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Making Your Future Out of the Past:
How to Break into the Burgeoning History Market

by Sean McLachlan

Many writers rush about looking for the latest trends or events, or wrack their brains trying to find new twists to old ideas. While the publishing industry always rewards the new and innovative, it's good to remember there's a vast storehouse of fascinating stories waiting for you in the past. History is a strong seller and offers a great way to break into magazine and book writing. Many newspapers and magazines are open to historical articles, and there are numerous periodicals that specialize in history. This can kick-start your career and send you up the ladder from local newspapers to magazines to small and midlist presses and beyond! Here are some things to remember.

What Sells, What Doesn't

Some historical subjects sell better than others. Local history tends to have a small potential market, but state history flies off the shelves, at least in that particular state. Military history does well, but interest varies depending on the specific topic. While Civil War and World War Two tend to be big sellers (just how many books and articles are there about D-Day?), World War One and the Mexican-American War attract less attention. Biographies about unknown people tend not to attract editorial interest unless they can be linked to greater events, like some previously little-known contributor to the writing of the Constitution. Articles on important figures such as Henry VIII need to be done from a fresh angle, or bring to light new research and discoveries.

Finding Interesting Twists

History writing should not simply be a rehash of old stories told a hundred times before. This is where primary sources--original letters, diaries, and other documents--become your best asset. Look for interesting details that earlier writers haven't emphasized. Did you know St. Louis was planned and laid out by a 14 year-old boy? Or that an altar to the pagan goddess Victory stood in the Roman Senate for years after the empire had supposedly converted to Christianity? Odd facts such as these add zest to your narrative and are remembered by your readers long after most of the names and dates have faded from their minds.

Get Known as a Specialist, but Remain a Generalist

Building up expertise in a field will not only make it easier to write articles and books, but will get you more of them. It's best to choose a topic you are passionate about so your interest doesn't flag, and also make sure it's a topic sufficiently broad to allow you to look at it from different angles in various markets. For example, I started researching Missouri history for Missouri Life magazine, which led me to write a general history of the state, a collection of interesting tales from its past for young adults, and a book on its outlaws. This research also informed a book I'm working on about Civil War guerrillas (of which Missouri had the deadliest) and my next novel, which takes place in 1864 in central Missouri. By being open to writing about all periods and aspects of the state's history, it has become a bit of a cottage industry for me as well as leading to related books and articles on broader topics.

Think of Spinoffs

Chances are you'll gather far more material than you can include in your final article. Don't let that research go to waste! You can use these bits of information for other articles. If you've written a book, breaking off some of the information for magazine articles is a great way to market your work and gain some extra money and clips. You might even have enough material for another book, perhaps on a specific aspect or period you didn't have the space to cover fully the first time around, or maybe you can rework the text to a different market, such as young adults.

Learn about your Resources

Much of what you need for research may be closer than you think. University libraries usually have thousands of books on history, and with interlibrary loan you can get books from other institutions that your library doesn't have. Also check out the state, county, or municipal historical societies for their collections of books and primary sources. Original diaries, letters, and newspapers are goldmines of interesting information and stories. Read widely in your chosen field so that you know what has been covered and what hasn't, which sources are reputable and which aren't, and who is publishing in your subject. Also don't forget other historians, both professional and amateur. Re-enactors and park rangers, while usually not specifically trained as historians, are often very knowledgeable about certain subjects and eager to share their expertise. For example, Carolyn Bartels, a.k.a. "The Civil War Book Lady", specializes in Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi theatre and gains her information through a large network of professional and amateur historians, re-enactors, and genealogists.

Build off your Magazine Reputation

Newspapers and local and regional magazines are usually hungry for historical pieces. By getting some acceptances there, not only will you get a regular market for your work, but valuable clips you can show book publishers. This can tip the balance between an acquisitions editor saying no to an unknown writer and saying yes to one with a proven track record. You also have the advantage of creating working relationships with periodicals editors that can lead to assignments for stories outside of history. Lise Hull got started writing a travel column for Ninnau, the North American Welsh newspaper. Her first piece was on Welsh castles, followed by several articles on the subject for that and other publications. These clips helped her land the first of several book contracts based on her knowledge of the British Isles and castles. Now she has publishers contacting her.

