How to write a historical novel and get it published: 9 tips from bestselling authors Alison Weir, Hilary Mantel and more
From writer's block to stiff competition, budding historical authors face a number of hurdles when it comes to getting their work published. So what, exactly, is the key to success? Here, we ask published authors including Alison Weir and Robert Hutchinson to share their top tips on how to start writing a book, how to find an agent, and how to become a better writer…
Do your homework
“Have a look at the market. Find out what sells. Don’t just copy the successful books, but be mindful that your idea needs to be commercially viable before anyone parts with their money for it,” says Michael Arnold, author of The Civil War Chronicles.
Author and broadcaster Robert Hutchinson OBE, who has written a number of critically acclaimed books on Tudor history, adds: “Investigate the marketplace: how big will be the potential universe of potential readers? What has already been published about your planned subject? Has it been published to death, with a plethora of books already out there covering the same old ground?
“Will your book bring something brand new and exciting to those interested in the topic? What will make it different?
“Is there a gap in the marketplace your title will fill? Will your book satisfy an existing or emerging market need? Think in promotional headlines. What would be fresh and riveting about the content of your book?”
- Listen | Historian and author Tracy Borman describes the process of writing her first historical novel, set in the era of King James VI & I and the European witch craze
Find an agent
“Find an agent before approaching publishers, and select agents carefully,” says Michael Arnold. “Look at the kind of thing they usually represent.”
But be warned: “Agents are hard to find, you have to be extremely determined and persistent,” says Lisa Hilton, who has written a number of history books and historical novels including Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince, Wolves in Winter and The Stolen Queen.
Julian Stockwin, author of the acclaimed Captain Kydd series, says: “Getting an agent is not easy these days, but do your homework and find which agencies might be interested in your work. Submit your proposal to them in a professional manner and address an agent by name. (You can check out exactly what they want in a first approach on their websites).”
Christian Cameron, author of the Long War series and Tom Swan books, adds: “Get a good, veteran agent who you like and trust. When that person tells you something is bad, accept that and move on.”
Debra Daley, an award-winning novelist and screenwriter whose books include Turning the Stones and The Revelations of Carey Ravine, says: “Send the agent something short to read (30 pages or less) with an accompanying blurb that is ferociously focused on who your book is meant to appeal to. When you are starting out, people want to be able to pigeonhole you.
“Try and follow up with a phone call. Don’t email; agents are deluged in emails. They won’t want to take your call, but persist.”
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Forget the fads
“Forget the fads of publishing – by the time you write your book, editors will want some other fad. Make them like your fad,” says Christian Cameron.
And don't try to second-guess what might be popular, says Rachel Billington, who is the author of more than 20 novels. “Almost no one can predict next year's bestseller. Actually, no one!”
She adds: “And there’s a lesson to be learned from books such as H is for Hawk (Helen Macdonald, 2014) and The Hare with Amber Eyes (Edmund de Waal, 2010): you can hit the bullseye with a book that seems, on the face of it, quite obscure. So write about what you care about and don't try to second-guess what might be popular.”
And when you come to submit your idea to publishers, present it “as either a full manuscript or an excerpt plus plot summary,” says James Heneage, the author of The Mistra Chronicles series and co-founder (with fellow author James Holland) of the Chalke Valley History Festival. “If going for the latter, try to include sketches of all the main characters. Be clear of the audience you are writing to.”
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Does historical fiction need to be grounded in fact? We asked Wolf Hall’s award-winning author, Hilary Mantel...
“Different types of historical novels require different kinds of preparatory work, all of them intensive. Even if you simply use the past as a backdrop, you need to be grounded in the culture; you need to know about everyday life, how people think, what is the story they tell about themselves and their world.
“If you want to foreground real people as actors in your story, you must know as much about them as a biographer would, and then add value by taking the story where the historian and biographer can’t go: into the private aspect of the individual, the unshown and unshowable.
“However much you learn, factually, there is plenty of scope for imagination. You are allowed to speculate, and to fill gaps, as long as you do it plausibly. If you don’t want to pay attention to plausibility, it is more honest to write some other kind of novel. The facts are not a constraint; they are your raw material and your source of inspiration.”
To read more advice from Hilary Mantel, click here.
Polish your “diamond in the rough”
“Self-edit first, and self-edit sincerely and assiduously before you show your work to the people who will help you get it published,” says Lyndsay Faye, author of the highly acclaimed Gods of Gotham and Seven for a Secret. “Cut 10 per cent, declare war on adverbs, read it aloud, ask your mum and your best friend and your cousin what they think.
“Your book is not perfect yet, and agents see mountains of unpolished material daily. Stand out by polishing your diamond in the rough before it lands in their inbox or on their desk.”
Lisa Hilton advises: “Work every day, ideally with a set word limit that you have to reach before you allow yourself to stop. This can be quite small, to allow for other activities, but it is essential to produce a viable full-length text for your first attempt.”
