Tag Archives: Historicals

What Mystery Editors (and Readers) Want

Posted by November 8th, 2011

Mysteries can be a mystery! NAL and Berkley editorial give us an inside look at the mystery market: what works and what they’re looking for. 

 book and glasses - special credit reqIn this second installment of “Giving Readers (and Editors) What They Want,” we’re shifting the focus from romance novels to mystery novels, an intriguing and timeless genre with a number of popular subgenres. With so many different kinds of mysteries on the shelves, it can be confusing to figure out what exactly it is you’re writing and if it’s what a particular publishing house is looking to acquire.
We’ve once again turned to the experts, the mystery editors at New American Library (NAL) and Berkley Books, to give a quick lesson about the mystery genre as a whole, what’s hot right now, and what they’re looking for:

When it comes to writing a mystery that fits into the current market, first get back to the basics to make sure you’re book is categorized correctly. It’s easy to confuse a mystery component of a novel with a mystery novel itself. A “mystery” refers to novels whose plot revolves around a crime, typically a murder, and the search to figure out who committed it.  The protagonist is generally a sleuth, either professional or amateur, who engages in a hunt for the culprit by investigating and following various clues and reasoning processes.  After weeding out other potential suspects, the story usually ends with the apprehension of, or at least understanding of, who the killer is and what motivated them to commit the crime.

While mysteries often have other elements included in the story, the protagonist of a mystery is primarily concerned with the solving of the crime. For instance, the main character might have a love interest, so there could be a romantic subplot, but as long as it is secondary to the crime itself, you are still writing a mystery, and not a different type of book, like a romance.

Mysteries are related to, but different from thrillers, in that a thriller also tends to begin with some sort of crime.  However, in a thriller the reader usually learns quite quickly who has committed the crime and the driving force of the plot is not to figure out who-done-it, but to see if the hero can prevent the antagonist from getting away with the crime and striking again. Now, of course, there are all types of mysteries, so you’ll see that the genre has all sorts of subcategories.  This is because people shop for mysteries by the settings and time periods they find most interesting. The most popular subgenres change with time, and the best way to keep track of what the current ones are is to read the bestseller lists and see what kinds of mysteries are most popular.

Right now, some of the most successful genres are the following, and we editors are always looking for more fresh and exciting stories in the same vein:

Cozy mysteries
A descendent of  the novels written by Agatha Christie, this is a mystery where the sleuth, who is often female, is an amateur detective (meaning they aren’t a professional PI, police detective, cop, FBI agent, or any of the other various licensed professionals who might legitimately be solving a crime).  There is little to no violence on the page in the cozy mystery.  The setting tends to be small towns and the characters often know one another.  Usually there are subplots involving romances and friendships, with various relationship and career issues. In a cozy, the balance between character and storyline, the characters and the relationships between them, are often as important as the puzzle of the plot. We are especially eager to see more Cozy mysteries on submission.

There are also a number of variations within the cozy subcategory:

  • The culinary cozy, where the amateur sleuth is involved in the world of cooking and/or the setting is connected with food.  Think of New York Times bestselling author Diane Mott Davidson, whose Goldy Schulz series has been running for decades now;
  • The crafty cozy, where the amateur sleuth is part of some hobby within the crafting world (like knitting or quilting) and the members of the world help to solve the crime.  Authors like Maggie Sefton,Earlene Fowler, and Betty Hechtman are all people who are using a fiber hook in their mysteries and making the most of it;
  • The paranormal cozy, where the sleuth often has some sort of paranormal ability and/or investigates strange happenings connected with the paranormal world.  New York Timesbestselling author Victoria Laurie and national bestselling authorSofie Kelly are two authors among many who have made the light paranormal mystery their own;
  • The chic-lit cozy, where the sleuth is often involved in more glamorous pursuits like fashion, jewelry, accessories. Ellen Byerrum and Elaine Viets have been crafting fun chic-lit mysteries for decades.

