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Why is American History Shunned in HF novels?

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Ludmilla
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Post by Ludmilla » Mon September 15th, 2008, 5:27 pm

I'm another that finds American History interesting. I read more of it when I was younger and am now trying to recall bits and pieces of it that I've forgotten over the years.

I wonder if part of the disinterest (in terms of American vs trendiness of Western European History) is that we change leaders every 4 to 8 years (or 6 years if you include state govt). It might make it seem too much to keep up with compared to reading about a time when a King might have ruled for 20 or 30 years (which I see is along the lines of what Alaric was saying above). I think another poster hit on something important, too. Much of the historical fiction written about American History is written from a male PoV. I wonder if this leaves a gap for female readers who like to read about female protagonists (personally, I don't care so much about male PoV vs female PoV, but I know some readers do).

As for anti-American sentiments, I'm noticing that more and more and admit that it bothers me as an American. I've even noticed some Guardian reviewers bringing in their personal politics when reviewing American History books, and that really annoys me. So, that trend isn't just from publishers, but reviewers seem to be following in suit, too (or, maybe I'm reading too much into some of the reviews I've read).
Last edited by Ludmilla on Mon September 15th, 2008, 5:29 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Christine Blevins
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Post by Christine Blevins » Mon September 15th, 2008, 5:52 pm

I thought I'd weigh in on this thread, as the interview the OP referred to was mine.

By my experience, and also by what I see currently selling on the market, I'd say that most agents/publishers are not as concerned with place or time, as much as they are concerned with story and writing. I have learned that the majority of fiction book buyers are women, and so stories with strong female characters/interest are enjoying a lot of success.

Back when I was querying (more than two years ago) as an unpublished writer without ANY credentials whatsoever, I had a great response, and in the end I chose between three agent offers, and had to withdraw full manuscripts from six other agents still reading. So, to those of you writing American settings, keep the faith.

I know there are readers who are drawn to, and stick with certain periods. (I know I've gone on a few binges) And maybe there are book buyers who dismiss our American history,which I find so exciting and dynamic, as boring - but so far, with a little more than a month on the shelves <knock on wood> I am happy to report MIDWIFE OF THE BLUE RIDGE is doing very well.

The interview in question:
http://readingthepast.blogspot.com/2008 ... evins.html

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Ariadne
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Post by Ariadne » Mon September 15th, 2008, 6:31 pm

I would agree with what Boswell said a while back... American history, as I learned it in high school, emphasizes facts and dates rather than people and their stories. I suffered through an entire year of the Civil War, which consisted of memorizing dates, battles, names of generals... oy.

I was pretty frustrated when I heard from a couple agents at the HNS conference that they weren't really interested in American settings, and couldn't help but think that they needed to get over their preconceived notions that American history = dull. HF (regardless of the setting) is all about people and story, rather than simply facts and dates.

With American settings, it helps if there's a hook that will draw readers in. Strong female protagonists are hot, as we know... as is the history of NYC or other major cities (Beverly Swerling's novels all seem to do well). OTOH, I do find it awfully difficult to find many readers/reviewers who'll touch a novel set in the American West, even if it has a female protagonist. The impression is that the setting is dreary, not glamorous, deals too much with hardship... and that's not what they want to read about. I wish it wasn't so, because it means there are some terrific novels people are missing out on.

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EC2
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Post by EC2 » Mon September 15th, 2008, 9:18 pm

I think there's plenty of historical fiction around with an American setting. I've read and enjoyed loads of it down the decades and continue to do so. Yes, the Tudors are the in craze at the moment - and the Regency but presumably that will fluctuate.
Any white American person has their roots in Europe so people are bound to hark back to that because roots are so vitally important. The Tudors, the Medieval period is not just European history, its early American history too if you happen to be of European descent.
As the Folk band Show of Hands says in their song 'Roots' 'Without our stories and our songs, how will we know where we come from?' That's a big part of the attraction IMO. Roots. That's why you get so many Americans into genealogy and trying to trace themselves back to various European royal families - or being defensively proud of having survived the Irish potato famine to make a new life.
My favourite American novel is Hanta Yo by Ruth Beebee Hill.
Les proz e les vassals
Souvent entre piez de chevals
Kar ja li coard n’I chasront

'The Brave and the valiant
Are always to be found between the hooves of horses
For never will cowards fall down there.'

Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal

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Margaret
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Post by Margaret » Mon September 15th, 2008, 9:51 pm

What an interesting thread. I'm astonished to hear settings in American history aren't selling well, because I would have guessed just the opposite. After all, as the biggest market in the world for English-language books, American readers tend to set publishing trends, and readers do tend to be more curious about their own roots than about other people's.

