If there’s one thing I’ve learned from years of writing and publishing historical fiction it’s that historical fiction is a genre that is beloved by both readers and writers. As I’ve said before, there’s something satisfying about taking pieces from the past and weaving them into a story that helps us see that the more things change the more they stay the same. A great work of historical fiction shows the differences (and the similarities) between then and now.
The problem with writing historical fiction, or any fiction, is finding markets to submit your work. Submitting historical fiction can seem more difficult for the obvious reason that not all journals publish it. There are several reasons why some publications choose not to publish historical fiction. The most obvious is that it simply isn’t the taste of all editors, and that’s fair enough. Everyone has personal preferences, likes and dislikes, and for editors that carries through in their decisions about what to publish in their journals. I know that’s certainly true on The Copperfield Review. And some shudder at the words ‘historical fiction’ because it conjures visions of 800 page detail-inflicted, plot-lacking tomes. Although it’s not an accurate reflection of the plot-driven, richly constructed historical stories being written today, I forgive them. Some editors simply may not realize what a large market there is for historical fiction. I’ve received so many e-mails over the years from both contributors and readers thanking me for keeping CR going because it’s the one place they turn back to for well-written historical short stories.
One interesting issue with historical fiction, perhaps more than other genres, is that there’s never been a definition of the genre that works for everyone. There is no one-size-fits-all explanation. The Historical Novel Society defines historical fiction as a work written by someone who wasn’t alive when the events happened. Others argue that historical fiction can be written about the past as recently as the Vietnam War or the 1980s if the writer uses a historical perspective (as if they’re looking at the era through a telescope) to illuminate the story. Historical fiction can also be categorized under various names, sometimes era-specific such as Civil War fiction, sometimes under different genre labels such as historical romance, inspirational fiction, or literary fiction. Historical fiction can cross boundaries between genres such as fantasy and mystery. There is even alternative historical fiction, which is written with a “What if?” premise: what if the South won the Civil War? Then some would argue that alternative historical fiction isn’t historical fiction at all because there’s no history in the “What if?” premise. If it didn’t happen, they say, you can’t label it history. I’m inclined to agree.
There are so many ways to write historical fiction that sometimes it can be hard to categorize, and one thing I’ve noticed about certain editors is that they’re big fans of categorizing and labeling. Which shelf in the bookstore would this work fit into? If they can’t tell, they’re probably not interested. But while some editors like work that is genre specific, others don’t like work that is too broad. How do you know who is who and what is what and where to submit? The best way to figure it out is to look at past copies of the magazines you’re interested in and see what they publish.
In other words, the way you find markets for your historical fiction is the same way you find markets for your other writing—you search. And search. And search some more. As with any submission, don’t take a guidebook’s information as the final word about a journal’s submission guidelines. While many guidebooks are diligent about keeping their databases up to date, journals can change their guidelines suddenly. Be sure to visit each journal’s website to see the most up-to-date information. And please, please follow the guidelines. There is nothing more annoying to an editor than a submission that doesn’t follow the guidelines. You’re going to have to trust me on this. The guidelines are there for a reason—mainly to make the editors’ lives easier as they deal with hundreds of submissions—and authors who don’t take the few extra moments are simply not going to receive the same consideration others will. Think of it this way: every day editors receive many reasons to say no to many writers. You want your submission to stand out from the crowd, and you want to make it easier for the editors to say yes to you.
To have the best luck finding markets for your historical fiction, have a clear vision of the audience for your work. Is your work going to appeal to Civil War enthusiasts? Look for military or even Civil War specific magazines, both online and in print. They’re out there. Is it a historical/mystery crossover, or a historical/literary work? Then look for mystery magazines or more traditional literary magazines. Journals that publish literary fiction may be interested in your story even if they don’t specifically publish historical fiction. Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent was marketed as a literary novel rather than an historical novel even though it is very much an historical novel.
Sometimes writers submit chapters of their unpublished historical novels instead of submitting short stories written as independent pieces. This can be good, if the excerpt is strong, but it can also be a problem if the pages can’t stand alone. It’s a problem I see often at Copperfield. Now, I should say that the guidelines at Copperfield say that we accept novel excerpts, which we do, but it also says the excerpt has to stand alone as a short story. Too often we’ve had to turn authors away because their submission left too many unanswered questions while the work missed the flow of a stand-alone narrative. As with any type of fiction, the work the historical writer submits must have believable characters and meaningful dialogue that pushes the plot forward, a conflict that is somehow resolved, an ending that brings the pieces together, in other words, everything the laws of drama dictate a well-written story should contain. Submitting several pages of historical research with a character or two without intention or meaning will not go over well with editors whether they publish historical fiction or not. That isn’t to say that you should avoid submitting novel excerpts (I submitted two excerpts to Muse Apprentice Guild, with a positive result). Just keep in mind that if you’re going to do so be sure that the excerpt stands on its own as a complete story.
There are markets that publish historical fiction. Really. It’s simply a matter of taking the time to do the research to find journals that are open to such submissions, finding exactly the right journals for your kind of historical fiction, and making sure that your historical story is as strong as it can be.