Chip MacGregor

May 20, 2013

What do you look for in historical fiction?


Someone wrote to ask, “Should an author who writes historical fiction stick only to fiction? Since so much historical research has to be conducted, how do you feel about authors using their novel research to also pen nonfiction?”

I think it depends on the author’s preference, or maybe their gifting. I don’t have any problem representing authors who write both fiction and nonfiction. However, it’s really tough for a writer to succeed at both. In my view, a novel requires a different set of writing skills than a nonfiction book — novelists require the ability to show, not tell, while nonfiction is all about telling. There are very few examples of writers who have excelled at both. (Yes, there are some, but not many.) And readers simply don’t cross over – most tend to be either fiction readers or nonfiction readers. And historical fiction readers aren’t generally that interested in reading a nonfiction book from a favorite writer, so even a bestselling novelist will find her nonfiction book to be a hard sell in the marketplace. For those very practical reasons, most historical fiction writers tend to stay with the fiction genre. 

Another writer wants to know, “What particular skills do you look for in a writer of historical fiction?”

A strong voice, first of all. The one thing that makes a novel unique is not so much the setting or the characters so much as the voice of the writer. Too many historical novels feel the same — the setting has changed, but the book could have been written by anyone. So what really sets it apart, and the first thing I look for, is a strong author voice. That being said, a strong sense of history and adequate research so that the story feels genuine are essential, of course. I want a story that’s unique and interesting, so it’s best if the writer has a passion for that particular period or the events surrounding the novel. I suppose I also prefer an author with a good vocabulary, particularly appropriate to the setting and time. I like to see a clear sense of mood. Good rhythm to their words. Clear pacing. Great characters in interesting situations. Strong dialogue. Vibrant scenes. Action or events that move me from one page to the next. And, if it’s to have a longlasting quality to it, themes that are greater than boy-meets-girl (which works fine in a historical romance, but we like to see more in a true historical saga). 

And I had one writer get in touch and ask me this: “Should novelists try to keep up on publishing trends? I recently heard a bestselling novelist say she never pays attention to the market – that if she tried to write what is currently selling, chances are the trend will have changed by the time she finished the manuscript. What so you think?”

I generally agree. As an author, if you try to chase the market, you have a tendency to always be BEHIND the trend, so your work is never really fresh. But sometimes a novelist has to pay attention – if nobody is publishing westerns, it helps to have your agent say, “Don’t do a western; we can’t sell it.” Or sometimes a publisher will say, “Do you have ANYONE who can do an Amish romance? We need an Amish book.” That’s when it pays off to watch trends. Of course, a bestselling writer doesn’t need to pay attention to trends – publishers are going to stand in line to work with her, and offer her a great deal of money no matter what she writes.

The fact is, I have to pay attention to trends as an agent. And if I’m representing you, it’s nice to know that you, as a writer, are basically aware of what’s happening in the market. Still, what I care about MOST is that you write a great book – trends or not. I do think some authors worry more about the latest trend than they do about the craft. That’s something I see evidenced at writer conferences, and I’ll admit that it bugs me. A good trend won’t help you sell your story so much as writing a great book.

And a personal aside: Bestselling writer, collaborator, and writing mentor to many, Cecil Murphey, lost his wife after she suffered a stroke over the weekend. Cec is a great guy, and man who has been a friend to me, to this blog, and to many writers who frequent this blog. Our prayers are with Cec and his family today. Hang in there, my friend.  

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  • Jaime Wright says:

    LOVED this post. As an avid historical fiction reader, I couldn’t agree with you more about the cross-over. I love history, but in novel form. You don’t see me curling up with a history book very often. Unless it’s biographical. Appreciated the insights for writers of historical too. I saw your post on FB in regards to Mr. Murphey. I have been praying for him since. Please express the condolences of the many who haven’t met him face to face but have great respect.

  • Robin Patchen says:

    Good insights, as always. Sometimes it’s so frustrating being a writer. We hear, “Don’t watch the trends. Just write a great book–that’s the most important thing.” Unless, of course, you write a great book that won’t sell (like a Western, for instance). In which case, you need to watch the trends.

    Of course, just about everything is frustrating about being a writer, so why should this be any different? If it were easy, everyone would do it.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s correct, Robin — don’t watch the trends… unless you can use them to your advantage! It’s like trying to get an agent: Everybody knows you can’t get an agent unless you’re published, and you can’t get published until you have an agent. In short, you’re screwed.

  • Rick Barry says:

    I would think that, although it’s desirable (and interesting) for
    authors to have a general interest in publishing trends, the average
    author isn’t positioned to watch them as well as agents are. Sure, a
    writer can sign up for updates from PW and attend one or two conferences
    per year, which helps. However, the typical author lacks the
    advantage of agents who interact regularly with editors. The agent will
    know from experience what sells and what earns a “No thanks.” I dare to
    say that an author who spends inordinate amounts of time trying to know
    everything the agents know is wasting time that could be better spent
    in writing (preferably with the advice of an agent).

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Appreciate your thoughtful comment, Rick. You’ll find there are some authors who watch trends very closely, hoping to get ahead of the curve. I talk to them at every big conference.

  • Judith Robl says:

    Great advice and information – as always.

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