Elizabeth Mahon author of Scandalous Women moderated a lively discussion with this year’s agents and editors panel on the state of historical fiction in the marketplace. The conference was wonderful!! I wrote furiously to capture their insights and advice.
On the topic of whether this is a golden age for historical fiction (see this NYTimes article for reference), one panel member reflected on readers’ desires to look back at earlier times to gain an understanding of today’s cultural and political difficulties. Others spoke of growing interest in hearing from voices across the spectrum, seeking to appreciate experiences of previously marginalized groups, and of a desire to read about extraordinary women in extraordinary times, particularly in light of the #metoo movement.
Diversity in historical fiction was another topic. Agents and editors spoke of their desire to discover stories reflecting the trauma, accomplishments, and joys of different groups and countries. With publishing still being “monolithically white”, there is a feeling that the industry—agents, publishers, retailers, and readers—needs to be more proactive about finding these stories and fighting the view that such stories serve niche markets.
On manuscript wish lists, #MSWL, the advice for authors is that it’s hard to pivot based on today’s wish lists because it takes so long to complete a novel. While authors should be aware of market interests and successes, authors should still be guided by their passions. One editor commented that she “doesn’t know what she wants” until she sees it. Another said that themes are important and often transcend specific wish lists.
On the topic of book club fiction, panel members said that personal transformation is an important ingredient and that sisterhood—both narrow and broad definitions of sisterhood—is a topic of interest. Book club selections need to be thought provoking and capable of generating discussion and of attracting as wide an audience as possible.
What are the biggest mistakes new historical fiction authors make?
- Providing an info-dump of all the wonderful historical research at the beginning of a novel.
- Building characters with modern sensibilities, instead of the sensibilities of their time, immediately signals a problem.
Elizabeth asked each panel member to provide a recent novel that stood out. My TBR pile will soon reach the ceiling if I add all these to it!
- Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
- Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
- The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
- The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati
- Lady Sherlock books by Sherry Thomas
- Summer Country by Lauren Willig
- Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly
- A Memory of Violets by Hazel Gaynor
- The Alienist by Caleb Carr
- A Fire Sparkling by Julianne MacLean
- Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
- Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Elizabeth Mahon opened the session up to questions:
How has the changed bookstore landscape affected business? Discoverability has changed as a result. Social media plays a much more prominent role and publishers are targeting influencers on various platforms. The new landscape expands the “democracy of readership” and changes the word-of-mouth dynamic.
When will the interest in WWII end? The opinion of one panel member was that it will never end, especially the unique stories, fresh perspectives, and unique characters of WWII. For example, stories of the Pacific front have not been well explored. The panel reassured authors that they continue to look at other periods as well.
What periods are a hard sell? One panel member said that ancient history is difficult to sell, another added that stories beyond 500 years ago are difficult. A third said that the Tudor period is saturated. And a fourth said that in the early 2000s, there was an interest in biographical fiction, but that today the interest is more about extraordinary people in extraordinary times.
What about male protagonists? Panel members reflected that readership of historical fiction skews female and that women’s stories are more revelatory given today’s world (by which I think she was referring to issues dominating the media like #metoo, abortion and others). Editors are always open to great stories with male characters.
I hope these highlights are useful!
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.