If you’re writing a novel to mark the anniversary of a historical event – perhaps the most unmovable deadline there is – you may find these tips from Carolyn O’Brien, who learned them the hard way, will help you succeed.
When my debut novel The Song of Peterloo was published in August 2019 to coincide with the bicentenary of the infamous massacre, it was nothing short of a personal triumph: the achievement of a cherished ambition which, at times, had seemed hopelessly optimistic. It is hard enough to write good historical fiction, but to time publication to a particular date is another level of challenge altogether. For anyone game enough to try, here is what I discovered to be the key to success.
Passion: the necessary perseverance for a time-sensitive project comes from personal investment in the story.
Peterloo represents both a terrible moment in the history of Manchester – a gathering of 60,000 peaceful protesters for political reform was set upon by the authorities, resulting in at least 18 deaths – as well as an important milestone in the history of our democracy.
But for me, as a Mancunian, it has deeply personal resonance too: one side of my family were Lancashire cotton workers and a number of my ancestors may well have been at the meeting. When I first learned of the atrocity, as an incredulous sixth-former, I was enraged by how few people seemed aware of those brave reformers; it was an anger that stayed with me.
During the extraordinary political tumult of 2016 and the divisions wreaked both by austerity and the Brexit debate, Peterloo and the fight for democracy suddenly seemed more relevant than ever – a story for our times. As an aspiring writer, it was a story I was determined to tell, and I hoped the imminence of the bicentenary might help me catch the eye of a publisher.
Time: you need to give yourself plenty of it; as an unrepresented debut novelist, I discovered the bare minimum, from the beginning of the project to publication, was three years.
From the outset, the implacable deadline was both a blessing and a curse. Without doubt, the prize of a novel published in time for the bicentenary was as motivating as it was tantalising. However, as a debut novelist without an agent or publisher, time was not on my side.
I decided I must write and research in tandem – a pragmatic approach, but one which I discovered best served my creative impulse, as well as saving time. I managed a first draft within five months. It was good progress. But after a year and a couple more drafts, I was increasingly conscious of the timing imperative and anxious to submit to agents.
The manuscript, however, was not ready. The inevitable rejections ensued. I wrote and re-wrote, passed to beta readers, sought editorial input. Nevertheless, by the time I was receiving serious interest, including an agent offer, it was with the crushingly disappointing caveat, I would not hit the bicentenary.
Flexibility: if a big publishing deal isn’t possible in the time-frame, consider different models, including self-publishing.
It was clear I needed to take another approach. I began to investigate smaller press, in particular those open to submissions from unrepresented writers, as well as to look into the possibility of self-publication.
Top of my list of publishers was Legend Press, a highly regarded independent. Fortunately for me, they loved the story and appreciated the commercial opportunity of the bicentenary, so that in January 2019, just as I had resigned myself to self-publication, I received my dream offer to expedite the process and publish in August.
Connections: build relationships with other people interested in marking the anniversary; these contacts will prove invaluable in terms of research assistance, support and a ready-made readership for your work.
Throughout, I connected with people passionate about Peterloo. Most significantly, I attended networking sessions held by Manchester Histories, the charity charged with co-ordinating the bicentenary commemorations. There was a great inspiring buzz about these meetings which were open to anyone interested in contributing to the programme including artists and musicians, as well as representatives from libraries, galleries, and museums.
It was at one of these events that I met a stalwart of the brilliant Peterloo Memorial Campaign who offered to read an early draft and helped boost my confidence in the accuracy of my story.
Social media was important too and I made lots of connections on Twitter, including the historian Jacqueline Riding, who advised Mike Leigh on his film Peterloo and published her own non-fiction history, Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre. She was extremely supportive and ultimately provided my novel with a wonderful endorsement.
Make it public: with a time-critical project, it can help to add extra levels of ‘accountability’.
I can still hardly believe that at an early stage in the process, I stood up in one of the crowded Peterloo networking sessions to announce I’d written a novel – though I’ll always be glad I did. From then on, there was a sense of ‘no turning back’ and an extra motivation to work hard on the book to make it good enough for publication in time.
Seize the marketing opportunity: it’s important to have a plan to make the most of the interest in the anniversary and beyond.
Through my association with Manchester Histories, I secured two slots on the city’s bicentenary events programme, one of which included an exciting musical collaboration performed at the city’s Central Library only a stone’s throw away from the scene of the massacre itself.
I also had Legend’s dynamic marketing team behind me, arranging all the usual launch events and interviews with local and national press, as well as a high profile display in the Waterstones flagship Manchester store.
While writing to an anniversary might appear to have the downside of a single, limited flurry of interest, in truth, this is arguably no more the case than for any novel which needs to make a splash in its first month or so.
Besides, any historical event of import, like Peterloo, remains interesting beyond a given date. There’s also a built-in opportunity to re-market on subsequent anniversaries too, as I’ve recently discovered, a year after publication.
Carolyn O’Brien was born in south Manchester and lives in nearby Altrincham. She is a consultant lawyer and writer.
The Song of Peterloo header and cover: © Legend Press
The Peterloo Massacre, a coloured engraving by Richard Carlile: via Wikimedia
The Massacre of Peterloo or Britons Strike Home, a caricature by George Cruikshank: via Wikimedia
Manchester Central Library: via Wikimedia