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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

22 June 2007

The Gospel According to Irene Goodman

At the June HNS (Historical Novel Society) conference in Albany, New York, über-agent Irene Goodman shared her insights and expertise in two distinct areas: (1) what’s selling; (2) brick walls.

What’s Selling. At the top of the list in current historical fiction [primary focus on the story, not on a romance] sales are stories based on an actual historical personage with a “marquee” name. Preferably female. Preferably written by a female. Preferably a story seen from a female’s point of view. Think Helen of Troy (The Memoirs of Helen of Troy, by Amanda Elyot). Nefertiti (debut novel by Michelle Moran, published by Crown). Think Mary Boleyn (The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory).

A purely fictional story, Goodman says, might be of interest to Claire Zion, Editorial Director at NAL (Signet, Onyx).

Goodman’s preferences? “Most important is a built-in ‘hook’ that resonates with or piques the interest of the female reader.” (Most book buyers and readers are women.) She likes a strong female protagonist, first- or third-person point of view. The No. 1 preferred setting now is England; others are Romanov Russia, Ancient Rome, and possibly Egypt.

You may use historical personages who have been written about before; may use such people as central or as secondary characters; and may choose major or minor historical figures... but “the writing must be A++.”

Current focus is on emotion and character rather than setting. Multiple points of view are okay, and though Goodman personally likes a male pov, most fiction selling in today’s market is a “story seen from the female pov.”

The market for historical romance [primary focus on the romance with the “story” as a backdrop] is changing as we speak: Regency romances that are witty and sexy are emerging as a front runner. Paranormals are also hot now, but Goodman advises us to ignore trends: “They can’t last.”

What Hooks Goodman? The story idea. “You read hundreds of submissions, and then one juts out at you ... it’s brilliant... it has a unique quality to it.” She looks for a dramatic story question, but emphasizes that it can be very simple. The plot should be “organic” (not contrived). Character arcs are necessary.

She also likes “little cliffhangers” at chapter ends and small story questions that draw the reader along. Readers, Goodman says, like characters who have (1) wit and (2) resourcefulness (taking initiative; being in control).

Brick Walls. Apparently American writers are somewhat disparaged in Britain; the English see us as “the rebel colonists” and may even feel that American writers are telling their (English) history!

Preference for woman writers of women’s stories, seen through a female pov, poses a brick wall for male authors, especially if they are writing male-pov stories.

Chinks in the Walls à la Goodman:

1. Young adult fiction: what matters most is not the setting or the era, but the age(s) of the character(s).

2. What makes a good book? “The quality of the writing and a better-than-average story. Some authors just have ‘the right note.’”

3. What makes a good query letter? “The first paragraph must grab you.”

18 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Interesting post Lynna. Especially the part about what settings are big. I never would have thought of Romanov Russia. I wonder why that is? Any thoughts?

11:24 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I keep getting caught up with the lives of famous men, men I'd like to get to know better (or pretend to know better) and write a book about. In romance the editors keep saying "it's all about there hero", but I guess that's not translating to historical fiction . . . maybe I can find (or invent?) a woman though whom I can explore the men I find so fascinating?

I don’t know . . . or maybe I just need to mine the depths of history a little better for a female protagonist.

12:11 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I've always thought that Jane Digby would be an interesting choice for a historical fiction novel with romantic elements. She was totally driven by searching for that one great love. She ended up living out her life in the desert with a bedouin sheik. She was a contemporary of Lady Caroline Lamb, another rebel of a sort.

12:27 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Jane Digby . . . don't know much about her. Sounds like a later-day Hester Stanhope (who I have considered about writing about). Very cool.

12:36 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I've heard of Lady Hester Stanhope but didn't know much about her. Apparently Jennifer Saunders of Ab Fab fame played her in a TV movie in the UK called Queen of the Desert.

12:55 PM  
Anonymous Monica McCarty said...

Very interesting, Lynna, it sounds like it was a great conference. Might try to go to that one next year. :)

11:36 PM  
Blogger anne said...

A wonderful heads-up, Lynna. Thank you!

7:28 PM  
Anonymous Evangeline said...