Historical mysteries Here the setting is an intriguing historical time period, the sleuth may or may not be modeled after a specific, well-known historical personage, and historical events often serve as a springboard for the mystery explored.  Variations include:

  • Historical mysteries where the sleuth is based on a recognizable or famous historical personage, like Abigail Adams, Dorothy Parker, or is a minor character connected with a more famous historical character, like the maid to Sir Author Conan Doyle.  New York Times bestselling author Laurie King writes a “Mary Russell series” centering the fictional wife of Sherlock Holmes, and more recently J.J. Murphy has put Dorothy Parker at the center of mysteries and the Round Table;
  • Mysteries set in a particular time period, like the Regency era or early Colonial America, whose protagonist is in some way a stock character typical of the era.  Victoria Thompson’s gaslight mystery series, set in turn-of-the century New York with a midwife protagonist is just such a series.

Traditional mysteries
Unlike cozies, in the traditional mystery the puzzle of the plot and the setting become as important as, if not more important than, the relationships between the various characters in the story.  Often the characters in these mysteries are well developed with deep backstories and complex personalities—yet still they play second fiddle to the solving of the crime. But because the characters are so vivid, the crimes also tend to be complicated, complex, and fueled by surprising motivations.  Some of the mysteries in this category may use language that is quite literary in nature, so the style of the language becomes a distinguishing feature of the book.  Authors you may have read include Nancy Pickard, with her wonderful “Kansas” series, or Louise Penny, with her long running “Chief Inspector Gamach” series. Other mysteries in this area may high suspense and semi-realistic chase scenes, so they may at times feel like thrillers.

Scandinavian mysteries
These are mysteries that have come to the fore in recent years.  Set in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, or Finland, they often have a traditional PI investigating a crime that is indicative of things gone amiss in the society at large.  The detective in the Scandinavian mysteries can exhibit a modern, world-weary attitude and be overcome by feeling of ineffectualness and despair.  The setting becomes all important as the ice and cold of the physical world becomes metaphoric for the conditions the detective seeks to surmount.  These books have dominated the New York Timesbestseller lists lately and well known authors include Stieg Larsson,Henning Mankell, and Jo Nesbo.

Hard-boiled mysteries
Of course, not all mysteries can be doing well commercially all the time.  The hard-boiled, or “noir,” mystery is a type that has long existed but is not enjoying as much popularity at the moment.  These are mysteries in which the sleuth is usually a professional PI (and often a tough, quiet sort of guy) and the setting is gritty and realistic.  There are varying degrees of violence and the crimes are often explicitly described on the page.  Guys like Mickey Spillane were some of the commercial founders of this category.
However, even if a certain category is not popular now, it will no doubt, have its day eventually.  Twenty years ago American readers weren’t generally reading Scandinavian mysteries, and now they dominate the bestseller lists.  The only thing you can really count on is change.

So, study the market, pay attention to what’s on the bestseller lists, and read the books that people are talking about the most. Not so you can mimic them, but so you can meld your own interest with what the market supports.  Some worry that this is being “overly commercial,” but editors would argue it’s a way to be relevant to the current reading world.  If you don’t pay attention to what mystery fans want to read, you may have to accept that you’ve spent your time and energy working on a project for an audience of one (or maybe two or three!). If you want reach a bigger fan base, you need to stay in touch with what readers are responding to.  That is what we editors will also respond to.

  
Next up in our “Giving Readers (and Editors) What They Want” series:  Science fiction and fantasy!

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

 

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What Romance Editors (and Readers) Want

Posted by November 1st, 2011

Writing a romance novel? The NAL editorial team gives us a tutorial on the romance market: today’s hottest subgenres and what they’re looking forHere’s what the romance editors want:

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When I was in romance editorial, it astounded me how many submissions I received that had nothing to do with what I was actually looking to acquire, or even that fell outside of the genres in which my imprint specialized. Sometimes the manuscripts hooked me despite this fact, and I fell in love with the writing or the story or the potential I saw for the story. But there was nothing I could do; if it didn’t fit for our list or the market, my hands were tied.
As an author, even after doing all your homework–researching the market, reviewing an imprint’s recent publications, checking Publishers Marketplace for an editor’s acquisition history–it can still be difficult to figure out if what you’re submitting will give the editor what he or she wants. Particularly when it comes to such a robust and diverse genre as the romance market.

