Writing Tips

What Makes a Bestseller?

Is a bestseller created by the author, or by the publisher? Or does a book’s popularity depend upon that mystical quality: word of mouth? The answer could be all three. A book needs to be well written but also have wide appeal and be commercial to succeed. The writer’s task is to produce the best book they can. The publisher’s success is to take that product and get it out into the widest possible market, which may include supermarkets, special deals, book clubs and sales of large print or audio. But both publisher and author must work together to publicise the book so that it gets picked up by enough readers to make word-of-mouth possible. If the reader likes what she reads, she’ll spread the word among her friends, but that doesn’t let the author off the hook. Publicity and promotion is an on-going task, very demanding and, if over-done, can actually be off-putting, thereby achieving the reverse of what was intended or hoped for.

I am often asked when taking courses or giving talks, what is the secret of success? Sadly, there is no magic bullet for making a bestseller, except perhaps hard work. I have succeeded in being a Sunday Times Bestseller, although not with every book but certainly with The Amber Keeper. It’s a question of luck. Studying the market can only tell you what people liked yesterday. As an ex-bookseller I’d say there is no way to predict the next bestseller. And do publishers always choose winners? No. Despite often throwing a great deal of money at a book, it can bomb, and nobody can say why. The opposite is also true. Publishers can be good at creating winners.

Writers do have a second option. If they don’t get picked up by a publisher, or they do for a time and then get dropped, they can publish themselves, or put up their backlist for a second bite at the cherry. These are exciting times with increasing opportunities for writers. ebooks aren’t an easy road to bestseller-dom but definitely worth a try. The hard working writer has a steep learning curve to tackle, must produce a professional product, possibly without editorial expertise if they are new to the game, and an equally wonderful cover. Even then the competition is fierce, but if done well the rewards are there, albeit modest by comparison with the Sunday Times charts. We can’t all be bestsellers. But we can have fun. And fortunately, this is my latest bestseller with Lake Union Imprint. Such a treat.And it did well in Italy too, as you can see here. So exciting.

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Creating Historical Characters

Characters for historical fiction are created in the same way as for any other genre, i.e: with a major characteristic or trait, but must be made relevant and connected to the period in which they live. Don’t judge the past by modern standards. Balance your characters with good points and a flaw, which could lead to them making a mistake about their decision in life and for which the reader will feel sympathy or admiration for them. Always remember the historical mindset. To make characters believable, they must act as if they are contemporary to that time and place. For instance, they might not know that a war is looming even if the reader does. Anything they are planning might have a poignant threat of hope and interest but possible devastation to it. So long as their motivation is clear and the world in which they exist is a living breathing place, the reader will accept attitudes and actions they never would in their own.

It helps to read contemporary novels of the period if you can, to get the feel of behaviour, problems and concerns, attitude and speech. And you naturally have to put words into their mouths, so carefully check the language of that period. Some characters of the less salubrious kind if it’s a gritty historical, could be guilty of prejudice, prostitution, cruelty or whatever, for which the reader will feel no respect. We live in a world with certain demands of political correctness and moral requirements. Our society disapproves of prejudice and bigots, racialism, chauvinism, sexism, provincialism.

Remember your characters are people of their own times who may accept some of these issues. You must allow them to act according to their own standards, not yours. Don’t pass judgment on them by making excuses or being dismissive. Don’t apologize for their mistakes and don’t attempt to make them all into free thinkers who are ahead of their times. You have to be able to see the story from their perspective, even if it offends you. And if they are more of a villain to a mistaken hero, they’ll pay the cost for their dreadful behaviour.

Should you use real historical figures? Margeurite de Valois A novel about a famous historical figure may feel quite exciting and good to write. However, can the facts of their life be changed and fiction added? Can you have a woman marry if in reality she actually remained single or was captured and killed? Could your hero live in Scotland when he never left London? Are you free to change these characters and the way they lived, simply because they are dead? It is essential that you make it plain that you are adding fiction to the story of your chosen historical figure. You’re saying - What if she was able to free herself/marry/live elsewhere, survive, or whatever. Wouldn’t that have been better for her? Sometimes you are short of knowledge and have to guess what she did and why, so make that clear too. The concern is, do these historical people or their descendants still have rights? In theory they do, but if it suits the story you are writing to give them a safer or more interesting life, make sure that you do it well. Do it badly and the critics will slay you as being inaccurate, sloppy & anachronistic.

A less well known figure may seem easier to write about but not as interesting. But using real historic figures can be difficult and inflexible, making you feel constrained by the facts and details you can’t find an answer to. Readers too have their own perception of these real historical figures, sometimes wrong ones. If you feel it might be a problem to develop them in a way to suit your story, it could be much more fun to be imaginative and create your own historical figures. You could instead use genuine ones as secondary characters. In the end there are no set rules. It’s up to you. Best wishes.

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