Monday, April 12, 2010

What's in a Name?

Genre Fiction

Names are important for a variety of reasons. On an elemental level, they help avoid confusion: (you're George, he's Freddie). Linnaeus understood this and, as a result, we have a universal system for classifying organisms. This system allows a botanist in Australia to communicate with a colleague in Ulan Bator and both will understand they're talking about the same plant. It works for animals as well.

In humans, names accomplish a great deal more. They carry social and psychological consequences. They establish identity. Society takes names seriously. In almost every culture there is a naming ceremony for a newborn child. It's a ritual complete with all the trappings of any serious cultural ceremony.

Once the ceremony is over, the child is more or less stuck for life with the name. Depending upon the popularity of that name, the child will either ride that name to the crest of popularity, build what's commonly called "character" by fighting against it until he or she can rise above it, or be shunned by the peer group. For example, consider one girl given a family name, such as DaLoyd or Brownda, and another given a currently popular name, such as Emma or Anna. Their future course is already charted before they're out of diapers.

The Segue

If you write historical fiction, you may feel a bit like the first example in the preceding paragraph. Where do your books fit in B and N? That's the first question an agent will ask you when you pitch your manuscript. Do they fit anywhere? You stammer and stumble and your answer sounds like a cross between an apology and an argument.

"My book is a cross between X and Y" or "My book is A meets B."

You can't answer the question, because there's no place for your book. You're the also ran, the wannabe. Genre fiction labels books to make things convenient for the publisher, the book store, and the reading public. Where's the lobby for Historical Fiction? Why are we the DaLoyds and Browndas of the trade?

Bookstores have sections for mysteries, romances, occasionally Westerns, and then the vast dumping ground labeled "literature." Most historical fiction finds itself consigned to this area, and this makes finding titles in your specific period, let alone historical fiction as a whole, Sherlockian.


The minor question: How do you find works of historical fiction when you browse Amazon, B and N, Borders, or your Indie book store? How do you learn what authors you're going to love or hate?

The major question: How will you ensure your title stands out amongst the thousands of books moldering away in the general lit stacks?


monica said...

This question is very appropriate for me since I have an MA in Writing Popular Fiction
from Seton Hill University. All while I attended the program -- and since-- I have noticed a stigma against genre fiction. People seem to think that it is somehow a lesser form of writing since it is "popular".

The other thing I noticed is the need to label every manuscript.

I write historical fiction-- years of research and then the writing process happens. Ususlly thgere is a relationship between a man and a woman. Does it make it a romance? No, though there are elements of romance.

I've also written a romance (short story) set in the 17th Cemntury. Is it historical fiction or romance? How about historical fiction with elements of romance. Or Romance with the basics of historical fiction.

People are label crazy-- in fashion, in our jobs and in writing.

I don't think it will change anything you have written, but each of us has to be aware and very careful about the labels we attach to our manuscripts, especially when we submit to agents and editors. They might be expecting one thing, and your label may say something else.

How do I find HistFic-- I usually look at titles and covers, check the back blurb and I might open the book to read the first page.

How will I make sure my title stands out? Since I'm not published I can only guess. Make sure the title is catchy and the subject is not something that has been done to death.

Best Regards,

Anonymous said...

I'm a little torn on this topic as I actually believe that historical fiction is on an upswing and will soon gain the ability to sustain a classification to call home - but it will require work.

When I walk into a B&N/Borders today, I should find my HF novels in the 300-acre void known as the all-encompassing "FICTION" shelves.

But, it is important to realize that other fiction genres like Romance, Science Fiction and Mystery novels did not start out with their own 'labeled' categories. Consumer demand drove the booksellers to clearly identify these genres because the customer wanted it.

As HF novelist, we must lead the charge for a HF category to be delineated within the Fiction realm. It is an acheivable goal and one which (thanks to the demand for all things Tudor lately) the purchasing public is seeking. As it is for all things in like - the squeeky wheel gets the grease...and we must become veeeeery squeeky.

Marie Whelan
Novelist of Colonial and Revolutionary War Historical Fiction

csmith said...

I pick books up by their covers. Yes, it is a shameful admission, but I pick up historical novels because they look like historical novels. I'll then read the back copy and the first few pages, and if I like that, I'll buy it. I've only been stung once by this process, and it was because there was little way I would have realise that I was picking up 1000 pages of misogynistic and poorly researched garbage by reading the first few pages.

