Agent Monday: Getting Historical

Antique pocket watch - closeup on very old pocket watchHappy Agent Monday, gang!  With this weekend involving turning back clocks, I thought this would be a great time to talk a bit about historical novels (clever, huh?).  So here are some thoughts about getting historical.

I spent last weekend at the wonderful SCBWI Eastern PA Critique Fest, where I sat down with many authors critiquing manuscripts ranging from picture book through YA.  What a great experience! I did have a number of historical manuscripts to crit there, and I’ve also gotten many queries and sample chapters in my agent inbox recently that were historical middle grade, YA or adult.  Some intriguing stories, and fascinating time periods!  But also I found some familiar issues popping up, too. Things that held the story back or got in the way of the plot.

The biggest problem? The author felt challenged about providing historical context and facts – all having to do with world-building, really.  So we ended up with spending a lot of time in those opening pages explaining what was going on in the world at that time – something the characters would never do if they lived way back then.  Imagine you the writer lived 100 years from now and were writing a story about 2013.  Would you have your character thinking, wow, here I am taking off my shoes at an airport because a few years back this horrific act of terrorism happened…and let me just go over all that happened on that horrible day politically and terror-wise so you know why I’m taking off my shoes now?

Yeah, that wouldn’t happen. It would be clunky and unrealistic. Instead, in a story set in a world of hyper-security and scrutiny, the character in our current time would just move forward with the story, and details would present themselves as things progressed, providing context for the reader as relevant. They would notice the cameras trained on them in the parking lot perhaps as they rushed toward the airport, dealing with their own issues, goals, conflicts. The airport PA system would make those “watch out for stuff” announcements, and officers would stand by with bomb sniffing dogs. Our character would remove his shoes, even as he’s thinking about the personal plot challenge that is set in front of him…perhaps he needs to get something from point A to point B without being seen by authorities for something that has nothing to do with terrorism, but everything to do with his family’s well-being.  And voila! The reader will understand the context and the history of that time AS IT RELATES TO THE STORY.

It’s all in the details and how history actually intersects at that moment with the character’s world. Give us what’s relevant. When characters spend paragraphs at the outset detailing for the reader all that research the writer’s done about that time, I check out of the story, honestly. But give me a character I believe in and care about, give me an obstacle with high stakes that they must face, and I’ll follow you for pages and pages as you take them through their world. And I’ll absorb the details of the time and figure out how the era really is and impacts the characters. And yes, here and there as you move along, you could drop in some facts as they become relevant to that character’s world. It’s not about giving the reader a lecture, though. It’s about serving the story and plot. In the end, the reader will have learned a ton about that time and its history. That’s one of the joys of reading historical novels, right?  But it’s all in how you do it.

I’m extremely proud to represent some truly kick-ass historical authors, including Harmony Verna and M.P. Barker. Harmony’s debut manuscript is an adult historical titled FROM ROOTS TO WINGS. She has us immediately worry and care about an orphan abandoned in the Australian desert in the late 1800s, and about a crippled miner who discovers her and saves her. And over the course of this engrossing novel we need to know that somehow they will end up okay. That’s the heart of the story.  But we learn so much as we follow the tale. About harsh living. About the mines. About farming in the Australian wheat belt. About WWI, about Australia’s sacrifices during the war. And about the wealthy Pittsburgh elite. About the Aborigines. Oh, the knowledge we gain feels endless. Yet not once do we feel lectured to.

M.P. Barker’s novels A DIFFICULT BOY (Holiday House 2008) and MENDING HORSES (Holiday House, coming out this spring!) are fabulous examples of historical novels done right for the upper middle grade and YA audiences, and I highly recommend you grab one of these and see how deftly she creates that character, makes us love him, and then throws him into peril so that we simply must know he’ll survive and thrive some day. And the lush details of New England life in the 1800s are simply stunning. Again, she never loads the readers with facts and figures — just has her characters live their lives in this time. And we learn a ton about rural life back then, bigotry against the Irish, the horrors of indentured servitude, the world of both the privileged and the poor.  It truly is an education. But first of all, these are fabulous novels, and the story always holds center stage.

So if you are interested in querying me about your historical novel, I’d love to see it! But be sure that you don’t fall into the trap of historical info dumping and killing the reality you want to build. Take me into another time in a believable way with a character I’ll care about. I’m looking forward to the trip!

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.  To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.

 

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Novelists Chasing Fads?

It’s trendy. It’s a hot topic. But should it be the subject of your next novel?

We authors want to connect with our readers.  But the question is: Should we follow trends and fads to do this? Is writing to fit into a trend a formula for success?

