Last week was a time of several firsts for me. For the first time, I traveled by train, rolling out of a station in Virginia with a suitcase that was at least twice as big and twice as heavy as it needed to be, to take my first cab ride in Washington, D.C., to attend the Romance Writers of America National Conference, also for the first time. I met wonderful writers like RITA nominated Joanna Bourne and Kimberly Killion and far too many others to list for the first time, and talked and laughed face-to-face for the first time with online critique partners I considered my friends long before I knew what they looked like. I met authors who’d just received their first New York call, authors who’d topped best-seller lists, and authors who’ve yet to receive the coveted “call”. I even experienced my first grown-up fire drill. As a teacher, I’m used to herding two dozen kids from a classroom once a month. But when the alarm sounded on Saturday afternoon in the middle of Sherry Thomas’ wonderful session on putting “sizzle” into your characters, I honestly thought it was a part of the presentation until I noticed the confusion on her face.
What was not a first for me was the discussion of what’s hot in publishing. This topic comes up almost anytime authors get together. And I must admit, it’s tempting to want to follow the trends. As I sat in a PRO retreat session with a panel of agents and editors and listened to the words “steam punk” and “urban fantasy”, my mind started ticking away reasons why the Civil War-based adventure I’m plotting as a companion to my first historical, Destiny, might be better if I figure out a way to take my hero out of the Union Army and into the world of “steam punk” (which I vaguely understood after one of the editors gave the movie Wild, Wild West as an example of one aspect of steam punk – ironically, I viewed that movie with dismayed amazement that Kenneth Branagh had reduced himself to playing a sawed-off lunatic with a ridiculously over-the-top Southern drawl, but that’s just me, I suppose). Throughout the conference, I heard pronouncements that westerns are perhaps not dead but comatose, Regency-era historicals are hot (the number of books with the name Mr. Darcy in the title are a clear indicator of this fact), and Scottish medievals are hot (but for some reason, other medievals are not as popular). Paranormals are scorching, especially if you can find a way to stick in a zombie or two. (No, I’m not making this up, and I hadn’t had any martinis before the sessions.) And young adult, well, if someone figures out a way to write a werewolf version of Twilight that doesn’t bring Teen Wolf to mind, they’ll really have it made!
So, my question is, which came first, the trend or the marketing? Civil War historical romances are virtually non-existent these days. A few presses, such as the Wild Rose Press, publish novels set during the Civil War, but if a New York publisher has put one out recently, it’s missed my radar entirely. I did an Amazon search on Civil War historical romances and came up with a some small-pub books and a few from Harlequin and Dell that date back to the 1990s. Yet, when I started reading historical romances in the 1990s, you couldn’t walk into a bookstore without seeing a rack of books set during the Civil War. Major authors such as Heather Graham wrote Civil War era books. Then, like a species undergoing extinction, the sub-genre vanished. Why? Were there too many books in this subgenre? Did authors try so hard to churn out Civil War books that they wrote books that weren’t from the heart? Did the quality of stories being produced turn off readers? If I had more time, and wished to truly distract myself from writing, I’m sure I could delve into that question in great depth. I don’t have time to spare for in-depth research, so I’m just going with my gut on this, but I do think that’s what happens. Just as with movies and television networks, there’s a feast or famine mentality. How many reality shows does one truly need? How many versions of Law & Order or CSI are truly necessary to sate the audience’s appetite? With each copycat, the quality tends to suffer just a bit. Think of Jaws. By Jaws V, I was rooting for the shark. Any shark clever enough to actually stalk and kill people on the shark equivalent of a hit list deserves a good meal. How about the Mummy? Loved the Mummy, tolerated the Mummy 2, and questioned the sanity of the producers who bought the script for Mummy 3. I think you get my point. The same is true for books. When everyone’s rushing to produce the “hot” product, some of the product winds up lukewarm at best.
There may be authors out there who can write books solely for the purpose of getting published and making money and do it well, but I believe the vast majority of writers have to pen stories that come from the heart. I’m one of those who has to feel my story. I enjoy reading Regency romances and the occasional paranormal, but I don’t quite have the feel for the mores and social norms of early nineteenth-century England needed to write a convincing Regency romance. My first love is American history, particularly from the Civil War to World War II. As time goes on, I might branch out and explore non-American settings and the Regency period, but for now, I’m drawn to American heroes and American history. The stories flow – the only problem I have is clearing the space in my busy life to get them on my hard drive.
So, as authors, do we follow our hearts or follow the trends? The problem with following trends is this: even if you force yourself to fit the current mold, what’s hot now might not be hot in two or three years, when your book will be due out. With few exceptions, this is a fact of life.
I find great reason to be encouraged to follow my heart. New authors have recently broken through with historical romances set in ancient China (Golden Heart Winner Jeannie Lin’s Butterfly Swords), World War II (Kristina McMorris’ Letters from Home), and late-Victorian England and India (Sherry Thomas’ Not Quite a Husband). The publication of books with diverse settings (with nary a zombie in sight) gives me hope to pursue my own dream and write from the heart.
What are your feelings on following trends in publishing? I’d love to know what you think.