The following article about writing for the Black Horse Western series appears in the latest issue of the magazine Freelance Market News. Details on how to subscribe to this informative monthly newsletter can be found here
You’ve written short stories, perhaps sold one or two, but now you’re keen to take on a different challenge. Or maybe you’re setting out on your writing adventure and your ideas for a popular novel are becoming irresistible. You eye the racks of paperbacks at your newsagent and reckon that a typescript of, say, 40,000 words or more, is something you can handle. It’s time for serious market research.
And you quickly learn some hard facts. In a typical year, editors at Mills and Boon receive two thousand unsolicited typescripts. Of these, they may buy twenty. Many publishing houses will look at submissions only from agents, and agents are hard to find. Publishers who still maintain a slush pile reduce its height by regular deliveries to the local recycling centre.
But, hey, we’re freelance writers and we don’t give up easily. So whether you intend one day to write a crime story set in 21st century London or a romantic novel featuring Regency Bath you may choose to get started by following my trail.
The market I discovered is hungry for new contributors. You’ll have the chance to sharpen your prose style, hone your research skills and improve your plotting. You’ll be earning money as you prepare yourself to tackle the big book later on.
Next time you’re in your local library, look out for Black Horse Westerns published by Robert Hale Ltd. On their colourful jackets you’ll find dozens of tough-sounding pseudonyms, Tex this, and Dan that, covering the true identities of the authors, both men and women. In this market all are equal.
Robert Hale Ltd publish 72 Black Horse Westerns every year and market them in editions intended primarily for public libraries. A typical stock editor for a public library will buy each month half a dozen copies of selected editions to meet the steady demand from library users young and old. Follow some basic rules and your chances of acceptance by the publisher, therefore, are good.
Half a dozen stories, carefully analyzed, will get you started. The possible settings for your stories seem endless. From cattle drives to Comanches, range wars to railroads, homesteaders to horse-thieves, all should set your creative mind bursting with ideas.
You know nothing of the 19th century American West? Then think of crime-writer Dorothy L. Sayers. When her book The Nine Tailors was published she was invited to head the nation’s campanologists, such was her apparent skill at bell-ringing. She declined, admitting that she’d never touched a bell-rope in her life.
So solid research is called for. A good idea is to set your first novel in a particular State or Territory (you’ll soon learn the difference!) you’re studying. Careful reading will help you make informed references to flora and fauna, local laws, and, say, local trades.
The more you read the more material you’ll be able to use. In separate books I’ve featured three real people who travelled from Victorian England to the American West – Morley Roberts, writer and adventurer, Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to qualify as a doctor in the USA, and Isabella Bird, a maiden lady who hunted across the English shires and later showed the men of Truckee, Colorado how to stay in the saddle for six hours during a round-up of wild cattle.
Get hold of a copy of Dictionary of the American West (Wordsworth) and search second-hand bookshops for Denis McLaughlin’s The Encyclopedia of the Old West. Both books provide facts, figures, and western slang words and phrases. While we’re on that subject don’t worry too much about the speech patterns of your characters. Nineteenth century cowboys and gunslingers didn’t follow Hollywood scripts. Use the internet to track down details of contemporary weapons, and search old newspapers for the advertisements for button-boots and, say, mail-order brides. If you plan to feature a cattle-drive, download Andy Adams’s contemporary account The Log of a Cowboy from the Project Guttenberg website. But don’t allow the research to overwhelm the story. Black Horse Westerns call for action and lots of it!
Your typescript should not exceed 45,000 words. For my first Black Horse Western, Lannigan’s Star, I found it useful to have fifteen chapters. I’ve maintained this plan up to my sixth book, Trail to Fort Laramie, published a few months ago.
The publisher is best approached with a synopsis and three sample chapters in hard copy. Include a s.a.e. for a reply. You may choose to write the full novel before making this approach or wait for a reply before setting to work. From the beginning I chose the latter course, although after my first book was published I dropped the sample chapters. If your work shows promise you’ll get a personal answer from Mr John Hale.
On one occasion his good advice sent me back to the desk to rewrite a synopsis that eventually led to my third book, Stage to Cheyenne. You’ll be pleased to learn that Robert Hale Ltd answers your query promptly – usually within a week.
How long you take to produce the finished typescript is up to you. Black Horse Westerns have been written in less than a month. Programmed in with my other writing I usually take about eight weeks.
Your initial payment will be modest, as with most apprenticeships. But that first cheque is just the start. A yarn good enough to attract the publishers of Large Print editions will prompt further cheques. Five of my six novels have their Large Print editions. (I’m still pondering on the fate of the missing one!)
A further asset is the Public Lending Right (PLR). Each time your book is borrowed from a public library PLR credits 5.98 pence to you as author. The sum, paid annually in February, soon mounts up. Now that PLR is being extended to the Republic of Ireland I’m hoping that the Irish are keen western fans!
One final piece of advice. The readers at Robert Hale Ltd can spot the author ‘writing down’ at fifty paces. Treat your western as seriously as that planned crime story or that Regency novel. Like the cowboy mounting the unbroken mustang you’ll not be short of challenges. You may be in for a bumpy ride but hard work, careful research, and lots of writing (count those words daily!) will, I promise, lead to publication.
Opening the publisher’s box of six complimentary copies of your first western takes some beating. The trail to success is open before you.
Jack Edwardes has had six of his Westerns published by Robert Hale Ltd. They have recently approved his synopsis for the seventh. Jack has now been encouraged to write a full length crime novel. Additionally, he has had historical articles published and a number of articles have appeared in a writers’ magazine.
(c) Freelance Market News 2009
(With thanks to Nik Morton for forwarding a copy of the newsletter)