With this challenge in mind, Book Country asked the romance team at New American Library (NAL) to share a little bit about their experience with submissions and what specifically they hope to find among the pile:

Most editors at NAL find that when we’re looking for new talent, the biggest problem with the submissions we receive is not that they’re badly written (because many of them are very well done) but rather that the books are not the kind of stories that readers are looking for.  The romance reader is very particular in her tastes and preferences, and trends tend to dominate the market.  If you want to attract a big readership among romance fans, it’s crucial you know what kind of story they are looking for in the current market.
To help you figure out how to do that, the editors at NAL want to offer you some friendly advice about writing romance and positioning your book:

First, make sure you’re writing a romance novel and not a women’s fiction novel! Romance novels have as their central focus the relationship between the hero and heroine of the story.  Their developing romantic relationship forms the backbone of the book’s plot. Most often this involves a man and a women meeting and having a powerful attraction; however, there’s an obstacle getting in the way of their relationship. Frequently, each character has an internal conflict that she or he must overcome. The end goal is for this couple to reach their HEA, or happily ever after, together (with realistic complications along the way). In other words, they meet, they have a conflict, and they must react and develop in response to it before the book can reach a satisfying conclusion.  These conventions are common to romance novels across the board and can act as a helpful rule of thumb to guide you according to what readers will expect to see in your romance novel.

You also need to remember that most romance readers buy according to subgenre, based on themes, settings, or time periods.  The most popular subgenres in romance change over time, and the best way to identify what’s most popular in the romance market at a given time is to watch the bestseller lists. Our job as editors is not only to follow the trends but anticipate them, while your job is to write a great book people want to love.

Right now, some of the most popular genres in romance (and the ones our editors are most excited about) are:

Vampire romances
This means a love story where at least one of the main characters is a vampire, with supernatural powers and an immortal lifespan. The setting can vary. J. R Ward‘s “Black Dagger Brotherhood” series was at the forefront of the vampire trend from the start and remains a beloved favorite among paranormal romance readers.

Regency-set historical romances
While settings for historicals can vary, England is the most popular setting. Regencies are romances that are set during the Regency period in England, which strictly speaking was from 1811 to 1820.  Historical romance readers will expect these novels to be historically appropriate, meaning that the characters should act according to what was expected in society at that time. Some of Penguin’s bestselling Regency romance authors include Jo Beverley and Jillian Hunter.

Scottish-set historicals
Ever since the release of Braveheart, we have seen a high demand for romances set in Scotland.  The most popular time period is definitely medieval, but the Jacobean era (1603-1625) works as well for this subgenre. Bertrice Small’s “Border Chronicle” series is a fabulous example of the historic Scotland setting.

Shapeshifter romances
These are paranormal romances in which at least one of the central characters to the romance can shift shape into another form.  Shapeshifting characters might be dragons, werewolves, falcons, coyotes, the list goes on… To name two examples from NAL’s popular shapeshifter romances, we publish Michele Bardsley’s “Broken Heart” novels and Deborah Cooke’s “Dragonfire” novels to great acclaim.

Paranormal romances
Paranormal romances are ones in which the love story features a character with otherworldly abilities (in addition to but not excluding being a vampire or shapeshifter).  There are witch romances, fallen angel romances, mermaid romances, demon romances, among many others.  Sylvia Day’s “Renegade Angels” series and Regan Hasting’s “Awakening” novels will give you a great idea of the fallen angel and witch trends, respectively.

What we call “gentle fiction”
Gentle fiction is a subcategory of contemporary romance, which means a romance set in the present day. These are love stories set in a small town setting with lots of quaint charm and heartwarming emotional elements. The heartwarming sense of town life and the gentle tone of the emotions really set this subgenre apart from other mainstream contemporary romance. They are the most popular kind of contemporary romance at this time, and have no paranormal elements. One visit to JoAnn Ross’s “Shelter Bay” series and you won’t want to leave this wonderful town!

Western romances
Heroes from the Wild West hold much appeal, whether it’s a contemporary cowboy romance or a historical western. There’s just something readers love about a charming cowboy!  One bestselling example from NAL’s list is Catherine Anderson, who writes both contemporary and historical Westerns.

