It must be one of the most quoted first lines of a novel anywhere, the inimitable Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
Tell me, honestly, when you think of family saga, do you think about Austen?
How about the Bronte sisters?
Joyce Carol Oates?
No? Well, great news, I’m here to tell you that the family saga genre is very well descended. I’m certainly proud to be walking in giants’ footsteps.
But what really is family saga?
Most people probably think Barbara Bradford Taylor. Maybe Colleen McCullough, author of The Thorn Birds.
They wouldn’t think that it starts with Austen and the Brontes and takes a very wide path as it wanders through the decades, to include Sidney Sheldon and Barbara Kingsolver.
Any self-respecting family saga is baked from a well-proven recipe. Let me explain…
The first thing you need is a drop-dead stunning setting, preferably one that includes a family home to die for. Think Pemeberley (Pride and Prejudice), Brideshead Castle (Brideshead Revisited) or Tara (Gone With The Wind). Perfect.
Secondly, add an unruly cast of family characters that is large and larger than life. Ideally, make sure they throw a few conventions out the windows of the gorgeous house as they march through the chapters. You want your readers to be ever so slightly uncomfortable with their antics, while finding at least one character they adore and will die defending. Eh-hem, eh, Downton, anyone?
Next, make the core of the story about the battle the characters have to both break free from their family and be reconciled with them. Sounds conflicting? Excellent. Conflict is exactly what you need to keep your reader turning the pages. Elizabeth Bennett is my personal favourite in this respect.
Now, don’t forget scale. The house or setting must be grand, the family sprawling, the personal battle convoluted and messy, the generations intertwined and ugly. But the book should also be grand. This is an epic genre, it takes time to introduce all those characters and backstory. We’re not talking novellas here. Doorstops if single books, or duologies, trilogies, hell, series even. Riverdell takes four books to pull its various strands together. And have you seen a Ken Follett novel? I could injure someone with those.
Finally, don’t be afraid to tread on toes. The family saga isn’t aiming to be cosy, it often brings some serious issues to bear. There are hefty topics at play here, whether about society, gender, politics or history. If you’re going to create a canvas this large, you want it to say something.
When it comes to baking an addictive read, there are few I’ve read recently as good as Lucinda Riley.
It’s why I devoted July’s The Next Chapter bookclub goody bag to the epic Seven Sisters septology. It includes all the essential ingredients, spread over an epic seven books, exploring the adopted daughters of an elusive billionaire father. After a lengthy battle with cancer, author Lucinda Riley passed away last month, shortly after the release of the final book. What a monumental achievement this series is, and it deserves to be celebrated.
Each book follows the journey of one sister to discover her heritage and her own place in the world. The depth of research in the books, combined with a wonderful imagination, brings history to life on both a grand and a personal scale. I’ve been savouring the series slowly, and had just finished the third book when I wrote this post. With a bookworm heroine, a sprawling old English manor that I adore writing about myself, and a historical connection that includes Beatrix Potter, it was right up my street. Each book will impact on a reader in different ways, I think we will all end up with one as our favourite and so far this is mine.
To celebrate Lucinda Riley and her wonderful spin on this ever-evolving, truly magnificent genre that I personally adore, I chose not one but SEVEN winners to receive the first book in the series. If I can get seven more sisters (or enlightened brothers!) addicted to the Seven Sisters, I’ll be delighted.
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