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Finding Your Niche As A Novelist, by Paul Dowswell

Here’s my modus operandi. I find a subject I want to write a story about and I run it past my agent and my editor. If they like the idea they give it the green light, then I do great wodges of research and nine months later there’s a manuscript.

I think their job is more difficult than mine. They’ve got to predict what people will want to read a year or two into the future. At the moment, in the UK, its 50 Shades of S and M for grown ups and dystopian nightmares for Young Adult readers. Last year it was bleedin’ Vampire Romances (pun intended).

I’m hopeless at this. When Hello magazine came out, I thought it was ghastly. Then when OK arrived too, I thought ‘Surely there can’t be space on the news racks for two magazines that vacuous?’ Now entire supermarket aisles are devoted to celeb magazine. (‘Sweat stains of the Stars!!!’ ‘Posh’s Spot Shame!!!’) That tells me never to try to predict what people want.

So what I do instead is try to find something no one’s written about before, or at least that not many people have. When I first dipped my toe into Young Adult historical fiction I did a trilogy on Napoleonic Naval Warfare. This is unquestionably a crowded field but I thought I had a fresh angle. There was CS Forester’s Hornblower series, Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey books and Nathaniel Drinkwater’s Ramrod series, but they were all for adults and all about the Captain and officers. Forester’s were a bit old fashioned. O’Brian’s, brilliant though they were, seemed to demand at least undergraduate-level salty seadog vocabulary. There was also young Midshipman Easy – but he was an officer too and the book had been written in 1836.

So, my plan was this: Write a book for 9 to 12s about a boy at the bottom of the ship’s hierarchy. That’ll be different. So I wrote about 12 year old Sam Witchall, apprentice merchant seaman, press ganged into the Royal Navy and serving as a powder monkey. I thought it was original. Alas, as my agent realised when I delivered my synopsis, this was going to tie in perfectly with the bicentenary of Trafalgar. (It was published in October 2005.)

At the same time, Elizabeth Laird’s Secrets of the Fearless, Michael Molloy’s Peter Raven Under Fire and Susan Cooper’s Victory all arrived. Two of them even had powder monkeys as their heroes, and Susan Cooper’s was even called Sam.

That was bad luck, I think, although we should probably have seen it coming. My subsequent books have all been aimed at what I hoped would be a gap in the market. Auslander is about Peter Bruck, a Polish orphan of German heritage who is adopted by Berlin Nazis during World War Two. The Nazi era is HUGELY overcrowded of course. But being brought up in Poland, Peter’s a fish out of water, and can see the Nazi regime in a way his school mates, who have lived with Hitler since they were infants, never will. Peter also allowed me to write about the Nazis from a rare perspective: ordinary Germans caught up in the whole horrible business of National Socialism and the war. The book was a success. It was shortlisted for 20 book awards, and won some of them, and was translated into 10 different languages.

I followed it with The Cabinet of Curiosities. It’s about a subject I’m fascinated by – Roman Emperor Rudolph II. I saw his portrait ‘Vertumnus’ by Archimboldo and I thought anyone who commissioned a picture like that has got to be interesting! And, as far as I could see, no one else was writing about this subject.

Rudolph was as interesting as I’d hoped. And his era – late Renaissance Prague – was a fascinating hodgepodge of alchemy, witchcraft and the first glimmers of the Scientific Revolution. My character, Lukas Declercq, is an apprentice physician to his Uncle Anselmus, court physician and keeper of the Emperor’s vast ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’. Lukas has a front row seat on everything about the era that’s fascinating, including the thwarted Inquisition. (Prague was an oasis of toleration under Rudoph. Jews, Protestants and Catholics all lived peacefully, side by side.) The Cabinet of Curiosities did not repeat the success of Auslander. Its readers were either exceptionally clever children, school librarians or post-graduate children’s literature students. Even the Czechs didn’t buy it.

The following novel, Sektion 20, was about two teens persecuted by the East German Stasi in 1972. Aside from its intrinsic fascination for me, I chose that one because it was a subject that had not been covered in Young Adult literature . That did well enough to be translated into German, French, Italian and Dutch.

My latest is about the First World War. Again, it’s a hugely crowded area, and Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse and Private Peaceful have both been very successful. Everyone thinks of trenches  when they think of the First World War. So I set mine on the final day, when the war was being fought right up until the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It’s called Eleven Eleven and it features two boy soldiers, Will (English) and Axel (German), and Eddie, a 19 year old American pilot. They’re all too young, and it all ends in tears, but I hope it gives an unusual and realistic view of this much-covered but endlessly fascinating war.


Paul Dowswell’s author website:

Paul Dowswel’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

Powder Monkey: Adventures of a Young SailorAuslanderThe Cabinet of CuriositiesEleven Eleven     The SacrificeCode Name VerityPatience, Princess Catherine (Young Royals Books (Quality))

Writing Historical Novels

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Dowswell states that the problem for authors and agents is to predict what will be popular in the future (ie: two years down the track when the manuscript has been written and the publisher has done his bit).
    But I see it as a misquided presumption that agents can gaze into a crystal ball to make such a determination.
    Nothing and no one can dictate what will be popular – it is up to the writer to present something which readers like and buy. No one would have predicted the meteoric sales of 50 Shades of You-Know-What two years before its publication, so why consider what might, or might not make it, two years from now.
    My suggestion is to write what you want and if it’s good, it doesn’t matter if the market is crowded or over-submitted, it will shine through. Just my opinion.
    PS – I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Powder Monkey’, Paul.

    February 23, 2013
    • While agents, publishers and authors are not infallible judges of what readers will want to read, they can make educated guesses about what is likely to appeal to a lot of readers and what is likely to be disastrously unappealing to most readers.

      When an author spends maybe a year or two of their time and effort, and a publisher invests tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars in a novel, some kind of call has to be made about what is suitable and what is not so suitable.

      As Paul indicates, writing something significantly different to what’s already available, even if many people are likely to categorise it in a crowded genre, is something that can be a good idea.

      Of course, this doesn’t mean an author should write something that doesn’t interest them just to fit in with something that they think will appeal to a large number of readers.

      February 23, 2013
  2. Hi Margaret and Steve, Thank you for commenting on my blog.

    I don’t have a great nose for what people might want to read. My agent, and my editor, have both survived and thrived in a very Darwinian world for the ten years I’ve been working with them. I think they have a good nose for what people will want to read, which I why I don’t object too much when they turn down ideas I think are great but they don’t think will sell.

    I think Margaret is right in saying writers should follow their hearts and write about what they want. But I also think a writer who writes for a living, as well as for pleasure, should have a shrewd idea about how well certain topics are likely to sell compared to other topics. That will help them stay afloat in a very competitive world.

    February 25, 2013

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