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What Editors Are Looking For In Historical Fiction, by Jane Johnson

What is an editor looking for in historical fiction? That’s a question I get asked a lot as a publisher with HarperCollins UK. But it’s also a question that interests me as a writer of historical fiction myself. The problem is that the answer is different for every editor and every publisher you ask. And really, so it should be, since the very nature of reading is subjective. Mix together one book and one reader and every time the chemical reaction will be different: it is an experiment that can never be replicated, since both reader and author are unique individuals. Writing is not a science. Neither is reading, and most certainly nor is publishing! After spending the best part of 30 years in the industry it’s the one thing I’ve learned: you can never predict how a book is going to perform.

However, there are a few generalisations I can offer as an insight into what a good publisher looks for (and by a ‘good’ publisher, I mean one who does not slavishly follow the market and who has learned to back their hunches).

1. First and most important, the ‘voice’. Every novel is a conversation between author and reader. Imagine being stuck on a long-haul flight with someone. You don’t want to be saddled with a bore, or a nutter. Make sure your voice is lively, attention-catching without being flashy, informative without being dull, unusual enough to stay in the memory. Balance being direct and beguiling. Tease as much as you like, but make sure you reward the reader for their attention in the end.

2. Don’t chase the market – it’s a moving target and by the time you’ve delivered what you think is on-trend, it will have moved on and editors will yawn at the very idea of yet another (say) Tudor romance. The books that really make it big have something different about them. And copies become ever more frayed and threadbare. Write something that fascinates you, no matter how obscure or weird, and it’s more likely to catch someone’s eye. It won’t be for everyone, but nothing ever is. There’s nothing an editor likes more than taking a really striking proposal to a meeting: it gives us a talking point.

3. A great story: we’re readers too and the thing we like best is being told a good story. It’s what all readers read for, what we have been hard-wired for. We’ve been telling each other stories since we sat around campfires eating dinosaur burgers. Understand structure, play with it, keep things up your sleeve (beside your arm), but make sure they’re the right things (that takes practice, a good eye and some audacity!): there are all sorts of tricks to keep readers turning the pages.

4. An interesting cast of characters, as varied as possible. With historical fiction you want to give a proper sense of the period, so make sure you cover the ground and understand a lot more about each of them than you tell the reader. If you want them to come off the page as real people you need to know them inside-out. They must stand out from one another in the way they behave and speak. And please don’t lard your text with prithees and mayhaps or other silly, frilly fake-historical vocabulary. You want modern readers to connect with your characters: but there’s a fine line to walk between authenticity and anachronism.

My next article will be about the language in historical fiction, so I won’t go on here. Suffice to say, though, that it can be a bit of a minefield! None of us get it right all of the time.


Jane Johnson’s author website:

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The Tenth GiftThe Salt RoadThe Sultan's WifeThe Secret Country    All Together in One Place: A Novel of Kinship, Courage, and FaithThe Keeper of SecretsThe Sacrifice

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. There are some great tips here – thanks so much for sharing 😀

    January 5, 2013
  2. Good advice! Cheers.

    January 31, 2013
  3. Reblogged this on Ella Quinn ~ Author and commented:
    Interesting article.

    September 21, 2013
  4. A friend of mine just blogged about doubt, that most wretched of foes we as writers fight daily. ( Thank you Jane for reaffirming my offbeat approach to historical fiction. I just wrote a psychological thriller that takes place in the Regency era. It’s different, but I know the story is exciting, and I wanted to tell it because the story excites me. It’s titled, Lord Monroe’s Dark Tower, and I hope those interested in reading something out of the ordinary will check it out.

    September 22, 2013

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