We all know that thrillers and modern romances are the biggest sellers. They dominate the markets, and it seems to be what all our friends are reading. But what if you're not into the newest spy-chase novel and the modern romance isn't your thing? For me, the draw of historical fiction has always been stronger than the idea of writing-for-profit in a genre that will probably sell better. But, that leaves historical fiction writers at a disadvantage.
Or does it? What can we as authors of historical fiction do to balance the market for us?
Write for the Public
First off, you must try to use what's currently popular. What do you see in movies/other popular books/popular culture? For me, a military historian, a prime example of this is works on Rome and ancient Greece. The ancient world is hot right now. It's sexy. Films like Gladiator, 300, Alexander, Centurion, The Eagle, and many more capitalize on that. They may not be exactly factual (but neither, strictly speaking, is historical fiction), but they do increase the public's care and concern for history. For me, that means that works on Rome and ancient Greece will sell better. In fact, I'm in the process of planning a novel set in that age.
This works for other subgenres, like historical romance as well. Look at Downturn Abbey and the like. Romance itself is timeless; make money from that. If you see that the Middle Ages is catching the public's eye, use that to your advantage. Right now, Victorianism is ripe for writing. With Steampunk (a fantastic genre that is easily mixed with historical fiction), Sherlock Holmes, and others making a dent in pop culture, take advantage of it. Tailor your work for the public.
Use Historical Fiction to Change Your World
Although the money is fun, all authors also long to be remembered in their works. They want to have a lasting impact on their world. Don't you? I'm just finishing Mary Renault's masterpiece, The Last of theWine. It's set in Athens during the Peloponnesian War and follows a young soldier and student of Socrates. The protagonist, Alexias, falls in love with an older student and another philosopher, Lysis. The book tells the story of these men's love, their lives, and the tragedy that is war. But what's more is that it was written in the 1950s. At that time, being a homosexual was not only unpopular, it could be ruinous to one's career, to one's very life. Renault wrote the work in part to paint a larger picture of the issue.
She wrote the book because, as a homosexual, she was tired of the backlash. She wanted to show that, throughout time, homosexuals were just as capable of doing great deeds, of being human. Her works all touch on this and other social issues.
So can yours.
Do you care about the environment? Look at Victorian England and the damages just beginning by the Industrial Movement. How about immigration — do you find immigration policy today unfair? Look at Ellis Island. Use your genre to shed new light on an issue you're passionate about. The beautiful thing about the past — the thing which let Renault get away with such commentary in an age of repression — is that everything is in a different context. In the age of kings and revolutions, actions are different than today. Looking into the past gives us the freedom to be critical, to be un-shaking in our critique or our praise for what once was and is now lost. Your readers will make the connection. Your book can truly change your world.
Tell a New Story
How often have you read a story that sounds just like all the others? I can't tell you the number of times. It seems like people are becoming more and more unoriginal. But you, as an author of historical fiction, have access to thousands of years and millions of stories waiting to be told. As authors in this genre, we have the license to find the gems in the past that get lost.
Recently, I was researching a famous general from the Napoleonic Age, but he almost never made it to manhood; as a child, he almost suffocated to death by pretending to be a dog. He got stuck in his family's doggy-door, and because he was pretending, he refused to use his voice. All he did was bark. And his parents laughed at their funny son. Until he passed out. And turned blue. Obviously, he lived, but anecdotes like this are beautiful. You simply can't make some of these things up!
Now, I'm not telling you to steal your stories. But, unlike those spy thrillers that sound the same, we have millions of people's tales waiting to be redone. Research. Add your own voice. Change things. But draw from that amazing well that history gives us. You can then write a new story that will capture and inspire.
So, if you're sick of people complaining of the power popular genres have, use your tools. Write to fit what's popular, use your historical lens to change the world, and bring amazing stories from the past to life.
Then see those run-of-the-mill thrillers compete.