Best Historical Fiction Authors: 10 Writers You Must Read

Are you interested in the best historical fiction authors of all time? There are plenty of amazing historical novel examples from which to choose.

If you are looking for the best historical fiction books, there are plenty of options. Some books take place in London while others may take place in New York or Paris. Whether drawing from the United States, England, Europe or the wider world, expect to find best sellers from the 18th century, 19th century and 20th century.

Best historical fiction authors

1. Ken Follet, 1949

Ken Follett
Ken Follett via Wikimedia, Public Domain

Ken Follet is one of the greatest historical fiction writers of all time. He has sold more than 160 million copies of his works, and many of them have found their way onto lists of the best historical fiction works of all time. A few of his books have even found their way to the number one position on the New York Times Bestseller List, with many of them being thrillers.

He was born in 1949 in Wales, located in the United Kingdom. He was not allowed to watch television as a child, so he started reading. When he was 10 years old, his family moved to London. He attended University College London, studying philosophy. He initially had a job as a reporter for the evening news before he left journalism and became a writer.

Some of his most popular works include Eye of the Needle, The Key To Rebecca, World Without End, and Whiteout. For more, check out our guide to the best Ken Follett books.

2. Hilary Mantel, 1952-2022

Hilary Mantel was a British writer who is best known for writing great historical fiction. She grew up in Derbyshire and attended the University of Sheffield, graduating in 1973. She published her first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day, in 1985. She published the sequel a year later. In 1989, she achieved commercial success with Fludd. It’s set in 1956 and focuses on the Roman Catholic Church.

Mantel is best known for the Wolf Hall series, which focuses on the rise of Thomas Cromwell during the Middle Ages in the court of Henry VIII. She won the Booker prize for Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies. For more, check out our guide to the best British authors.

3. Geraldine Brooks, 1955

Geraldine Brooks
A portrait of Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks is from Sydney, Australia. She has worked as a journalist and as a writer during the course of her career, focusing on historical fiction. Her father was a singer in an American big band who met her mother while he was on tour in Adelaide and got stuck. Geraldine attended the University of Sydney, getting a job as a reporter following graduation. She work for the Sydney Morning Herald for a while before moving to the United States to earn a Master’s Degree from Columbia University. 

During her career as a journalist, she covered a variety of incidents across the world, serving as a source of inspiration for her writing. She published her first book, Nine Parts of Desire, in 1994. The book was based on her experiences with Muslim women, becoming a bestseller that was translated into 17 languages. Other significant works by Brooks include Year of Wonders, March, and Foreign Correspondence.

4. Diana Gabaldon, 1952

Diana Gabaldon
A portrait of Diana Gabaldon

Diana Gabaldon is an American writer known for the Outlander series of novels. He has the ability to merge multiple genres of literature together, including historical fiction. She was born in Scottsdale Arizona and grew up in Flagstaff. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Northern Arizona University. She continued her education to earn a Master’s Degree in Marine Biology from the University of California at San Diego. She also earned her PhD in behavioral ecology from Northern Arizona University. 

She earned a job in Environmental Studies at Arizona State University, serving as the founding editor of the science software quarterly. She wrote software reviews and technical articles for computer publications during the 1980s. She eventually left to write full-time.

She wrote her first novel as a type of writing practice. She didn’t have any intention of continuing as a writer and did not have a background in history. She was inspired to pursue the genre after watching Doctor Who

Her marquee work is the Outlander series, which focuses on a 20th-century nurse who travels back in time to Scotland in the 18th century and finds romance and adventures. The character travels to North America, England, France, and the West Indies.

5. Philippa Gregory, 1954

Philippa Gregory
Philippa Gregory via Wikimedia, Public Domain

Philippa Gregory is a British novelist who has published a variety of best-selling historical fiction novels. She was actually born in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. She studied journalism in college in Cardiff. Then, she spent a year as a reporter with the Portsmouth News. She eventually earned an English literature degree from the University of Sussex in 1982. She worked for BBC Radio for two years before she attended the University of Edinburgh, earning her PhD in 18th-century literature.

Her works have focused on a variety of historical periods, including the Tudor era of the 16th century. Some of her novels have been set in the 17th century, while others have been set in the 18th century. The most popular book, titled The Other Boleyn Girl, won the award for the Romantic novel of the year in 2001. Another one of her works, The White Queen, was turned into a TV series.

You can pick up a copy of The Other Boleyn Girl, which focuses on the life of Anne Boleyn (one of the queens of Henry VIII), from Amazon, one of the best historical fiction books of all time.

6. Sarah Waters, 1966

Sarah Waters
A portrait of Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters is a historical fiction author from Wales. She is known for her numerous books that focus on Victorian society. Of note, many of her works focus on lesbian protagonists, including Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet. She is originally from Pembrokeshire but moved to Middlesbrough at a young age. After finishing grammar school, he attended the University of Kent, earning her bachelor’s degree in English literature. She went on to earn her master’s, as well as a PhD from the University of London. 

