Things I wish I’d known when I wrote my first novel – part 2

Following my post on ‘Things I wish I’d known when I wrote my first novel – part 1’, click here  I spoke to four other published authors about what they wish they’d known.

Historical novelists Deborah Swift, Alison Morton, Carol McGrath and Denise Barnes have all generously offered their words of advice.

Deborah Swift is the author of five historical novels and a historical trilogy for teens. Pleasing Mr Pepys is based on the real-life women in Pepys’ Diary and is published by Accent Press.

Deborah says: People like what they know

I shouldn’t have been surprised that The Lady’s Slipper was not a bestseller. It has been a critical success, but not a commercial one. What I didn’t know then is that, in the main, people like to buy historical fiction that they already know something about. They may be fascinated by the Tudors, enthralled by Jane Austen and the Regency period, intrigued by medieval queens.

There is no escaping the fact that some periods are more popular than others, and so writing in a popular period will give you more chance of your novel being found in the marketplace when it appears with similar books. In general, readers are risk-averse. They want to know they’ll enjoy it before they buy. So they look for the familiar, or a time or personage they know a little about. Despite all this, I’ve continued to write in little-known or unpopular periods when I can’t get the story out of my head. I favour the 17th Century, which is a fabulous period, but little known to the average reader. This means I have to live with the idea that my books might never be as well-known as similar books set in a popular era.

My latest novel, Pleasing Mr Pepys, has a character that at least some people have heard of. Here in England there was a TV drama, called The Great Fire which featured Samuel Pepys, and a Radio adaptation of his diary on Radio 4. However, in America, which is a huge market, and has a penchant for Royals, hardly anyone has heard of the diarist Samuel Pepys. And his name is awkward to read in a story if you have never heard it pronounced. So where I have gained UK readers, I may have lost US readers because they don’t know the character or the era. Of course my time may come … it only takes one hit TV series set in the 17th century, and I will be catapulted to success! (Fingers firmly crossed).

Find out more about Deborah here: 



Alison Morton writes the acclaimed Roma Nova thriller series featuring modern Praetorian heroines. She  is the author of INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO, AURELIA, INSURRECTIO and RETALIO Roma Nova alternate history thrillers – all B.R.A.G. Medallion® honorees.

She blends her deep love of Roman history with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, adventure and thriller fiction.

Alison says, ‘I wish I’d known just how complex book publishing was, whichever route you chose! Although I wrote the first draft of INCEPTIO in 90 days, I little realised there would be three years of editing, revising, rewriting and making publishing decisions before it became a printed and digital book.’

Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova site: click here
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Carol McGrath, is  the author of the Daughter’s of Hastings series and The Woman in the Shadows.

Carol says,”Patience. I learned the hard way never send to publishers or agents until the book is ready including redrafting and a clean script.’

She also says, ‘Research agents and publishers throughly before submitting.’

The value of beta readers. I was shy to share at first. Now I do and I read for others.

‘An MA is no guarantee of publication but such courses can impose writing discipline and help you find your voice.’ 

Discover more about Carol here: click here

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Denise Barnes, is the author of the Voyagers trilogy and An Orphan in the Snow under her pen name of Molly Green.

Denise says, ‘I had an idea for years about writing a novel set in 1913, and then had what I thought was a brainwave – every other chapter would be the heroine’s granddaughter in 2005. This was much too big an ambition for a first novel, which I somehow managed to complete, but at 150,000 words no agent or publisher would touch.

Three agents advised me to separate the two stories, which I did, thereby creating the first two novels of what became a trilogy. However, I would strongly recommend the new novelist keeps a simple timeline until s/he builds up some experience. And find a sympathetic and knowledgeable critique writing partner as early on in your novel as you possibly can. They are truly worth their weight in red pens!

Discover more about Denise here: click here

The Dressmaker’s Secret is to be published in paperback on 9th November 2017.

1819 Twenty-one year old Emilia Barton’s mother is murdered in Italy after a lifetime of nomadic travelling. Emilia is stunned to discover that neither of them were who she thought they were. Caught up in a web of treachery and deceit she travels to London to unravel the truth.

Pre-order now

9 thoughts on “Things I wish I’d known when I wrote my first novel – part 2”

  1. Very nicely put together post, Charlotte, and what wisdom we seem to share.
    In particular, Dee hits the nail on the head when she acknowledges that writing in an era that is not fashionable, while critically acclaimed, is not necessarily financially rewarding. But you still have to do it.

    And thank you, Denise, for referring to me as “a sympathetic and knowledgeable critique writing partner […] They are truly worth their weight in red pens!” I don’t know how much I weigh in red pens!

  2. How interesting to read other authors’ perceptions, Charlotte! I will add to them.

    In the years before being accepted for publication, think carefully about the genre in which you write your novels. I completed four novels, each in a different genre, before The Road Back, historical fiction with a love story at its heart, was published.

    The publisher wanted a second book in the same genre, but I didn’t have one, and I had to start writing one fast, given my deadline. Writing under such pressure is less than ideal.

    My advice is that when the author starts sending the novel to agents/publishers, he/she starts writing another book in that genre, or editing one if there’s already one in the pile of novels that have been written, but not published.

    Liz X

    • The time before your novels are published is a great time to experiment until you find your ‘genre home’. Once published, readers, and publishers, usually want authors to write ‘more of the same, only different’.

      At the same time it’s important for an author to continue to evolve and explore new ways to write something fresh and interesting. To avoid losing existing readers, it’s possible to take a sideways step by writing in the same genre but adding for example, a crime or psychological thriller element. Existing readers will still be happy but you may find a new readership, too.


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