Erastes said...

Well, mine will stand out, if I succeed in getting them INTO the shops (only Transgressions is readily available in USA bookstores and hasn't hit the UK at all) because they are gay historicals and there really aren't that many of them!

As to how I find the books I want, I just use the tags and search options.

Dr John Yeoman said...

I follow authors rather than genres. How would you classify Peter Ackroyd's novels? The House of Dr Dee is neither histfict nor sci-fi nor mystery nor neo-gothic but a unique blend of all of them.

What about The Name of the Rose? Ditto (albeit, without the sci-fi).

Publishers like genre titles because it rescues them from the dump bin at back of the shop labelled Literature. Problem is, that's where the best books are!

Mirella Sichirollo Patzer said...

Hello Karen and fellow bloggers,

I'm pleased to be part of this fab group of historical fiction writers.

A little about me!

I've been researching and writing a novel about the first Queen of German in the 10th Century. Book 1 is complete and Book 2 is in the works.
So I'm pretty comfortable in that era!

But I'm also writing and researching novels in the early 18th century New France and 13th century Tuscany.

I am an avid blogger. Mostly, my passion is to blog about bios about historical women. But I also do Italian historical blogs and other types of historical research posts.

I look forward to jumping in whenever there is a topic I can contribute to!

And I'm pretty good at the blog decorating and template and HTML Code. So don't be afraid to ask if you need some help.

It's going to be great fun.

Anne Gilbert said...


The whole "genre fiction" thing is problematic. I once heard the science fiction writer Greag Bear complain about this: some genres(especially science fiction and romance) get "dissed". That's because there is a stereotype that only nerdy adolescent boys read science fiction(not true) and (b)romance is written by and for women, so it can't possibly be Truly Great Literature, as women can't possibly write Truly Great Literature of any kind. But even mysteries and "thrillers" get shortchanged this way, because they're well, "popular" and "popular" fiction just isn't "good" fiction. This is the sort of reaction that sometimes comes from people who have been trained in English Lit departments or the like. And yes, this is still a problem

As to historical fiction, I've noticed this same thing, even in my own public library system. For example, back in January or February, there was a little section of shelves devoted to historical fiction. While it was up, I scoured the shelves and found some things I really liked. Unfortunately, the librarians, in their infinite wisdom, took the shelves down, and substituted Black History Month novels, or fiction written by women. Oddly enough, these special shelves included a certain aount of historical fiction, though less of it was of interest to me. OTOH, since I read across a wide variety of genres, I can often get around this, or if necessary, I will just get what I want, by author, on or some similar source.

I should point out that classification is a problem, especially if, as I am doing, you are writing historical fiction that has other elements. My novel is historical fiction, but there is a definite science fiction element in it(no, it's not "alternative history"; I hate most "alternative history"). It also has strong romance elements in it, though by the usual definition of "romance" these days, it's not a romance. So what have I done so far? I've come up with a sort of "corssover", which is becoming more common these days. I call it "romantic science fiction" whith emphasis on "science fiction". I also make it plain -- I have a blurb to this effect -- that it takes place in very real historical time, with a lot of historical people and events, in medieval England. I doubt if I could have written it any other way. Now, to convince some agentt. . . .

YA Librarian said...

I like genres. It makes things easier on me and my teen patrons. Sure there will be some mixing of the genres, but that's fine.

I also pick my books by the covers. If it looks historical I'll snag it. That's why the headless women covers appeal to me. They're mostly historical so it makes my life easier. Of course is the summary sounds bad I'll toss it aside and move onto a new book.

The World of the Blue Bells Trilogy said...

I'm going to ride the fence here, not something I normally like to do! I think labeling serves a function: it gives readers a way to find what they like among millions of titles. As Anne says, however, there are so many crossovers. Life has many facets; so, too, does the fiction which represents it.

My own novel has the paranormal element of time travel. But I don't consider it a time travel story so much as one of character, flaws, transformation, how we deal with crisis. It has adventure and history, with half of it being set in medieval Scotland in the days before a great battle, but it probably wouldn't fit well in the adventure genre. It has elements of romance, but is not in that genre.

It has been interesting to watch genres evolve to account for the many varieties of fiction. Recently, I came across 'visionary fiction,' which I found exciting, as it is probably a very good category for my sequels.

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