The first book to put her on the map was Tipping the Velvet, published in 1998. This book was adapted into a television series for BBC Two and focuses on lesbian relationships during the Victorian era. It has also been translated into 24 languages. Some of her other significant works include Affinity, Fingersmith, and The Night Watch. She is a hugely influential historical fiction author, particularly among the LGBTQ community.

7. Colson Whitehead, 1969

Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead via Wikimedia, Public Domain

Colson Whitehead is one of the most popular authors of American historical fiction. He was born in New York City and grew up in Manhattan. His parents own an executive recruiting firm, and he attended the Trinity School in Manhattan. He attended Harvard University, graduating in 1991. He still lives in New York City,. Of note, he received a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2002, which he uses to further his career as a writer.

He published his first book in 1999, titled The Institution. His most popular work is The Underground Railroad, which he published in 2016. This book won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction as well as the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It focuses on the life of slaves if they try to escape from the Southern United States during the first half of the 19th century.

In 2020, he won another Pulitzer Prize for his book titled The Nickel Boys. He has also published a few works of nonfiction as well. His works have influenced a lot of young authors in the field of historical fiction.

8. Bernard Cornwell, 1944

Bernard Cornwell
Bernard Cornwell via Wikimedia, Public Domain

Bernard Cornwell is an English author who focuses on historical fiction. Most of his works have focused on the Waterloo Campaign, which was the last campaign of Napoleon during the early 19th century. Eventually, Napoleon would be defeated at Waterloo by a coalition of a variety of other countries.

His best-known novels focus on The Rifleman, Richard Sharpe. The series was eventually turned into a television series of the same name. His works have also served as the basis for the television series The Last Kingdom, run by the BBC. Today, he lives in the United States with his wife, frequently moving between Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Charleston, South Carolina.

His most popular novel series, Sharpe, focuses on Richard Sharpe, who was sent to the Iberian Peninsula to fight against Napoleon. The series takes place over seven years, with Sharpe frequently engaging with the enemy across multiple battles. 

9. Alison Weir, 1951

Weir was born in London and developed a love of British history after reading a novel about Katherine of Aragon as a teenager. She worked as a history teacher and wrote on the side during the early part of her career. She said the Tudor period is the “most dramatic period” of British history “with vivid, strong personalities”.

Today, Weir is best known for biographies and non-fiction like The Six Wives of Henry VIII, A Tudor Christmas and A Queen of Crusades. Her famous historical fiction works include The Captive Queen and Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen. 

10. Georgette Heyer, 1902-1974

Georgette Heyer was born in London, the eldest of three children. She started writing as a teenager and published her first book The Black Moth in 1921. She wrote romance novels, thrillers and detective stories set primarily in the 1800s. She found success in the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany although did not find the same level of success as her contemporary Agatha Christie. Her most famous fictional characters were Superintendent Hannasyde and Inspector Hemingway. She’s also best known for creating the genre Regency romance. For more recommendations like Heyer, check out our guide to the best romance authors.

11. Sharon Kay Penman, 1945-2021

Penman was born in New York City. She began writing historical fiction as a student. Her first novel was The Sunne In Slendour about the life of Richard III. A thief stole a 400-page early draft from her car and that setback Penman off writing for five years. She worked in a law firm until she finally published that book in 1982. She’s best known for the Welsh Princes series of books and the Plantagenet series, all set in the Middle Ages. Penman won multiple awards during her writing career including the Edgar award. She died of pneumonia in 2021.

Final Word On The Best Historical Fiction Authors

The world of historical fiction is a wide-ranging genre. Plenty of the best historical fiction books focus on the Medieval Times, While others focus on the Cold War. There are also plenty of books that focus on World War II, such as American, Japanese, and Nazi soldiers. The top writers of historical fiction have a unique ability to blend general facts of the era with entertaining fictional twists. Many of their works are adapted to television series and movies.

If you are looking for fun, entertaining, thrilling books to read, check out a few of the books on this list. Many of these authors also wrote books focusing on other periods of history. This is a great way to not only learn about a certain time period but also be entertained by some talented writers.

FAQs About the Best Historical Fiction Authors

Are historical books non-fiction?

There are lots of ways people write about history. There are some people who write non-fiction novels that focus on getting the dates and facts precise. In some cases, they read more like a textbook. In other cases, people use historical dates as context for works of fiction. That is exactly where historical fiction comes into play. 

Are historical fiction books historically accurate?

Some of the characters in historical fiction books might be fictional; however, the events that take place in the book are usually historically accurate. A historical novelist has to do a tremendous amount of research to make sure they get their facts correct. 

Are historical fiction books a good way to learn about history? 

Historical fiction books are a good way to learn about the general facts of the time period; however, they usually do not possess the same level of granular detail as a history textbook.

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