I'm the opposite Kalen--I am constantly tripped up by amazing women in history of whom I try to use any excuse to include in my MSS. (Empress Dowager of China and Queen Victoria are major marquee names in them *g*)

1:25 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I think it's important to keep things in perspective, which means to listen and absorb Irene's comments, but not to try to write to what the perceived market is this week. That's an almost certain guarantee that your novel won't get published. Why? It wouldn't reflect the author's passion, it would just be a copycat manuscript of a similar novel which got published because it was clearly ITS author's passion.

Yes, we can all roll our eyes about the fact that there's, well, some crap out there, but authors shouldn't be trying to emulate the crap. You need to be savvy and combine a clear-eyed view of what's selling with your own interests and passions. Then write a kick-ass book! The wordsmithing should be as great as the narrative.

One thing Irene looks for is "voice." That means the author's prose has a unique feel to it. For MARKETING purposes it can be compared to another, successful, writer so that the sales force knows how to pitch it to the bookstores.

That should NEVER be mistaken for finding your own voice as an author. If you're mimicking another author's voice, that's a great way for an agent like Irene to pass on it. She is looking for what is special (meaning that the author has a strong, unique "voice"), as well as what is marketable.

6:11 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Good point, Amanda. And now you're all got me thinking historical fiction when I'm in the middle of writing a romance . . . LOL! I'll try and use the fire as impetus for finishing this book so I can attempt the HF (with will make my agent happy).

8:45 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Elizabeth, my thoughts on the why of Romanov Russia as an interesting (sellable) setting is possibly because of our fascination with royalty and tragic ends. Also, didn't someone come out with a book(s) recently in that period? I think an actual publication is what starts trends.
Look at Girl with the Pearl Earring... lotsa books based on paintings now.

9:22 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

My guess on why Romanov Russia may be hot (and I can ask Irene what is giving her that impression, so we get the real scoop, rather than my speculation), is that someone probably has a book coming out on Anastasia (a real-life tragic figure who is a marquee name, remember; everybody's heard of Anastasia and the myths that have sprung up like ivy surrounding whether she really survived the assassination).

So if someone sold a novel on Anastasia for big bucks, the editors who lost out on snapping it up might be thinking "Hmmm... I want a piece of that Russian action").

12:34 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

What I'd love to see is PBS resurect another "Poldark" type-series, or an "I, Claudius."

Set the successful series in Romanov Russia, or in ancient Egypt and publishers would then be hunt for those periods, big time!

Funny, but I can't say for sure that "Braveheart" or other historical movies do the same for writers (Jane Austen movies are the exception).

I think a hisotrical series television show which hooks you and involves you week after week reels you in better than a 2 hour flick.

...That kind of TV probably sparked generations of historical readers----me for one. ;-)

12:59 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Kathryn, you bring up an interesting point. I wonder how much the series Rome on HBO has inspired editors and writers in terms of books set during the Roman Empire. I'm thinking of Michelle Style's books for HH. In terms of the Romanov's there was a biography recently of Nicolas II's mistress before he married Alexandra. The thing about Anastasia is who's story are we getting? The actual Anastasia or the fake Anna Anderson? And I also loved Poldark. I read the first 6 books of the series. They did a movie of one of the later Poldark books with Ioan Gruffud but it wasn't quite the same without Angharad Rees and Robin Ellis.

4:21 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

They made a Poldark movie? Acck, I missed it!

Still waiting for the next great PBS historical (ROME was an almost I think, though I'm not quite sure why...)

8:50 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

It's available on DVD. If you have Netflix or a local library you can probably find it there. I don't think PBS has the budget to buy epics. In fact part of the reason that ROME is no more was the cost. However, we can look forward to the Jane Austen season on PBS.

9:37 PM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

Amanda, I so agree about combin "a clear-eyed view of what's selling with your own interests and passions." Trying to write to trend just because it's a trend can be risky, because the trend may be over by the time your book hits the shelf. And it's hard enough to write a book without writing one that isn't "you".

Kathryn, I think my love of English history began with "Elizabeth R" when I was six. And I loved and adored the Poldark series on PBS .

11:34 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

ROME was amazing, IMO. I loved it!!! I'm so sad that it got canceled. But then I've just spent the weekend happily working my way through the entire 3 seasons of DEADWOOD. LOL! I soooooooooo loved that series.

3:39 PM  

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