The royal courts of Europe do make a particularly enticing setting. But the American Old West is, too--Lonesome Dove was a big best-seller, and rightly so. And I just reviewed David Liss's latest thriller, The Whiskey Rebels, due in bookstores at the end of the month (review at http://www.HistoricalNovels.info/Whiskey-Rebels.html). While I was somewhat disappointed by the novel, I found the early post-American-Revolution setting quite compelling. Popular nonfiction history about the U.S. has been selling well, too: David McCullough's books 1776 and John Adams were both bestsellers, I believe, and again rightly so. And then there's the Civil War period, which lends itself to so much wrenching drama. The old stand-by Gone With the Wind has been spawning sequels lately. And there's a whole new batch of Civil-War-era novels written from the perspective of black Americans' experiences, from Toni Morrison's Beloved (a fabulously good novel) to the recently released Sweetsmoke by David Fuller, which seems to be getting a fair amount of buzz.

I really think writers should concentrate on the time and place they are most passionately interested in, and write the best novel they know how to write. The "market" is fickle and capricious. By the time a new writer has devoted several years to writing a novel, then been through the process of finding an agent and a publisher, and then through the whole editing and publishing process, the "market" is more likely than not to have moved on from whatever enthusiasm was gripping it when the writer first conceived of the story. A cracking good novel in an undiscovered or out-of-style setting always has a better chance of success than a limply written "me-too" novel that appears after the craze for a particular setting has peaked.
Browse over 5000 historical novel listings (probably well over 5000 by now, but I haven't re-counted lately) and over 700 reviews at www.HistoricalNovels.info

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Divia
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Post by Divia » Mon September 15th, 2008, 10:10 pm

Interesting points everyone has made.


I guess I"ll just have to plug away and hope and pray that its good enough to see print. *fingers crossed*

But I do agree that there are some very itneresting women in American HIstory who are never touched on and never explored. Can anyone reacall a HF novel on Susan B. Anthony?
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donroc
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Post by donroc » Mon September 15th, 2008, 10:26 pm

Not Susan B. Anthony, but Irving Stone wrote the dual biographical novel of Abigail and John Adams, Those who Love, Rachael and Andrew Jackson, The President's Lady, and another about Jesse Fremont, Immortal Wife.

Peggy Eaton might be worth a novel.
Julia Morgan too.
Image

Bodo the Apostate, a novel set during the reign of Louis the Pious and end of the Carolingian Empire.

http://www.donaldmichaelplatt.com
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXZthhY6 ... annel_page

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Margaret
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Post by Margaret » Mon September 15th, 2008, 10:58 pm

Divia, try Marge Piercy's Sex Wars. Luridly titled, yes, but Piercy is not really a lurid writer, and she does good historical research. It's about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Victoria Woodhull, as well as a fictional Jewish character who makes condoms for a living. I'm not aware of an adult novel with Susan B. Anthony as the sole central focus, though.
Browse over 5000 historical novel listings (probably well over 5000 by now, but I haven't re-counted lately) and over 700 reviews at www.HistoricalNovels.info

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Divia
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Post by Divia » Mon September 15th, 2008, 11:10 pm

I saw that once, but never read it. Maybe I should give it a go
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Calgal
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Post by Calgal » Mon September 15th, 2008, 11:21 pm

I can't speak for trends in the publishing industry, but I can think offhand of at least two reasons why American history might seem less enticing than European:
1. European history is much longer and much more complex.
2. The settings possible for European are much handsomer with all those stone buildings, walled cities, astonishing cathedrals, castles, and ruins.

That said, the human experiences in American history have as much potential for drama as anything in Europe. We have wars, heroism, cruelty, stupidity, genocide, power struggles, greed, idealism, you name it. We don't have the same kinds of myths, but we make up for it by incorporating myths from around the world as well as our own native American myths. What we lack in ancient buildings we make up for at least partially in scenery, not as compressed as European scenery but fairly imposing. And we do have our melting pot, our thrust toward individualism and personal freedom.

I'm hoping in a very selfish way that my own stories based on American history do find a publisher. They begin with Englishmen--more or less the outcasts of the land--creating a new way of thinking and living. Even a short time away from the class constraints of Europe created an opportunity for the people who settled this country to grow more freely. This most successful land grab had its flaws, but it is the history we have to deal with.

If the public is not so interested in American history, it may be that we need more and better books, but it is entirely chauvinist to think our 400 years under European influence can match the 2000 years of Europe.

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