Romantic suspense
Romantic suspense has a fast-paced storyline with lots of action because the romance between hero and heroine takes place in the face of some kind of danger that threatens one or both of their lives. The suspenseful nature of the plot is almost as important as the romance, and there is usually a mystery to solve. These novels are usually contemporary settings and are always real world stories.Shannon K. Butcher’s “Edge” novels and Christina Dodd‘s “Bella Terra Deception” series give a great example of the kind of high-octane action and edge-of-your seat suspense readers look for in this genre.

Urban fantasy
While not technically romance, Urban Fantasy novels often involve a strong love story that appeals to romance fans. Whereas the third person point of view is common in the other romance genres, urban fantasy often takes a first person point of view. And the mystery that’s driving the plot and the action is almost as important to the novel as the romance itself.  The characters in these novels are very tough, and the stories may contain violence.  Lee Roland’s Viper Moon thrills with a captivating voice and a complex urban fantasy series world.

As you can see, there are many subgenres currently driving the market from the editors’ perspective, so make sure your novel fits into one of them. Or if you are trying your hand at something different, remember to keep your story within the conventions of a romance novel in the first place and understand that your story really has to be something special if it colors outside the lines. Editors love to find fresh new authors with budding talent, so give them something they can work with!

Romance is not the only genre where editors have specific interests though…

Our next installment of “Giving Readers (and Editors) What They Want” will focus on the mystery genre. 

Stay tuned!

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Writing Historicals for the Modern Reader

Posted by October 31st, 2011

Book Country Twitter Chat (October 20, 2011)

Bestselling author Sarah MacLean and literary agent Sara Megibow discuss how to make your historical accurate and accessible for today’s reader

 twitter_newbird_boxed_blueonwhite Writing a historical novel of any genre is a challenge like no other. It involves hoards of research, keen attention to detail, and an accurate and vivid portrayal. On top of all that, you have to make the story and characters interesting and relatable to readers in today’s day and age. Like I said, not easy! But we’ve gotten some inside info and tips from the pros–Sarah MacLean (@SarahMacLean) and Sara Megibow (@SaraMegibow), who both have backgrounds in genre fiction and in history!–on how to tackle the big task.


Sarah MacLean is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling historical romance and young adult author. Her first bestseller, Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake shot on to the bestseller lists with a vengeance and each of her historicals since have hit both lists and received glowing reviews.

History-lover Sara Megibow  is an agent at the Nelson Literary Agency, where she represents a variety of authors and
genres: historicals, YA, romantic fantasy, romance, and much more.

Here’s a little taste of what their Twitter chat had to offer:

 

@sarahmaclean: Making a book *too* historical can be a problem. Research can become an infodump fast.

@SaraMegibow: One reason I love reading historicals (YA, romance, fantasy, etc) is because it’s a mirror into a world I can only imagine.

@ECLamb: [Details should be] accurate enough not to call attention to themselves. Reader should never be pulled out of story to ask “What?””

@lilithsaintcrow: If you do not believe in your world and characters, nobody else will.

@sarahmaclean: If you break the rules [of the setting], you’d better know [the rules]. And know why you’re doing it.

@SaraMegibow: Personally, I wouldn’t shop a book set in 1963 as historical. I would shop as commercial fiction set in 1963.

@OliviaKelly: There is a fine line between making it sound authentic and throwing in historical terms just because you can.

@IsobelCarr: Good worldbuilding skills are just as necessary for realistic
historicals as they are for believable SF/F.

@sarahmaclean: Books are as much about the time in which they are set as they are about the time in which they are written.

@SaraMegibow: write a great book, do your research and read in your genre.

If you missed the chat, though, don’t worry! You can open or download the entire transcript as a PDF here. It will open in your browser and you’ll be able to save it to your computer if you like. You can also get to know your fellow genre fiction lovers by clicking directly on their Twitter handles.

Please note that the chat appears from newest to oldest tweets, so start on the last page and work your way up to the first.

Thanks to all who took the time to share their experiences and advice!

REMEMBER: Book Country Twitter chats occur every other Thursday night from 9-10 pm EST. Just use the hashtag #bookcountry to participate or follow along. Topics are announced in advance in the Book Country Discussion forums, so be sure to take a look!

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