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Rory Clements, the Sunday Times bestselling author of the Tom Wilde series of mid-20th century historical spy thrillers, urges you to “think like a tennis player”. Rory, who is also the author of the John Shakespeare series set in Elizabethan England, says: “No one could pick up a racket for the first time, go on to centre court at Wimbledon and beat Roger Federer (you wouldn’t even win a point, let alone the match). So it is with being an author. Work hard. Keep at it. Learn. Don’t give in.”
He also advises: “Read a lot and write a lot. Have a thick skin, because you will be disappointed along the way. Don’t expect your first book to be published and, if it is, don’t expect it to be a bestseller. It might happen, of course, but it’s very unusual.
“Show your work to friends and family. Listen carefully to what they say. If they think something is dull, improbable or clichéd, then they might have a point.”
Victoria Hislop, author of several novels including international bestseller The Island, advises: “Keep reading and writing, even while you are trying to get something published. Don’t stop, and don’t give up. Keep writing other things, keep imagining other stories, keep a notebook!”
- Listen | Renowned historical novelist Bernard Cornwell talk about his writing career and his books that inspired the Anglo-Saxon drama series The Last Kingdom
Keep your story nimble
Hilary Mantel, who won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, becoming the first female British author to win the award twice, says: “Take your time until you feel comfortable in your chosen era. And if you are writing about a real person, make sure it’s someone you don’t understand. You write to find out, to make sense, rather than to tell what you already know: to discover and explore. Your constant, puzzled engagement with the characters keeps the story nimble. If the characters seem to be changing, as living persons change, you are on the right track.”
To read more advice from Hilary Mantel, click here.
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Get yourself out there
“Firstly, go to as many book talks and festivals as you can,” says Karen Maitland, who has written a number of medieval thrillers including Company of Liars, The Vanishing Witch and The Raven's Head. “You’ll pick up lots of tips about writing and publishing. Chat to the people in the coffee and cloakroom queues. You may find yourself talking to an agent or editor.
“Secondly, join one of the professional societies for the genre you write in, or at least check out their websites. Many societies such as the Crime Writers Association, Historical Novel Association or the Romantic Novel Association run competitions for unpublished novelists. They also have mentoring programs and manuscript appraising schemes, where your manuscript will be read by experienced authors or agents in that genre.
“And from their newsletters and websites, you’ll be able to see at a glance which editors in the different publishing houses are buying the kind of book you write. That will save you a lot of time, and help you to get your manuscript on to the desk of exactly the right editor or agent.”
You should also use your contacts, says Katherine Clements, author of The Crimson Ribbon, The Silvered Heart and The Coffin Path. “Work on your book until you can’t bear it any more. Put it aside for a while and then do it again. Do the same with your submissions. Get a second opinion. Ask for help. Use your contacts. If you don’t have any, go out and make some. Attend events and conferences, talk to people, make friends. Be tenacious. But, most of all, make your book the best it can be.
Ask yourself – are you in this for the long-haul?
“You have to make yourself stand out from the crowd. But know that it could take years,” says Debra Daley. “Ask yourself if you are in this writing game for the long-haul, even in the face of multiple rejections. If the answer is yes, then you are probably going to get published somewhere down the line, because the fact is, as agents and publishers have told me, most would-be authors give up after about five years of not finding a publisher. But know that you are tougher than that.”
Have another job to pay the bills
“Be aware that writing is lonely and, except for a few at the top, very badly paid, so, when starting out, have another job to pay bills and meet people,” says James Heneage.
Don’t give up
Alison Weir, the UK’s biggest selling female historian, whose books include The Six Wives of Henry VIII; Eleanor of Aquitaine; The Lost Tudor Princess and Isabella: She-Wolf of France, says “Ensure that your text is in an acceptable format. Never submit anything that isn’t your best effort. Listen to advice, and especially the reasons given in rejection letters. Above all, never give up!”
Meanwhile, Rachel Billington says: “I was lucky, but we all know successful, even phenomenally successful, novelists like JK Rowling who went on and on battering at the doors of publishers until she found one who liked her writing.
“It took my friend, John Spurling, more than a decade to get published his novel about 12th-century China, Ten Thousand Things. Now it's being read on both sides of the Atlantic and has been nominated for all sorts of awards.”
- Listen | Philippa Gregory discusses her 30-year career as a historical novelist and the history behind bestsellers such as The Other Boleyn Girl and The White Queen
Robert Hutchinson says “Believe in your book, and do not be down-hearted by publisher rejections,” while Michael Arnold adds: “Keep writing; don't be put off. And finish the book. Don't give up when it becomes a slog (and it will) during the middle third.”
Julian Stockwin, author of the Captain Kydd series, says: “Read widely, and believe in yourself. If your book is good it will be published eventually.”
Christian Cameron believes “the one thing you need to write a good book, and FINISH, is passion – enough passion to get you all the way through. I LOVE history. I love the stories and the historiography – the reasons people wrote the way they did, and lied, and distorted. I love the buildings and the oppression and the liberty, and I love China and England and everywhere in between. This makes it very easy for me to write about history. Almost every day, I find something in history (and I read primary sources constantly) that makes me say ‘wow, I could write a novel about that’. Do you?”
This advice was originally published as part of BBC History Magazine’s Inspiring Writing competition, in collaboration with Hodder, in 2015, and has since been updated
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