Be Aware of Controversy

History is a contentious field. Scholars and laymen alike argue incessantly about who was the better president, what culture was more advanced during a particular period, and so on. Some topics, such as Islamic history or labor history, can be minefields, but that does not mean you should shy away from them. Just be aware that when you write about these topics to back up your work with solid research. That won't save you from attacks by hostile readers and fellow writers, but if you write what you believe and stick to your guns, you will gain a reputation as a solid writer, and nothing encourages sales like a bit of controversy.

Market Listings

Below are several history magazine markets, including one market that publishes ten magazines. All of their websites have detailed contributor's guidelines. It's generally best to query with a proposal rather than spending the time writing an article they may not be interested in. And, as always, read the magazine before querying.

Renaissance Magazine: A magazine targeted towards re-enactors of the Late Medieval and Renaissance periods. While they do publish straight history articles, it's best to have articles be of direct use to re-enactors. Such articles in the past have included pieces on costume, armor, and the culture of the period. Average feature length 2,000 words. Pays $.10/word on publication. Prefers e-subs/queries.
Address: One Controls Dr., Shelton CT, 06484 Email: editortom@renaissancemagazine.com Website: http://www.renaissancemagazine.com

Reminisce Magazine: Dedicated to preserving the memory of the America that was, this magazine mostly publishes first-person nostalgia of life in the U.S. before the days of computers and strip malls. Much of the material is from the 1940s and 50s, but is not limited to this time. Has various sections such as "Motoring Memories." Maximum length 750 words. This is a photo-heavy publication, so having an old-time photo will help your submission's chances. Nonpaying market, but a good way to turn a cherished memory into a nice clip.
Address: Reminisce, 5927 Memory Lane, Greendale WI 53129 Email: editors@reminisce.com Website: http://www.reminisce.com

American Heritage: Devoted to American history, the editors especially like articles showing how the American experience is different from that of other countries, and with some link to the present. Past articles have included profiles of prominent and unknown Americans, military history, technology, entertainment, culture, even an article on how pizza became so popular. Max length 6,000 words. Rates vary, pays on acceptance.
Address: Richard Snow, 90 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10011 Email: mail@americanheritage.com Website: http://www.americanheritage.com

Smithsonian Magazine: Covering the natural world and history, this is a tough market to break into. The most open sections are the departments, especially The Back Page, a humor section. Other departments open to freelancers include Phenomena & Curiosities (science and nature), Points of Interest (Americana), and Presence of Mind (opinion essays). Also accepts features up to 4,000 words. Likes offbeat subjects and profiles. Submit through online query form only.
Website: http://www.smithsonianmag.com

Weider History Group: Publishers of ten magazines including America's Civil War, American History, Aviation History, British Heritage, Civil War Times, Military History Quarterly, Military History, Vietnam, Wild West, World War II. They have a constant appetite for well-written, popular level history that is exciting to the general reader. Note that British Heritage is moving away from straight history articles, but welcomes articles that have a historical bent showing how British culture became what it is today. The military magazines prefer new angles on big subjects, or coverage of little-known aspects of past wars. Payment varies, pays extra for photos.
Address: [Magazine] Story Idea, 741 Miller Dr. SE, Suite D-2, Leesburg, VA 20175 Email: see website for individual magazine's emails. Website: http://www.historynet.com

Related Articles:

How to Tell -- and Sell -- Your Ancestor's Life Story, by Susie Yakowicz
http://www.writing-world.com/freelance/ancestor.shtml

Local History: A Lucrative Niche Market, by Patricia Fry
http://www.writing-world.com/freelance/localhistory.shtml

People and Steeples: Writing Church Histories, by Wendy Hobday Haugh
http://www.writing-world.com/freelance/church.shtml

Portrait of a Relative, by Ruth Danner
http://www.writing-world.com/creative/relative.shtml

Writing for Family History Magazines, by Rosemary Bennett
http://www.writing-world.com/freelance/famhist.shtml

Copyright © 2008 Sean McLachlan
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Sean McLachlan worked for ten years as an archaeologist before becoming a full-time writer specializing in history and travel. He is the author of Byzantium: An Illustrated History (Hippocrene, 2004), It Happened in Missouri (TwoDot, 2007), and Moon Handbooks London (Avalon, 2007), among others. Visit him online at http://www.midlistwriter.blogspot.com.

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