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Writing Historical Novels To Be Published, by Paul Dowswell

If it’s your ambition to be published then it pays to have a hard-edged think about your subject. What’s worth asking, even before “Why would anyone want to read my book?”, is “Why would anyone want to publish my book?”. We write for many reasons – but I think the secret to ‘being published’ is writing the book you want to write and that a publisher thinks they can sell.

I met someone recently who had a fascination with metallurgy and wanted to write a children’s novel about Iron Age craftsmanship. I tried to dissuade her by telling her that this was a subject of very limited appeal, especially for primary school children. I don’t think she wanted to hear what I was telling her. (Who knows, maybe she’ll succeed and Smelting Quest: The Final Showdown will be up there with next year’s Horrid Henry and Diary of a Wimpy Kid.)

I’ve also met people at creative writing classes who have ‘issues’ in their own lives that they want to incorporate into their historical fiction stories. I don’t think this is the right way to go about getting published. If you’re writing for yourself as therapy, it’s fair enough, and even useful. But if you really want someone else to read your story you have to think about what they are going to want to read.

It helps to have a feel for what’s currently popular. Not so you can jump on the bandwagon. As other writers on this site have pointed out, this is a disastrous ploy. Books usually take a year from delivery to publication (never mind writing time) so when your novel eventually comes out the bandwagon will be long gone. However, getting a feel for what’s popular will give you a good idea of what people want to read.

My editor told me that there are a few hardy perennials in the historical fiction market: the two world wars (especially WW2 and the Nazis), and the Victorians and the Tudors, for example. I write for the teen/children’s market, where the Samuel Pepys era – plague and fire – is also popular. The Romans are still a big slice of the adult market. TV documentaries and dramas follow a similar pattern, although the Egyptians are up there in the top three subjects for TV (along with WW2 and Tudors), which they aren’t in fiction.

I’ve just had a look at the top 20 bestselling adult historical fiction titles in the UK and the US, and this theory holds water: In the US eight books are centered around or placed during the world wars and there’s a strain of Civil War/Slavery Era novels too. In the UK seven of the top 20 are world wars. Here too there’s an interesting regional variation with three titles on 19th century British colonial themes.

There are stories outside these well-ploughed furrows, of course. Noah Gordon’s The Winemakers – a bestseller in the US, is about 19th Century Spanish vineyards. Curiously, there wasn’t anything in the UK top 20 that wasn’t related to any of the popular eras I mentioned above.

Of course you have to write about what you want to write about – your enthusiasm and interest will drive your story along. I’m not for a moment advocating sticking to a narrow field of topics – but the uncomfortable truth is that writing about certain eras will undoubtedly make it easier to find a publisher.


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Writing Historical Novels

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. RachelB. #

    This theory doesn’t explain the runaway success of such books as “Clan of the Cave Bear” or “Water for Elephants”, a bildungsroman set in a depression-era circus, or “The Help”, a Civil Rights-era look at the lives of black maids in the Deep South. On paper, these books could not be sold to a Publisher, but they connected with audiences in a big way. The essential element is story. Find a great story and set it in the era of your choice. If you build it, they will come.

    March 25, 2013
  2. Hi Rachel. Thank you for your comment. I wouldn’t describe it as a theory. It’s just my general advice, for what it’s worth, to unpublished authors on the kind of areas in history that sell well. Its also advice that editors I’ve spoken to agree with. Of course there are always exceptions, as you point out here, and as I mentioned with ‘The Winemakers’. And I agree, the most essential element in any HF book is a cracking good story.

    March 26, 2013
  3. I’m pretty sure there’s no niche (yet) for a 17th century adventure series set in the lands between the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, but I aim to create one! What do you think of the following synopsis?

    Empires of Truth: A teenage Hungarian slave girl, taken to Istanbul by the Ottoman Turks in 1630, commits murder, takes an ancient manuscript, and escapes across Anatolia, Persia and Russia. A cast of historical characters render aid, including an Englishman whose work helped found Oxford’s Bodleian Library, and the antiquary for the Duke of Holstein, who tried to open a new Silk Road in 1636. Can she learn how to be free? And what ancient truth will the manuscript reveal?

    March 27, 2013
  4. Hi Mr Wallace,

    I think this sounds like a really fascinating book.

    It’s certainly a less-trodden path in Historical Fiction, which may make it more of an uphill struggle to sell, but I wish you every success with it.

    March 27, 2013

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  1. The Second World War In Historical Novels, by Paul Dowswell | Writing Historical Novels

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