Saturday, October 6, 2007

Historical Novel: Is It History, or More... Much More?

There's a truism in selling non-fiction history to a book publisher. If it's history, it has to be accurate! Yet, every editor who has ever worked in the field of non-fiction history has come across at least one writer who has played loose and free with the historical facts. The results: not only did that writer not get published, but also he'll never even get another read at that publishing house.

That's how important accuracy in research and writing is to history. How much easier it would be to sell history with a twist--quasi-history, sort-of-history, a book that's based on history and is historically accurate, but only to a degree. Well, that's where selling the historical novel comes in.

Author James Michner once said in an interview that, when he wrote historical fiction (and he wrote a lot!), he never particularly cared whether or not the steam engine in his book about life in 1820 Nebraska didn't actually arrive in Nebraska until 1830! And neither, it seems, did his readers.

At first glance, the scenario of being able to take history and manipulate it without regard for historical accuracy looks like a writer's dream. And, in many ways, it is. If writing accurately about historical situations is the difficult part in writing and selling history, how much easier it would be not to have to worry about such trivialities as facts in the first place!

But that begs the question: what do historical fiction editors look for, and, even more importantly, what do they shy away from when selecting a historical novel to publish?

One sure answer is character assassination. Remember the recent Ronald Regan fiasco that CBS commissioned and planned on airing until word got out that it was downright "mean-spirited" and "vindictive"? That's something few editors want to be associated with. So, when peddling historical fiction, it's important to be sure that--if you make a controversial or denigrating statement about a historical person--you can back it up.

Another thing editors look for is reasonability. It's one thing to try to sell a book about JFK in which you present him as having had an affair with Marilyn Monroe. That's absolutely believable. It's something else entirely if you present him as having had an affair with Rock Hudson. See the difference?

"If a writer wants me to believe that something actually took place in a historical novel, it at least has to be plausible," according to Don Bacue, International Features Syndicate executive editor, "otherwise it will turn the reader, not to mention the editor, off--long before the book makes it to market. And that's sure death for any writer trying to sell a book."

Most importantly of all, a writer trying to sell a historical novel must show some faculty for the subject. If someone writes historical fiction about Louis Pasteur and has no knowledge whatsoever of bio-chemistry, he's doomed to failure from the start.

That doesn't mean that a writer must be a bio-chemist to write such a book. Michner wasn't a minister or a native of the islands when he wrote Hawaii. But he did do his homework. He studied about the time period, the islands, the missionaries of the era, sailing ships, etc. By the time he set about actually writing and then selling the book, he knew as much about his subject as any historian alive. Well, nearly.

So, how do you impress upon an editor your proficiency with a particular historical topic or time period? Spell it out in your query letter:

Dear Editor Person:

John Wilkes Booth has long been one of the most hated men in American history. But I have a different take on the man whom people knew and loved before he leaped from the balcony where the president had just been shot. In my historical novel, Pirates from Hell, I speculate upon how this man who had been a healing physician for years might have turned out if abolitionists hadn't poisoned his outlook on the War--and then how they went on to change a saint into a sinner in a single night.

Briefly, I'm a full-time freelance writer with previous publishing credits. I'm also a serious student of Lincoln, from his birth to his death. Booth has been a fascinating micro-study for me. Not only was the man brilliant and compassionate, but also he was an ardent Republican who actually voted for Lincoln in 1860!

If you'd like to see more, I can send you an outline, synopsis, and sample chapters by return mail or e-mail, as you wish.

Sincerely yours,

Fred Writer Guy

The letter is quick, snappy, pointed, and informative--the perfect query for what sounds like an eminently publishable (i.e., marketable) book. We think you get the message, and we're pretty sure an editor would, too.

There's an old adage in writing. A writer must know the rules of grammar before he may break the rules of grammar. The same could be said of historical fiction. A writer must know his history before he sets out to rewrite it.

Any way you look at it, the historical novel is a strong and powerful genre that many publishers feel comfortable in tackling. But before doing so, they want to be absolutely certain that you--the writer--have done your homework.

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