about it. They want to feel as if they are really there: the clothing, the cooking, the houses, the ways of getting around (whether by Model A Ford or by chariot) have to feel like the real thing. Every aspect of the story needs to be authentic. They don’t want to find out that the author got the airplanes wrong, or the firearms, or the dresses, or the dialects, or the politics.
Another part of the fun is truly being in the past, so far as the imagination goes, and finding out what you would have done if you really had lived during that era and experienced a dramatic turning point in history (Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Saratoga in the American Revolution, the rule of Henry VIII, the fall of the Roman Empire). So readers need to be able to identify with some of the main characters and some of the lesser characters too as, along with them, they make decisions that not only affect their personal destinies but the destinies of nations. This means that, coupled with meticulous research into the historical era represented in the story, the author must possess the skills to make history live, and make it so personal the reader is there, is feeling the tension and the pain and the wonder, and believes their actions make a difference to the fate of thousands, if not millions.
That’s a big part of the draw and the thrill of historical fiction: hearts really beat, lips really touch, blood really flows . . . the fictional world is real . . . history comes alive in human skin and emotions and spirit . . . and the reader is a part of it, making history happen. This is the reality the writer must pursue with his research, this is the I-am-there feeling the author must bring to pass with the power of her story and the power of the words she weaves.