When you are writing magazine articles, the turnaround from conception to publication happens in a snap. Then you have to cater to fads and trends, or you may miss out.  But how do you pay attention to trends when you write novels?

Say you get a trendy idea for a novel. It can take you anywhere from 3 months (if you are extremely quick) to 2 years to complete it and send it out to an agent.  Then there is a lag between when your agent receives it (if you have an agent), and when it’ll get sent to publishers. (If you don’t have an agent, add another 6 months or more and a ton of luck into the mix, simmer and stew.) Then, once your agent finds a publisher who accepts it (and that can take time, too), it’s still not published.  Some publishers are working on books that won’t appear for 2-3 more years.  So, if you are talking about approximately 4-5 years before a book idea that you have goes into print, then why are we talking about fads and trends again?

Castle drawing by Marie Lamba...click on this image for an excerpt of her newest novel DRAWN

Hm. The funny thing is that even though publishers are working so far ahead, you will hear that, say, paranormal romance is hot now, or that houses are suddenly hot for thrillers in an urban setting.  I think the message is that if you have already written one of these, the stars have aligned and you will suddenly have people looking at this work with greater interest.  Will this mean that a few years from when the trend took hold that there will be a glut of said trendy lit coming out way past its freshness date?  Cough cough, vampires, cough cough.

So, then, you would expect me to say that my writing IS ABSOLUTELY NOT AT ALL AFFECTED BY FADS. But that’s a lie. I don’t write to meet a fad, but if there is something about that fad that speaks to me, then what the hell? I’ll be more motivated to write on that subject, even if, by the time I’m done writing the book, it’s waned on the trendometer of hip. Crazy, right?

But that’s exactly how my newest novel Drawn came to life.  I’ve had the idea simmering in my mind for years: A girl channels a hot medieval ghost through her drawings…then she meets up with him and their lives intertwine.  So when paranormal romance started to emerge I thought, yeah, it’s a sign (a paranormal sign?), and time to put this novel onto paper. So the story lives, and books are timeless. A fad helped bring it to life, and, since readers and editors are still loving paranormal, this will hopefully help bring my novel into readers’ hands very soon!

On the flip side, if I’m in the beginning stages of a novel and I hear that it’s absolutely dead because editors are sick of looking at stuff about that subject, well, if I’m not unbelievably married to that book, I’ll shelf it and work on something else. You should see my shelves.  Stacks and stacks of half-written manuscripts. Doesn’t mean I won’t finish those books some day, but just not today.

Fact is, writing is a business, and we do have to cater to our consumers.  It’s not perfect. It usually doesn’t make sense.

Hey, welcome to the wonderful world of publishing!

*This post also appears on The Liars Club blog

Collingswood Book Festival Coming!

On Saturday, Oct. 2nd, the Collingswood Book Festival in Collingswood, NJ will be packed with authors of all genres.  It’s free, it’s fun, and you gotta be there. Especially if you are interested in young adult fiction.

From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. you’ll also find the following YA authors there, hanging out and signing: Marie Lamba, yeah, that’s me (WHAT I MEANT…) ,  Sara Shepard (Pretty Little Liars series), Jonathan Maberry (who just released his first YA, Rot and Ruin), and Gregory Frost (Lord Tophet).

Plus we will be doing a special Young Adult Lit Panel Discussion at 1:30 p.m… Sara will share what it’s like to have your books translated into a major TV series…Jonathan will talk about shifting from adult to young adult novels… Gregory and I will share the challenges that YA authors face in the market today. Plus we will answer audience questions!

For the Facebook invite, click here.  If you RSVP to the invite, you can then go ahead and invite your own friends through that page, and spread the word to anyone you know who might also be interested.

We hope to see you there!

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Top Realistic Teen Fiction

What would you put on your own top realistic fiction list?

While my novel What I Meant… has popped up in a number of Listmania lists on Amazon.com, I never really thought about how those lists were formed.  You’ve probably seen them on the bottom of a book’s listing on that site.  Well, I finally realized that anyone with an account there can create their own Listmania list and share it with others.  And so, of course, I had to create my own.

My Top Realistic Teen Fiction includes books by Sarah Dessen (one of my all-time favorite authors), John Green (who I just discovered this summer), Justina Chen Headley and Jenny Han.  But I know I’m forgetting some other greats. Hm.

If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.  Nothing like having a new stack of amazing books to read and review.  So let me know what your favs are.  We’ll save the paranormal and fantasy reads for another day, another list…

If you’d like to see all the recommendations on my Listmania list, you can check it out by clicking here.