re: Is the Vietnam Era a Publishing Black Hole?

in General fiction/Submissions/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I’m writing a MG novel set in 1965 in Midwest America. While the story is about a little girl who wants a dog, the background story touches upon her brother, and the neighbor’s son, both in Vietnam. We learn about the war through letters written by her brother. Recently, I was told that 1965 isn’t historical, and that the Vietnam war is a black hole in the publishing world. Well, then! Is my novel doomed even though the story isn’t non-fiction, and isn’t only about Vietnam?

Sincerely,
Rachel

Dear Rachel…

Deborah Wiles’ award-winning MG novel Countdown (The Sixties Trilogy) proves there’s a place for historical fiction set in 1960s America. And yes, 1965 is “historical”—it’s three generations removed from your target readers, with a distinct cultural landscape. Not that I’m sure you have a historical fiction project. It could be general fiction, with your focus being on the girl and her dog wish rather than on the war. To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t officially “historical fiction” even though it’s set in 1930s Deep South. It’s a story about people, race, class, and coming of age. Lead with your themes and craft strengths when submitting, not your time period. As for “black hole,” don’t look a gift horse in the mouth! An unexploited spot in the market could be gold. Just ask J.K. Rowling, who shopped a wizard book when wizard books were barely a market blip. You may have a better shot than those in a genre that’s hot but saturated. Doomed? Hardly.

Happy writing!
The Editor

15 Comments

  1. Hi Rachel,

    I think this period in history doesn’t have enough coverage and there should be more written about it. I think your story could be a refreshing addition. Good luck with you project.

    Elizabeth

  2. Newbery Medalist Kimberly Holt’s book When Zachary Beaver Came to Town is one of my favorites and it is set in the same era. Very touching story, even though the time period is a back drop and subplot it works well. Best of luck with your novel.

  3. I also want to encourage Rachel not to give up on her historical novel. I just signed a contract with Jacquelyn Mitchard at Merit Press/F+W Media for NO SURRENDER SOLDIER, set on Guam in 1972. The main character’s brother is a U.S. navigator in Vietnam, and a WWII soldier is hidden behind the teen boy’s house. This book is very much about war and its aftermath.

    As a former writing instructor, though, what I would also encourage Rachel to do is to dig deeper into her plot premise and problem. (Note: I have never read Rachel’s novel so I’m only saying this based on her quick summary.) Ask yourself, what makes your book different than, say, BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE? How does the plot problem–finding a dog–fit in with her brother’s letters? Is your main character active in every aspect of the plot and subplot, or only/mostly an observer of her brother’s plight? One last comment, consider finding someone to critique with you who is knowledgeable of the business and novel writing, and is supportive in your writing. Best wishes!

  4. Another good Vietnam era book is Shooting the Moon by Frances O’Roark Dowell. It is books like these that inspire me and make me feel human. That is what historical fiction is about: helping children feel and experience moments in time with the characters that they are reading about. At least that is my goal as a writer.

  5. Hey Rachel,
    Your book sounds awesome, and I think it’s due time to write stories built around the sixties and early seventies. It’s when many of us were born, and our fathers and grandfathers (both in my case) were in that war which no one really talks much about. I, for one, would love to read your book, because it sounds like a story out of my childhood (though I know I may not be your target audience). NW Harris

  6. Thank you, one and all, for your comments and support. I’m at a writing retreat this weekend, working on this novel, and all the comments have encouraged me. I’m so hopeful again. I love my novel and all the characters. I have a critique group who love it as well. I just needed to hear, “Don’t listen to the nay sayers!” Rachel

  7. I started on my book four years ago. Put a lot of research in it and lived through that time. Had family members and experienced a lot of the Vietnam issues.

    I have been told everything, from take a pen name, you’re a woman writing where women had no voice, to take out the POW scenes and all the war scenes – you can’t tell that story.

    I’ve been told to change the war time. It’s a great book but we don’t want Vietnam scenes.

    Finally I got a letter from a publisher who offered me a contract. Just based on my first three chapters. Went on P&E to make sure they were good and they were.

    Thank goodness for her outside the box attitude.

    I am almost ready to sign the contract and I’m praying that when she gets to the war scene and the torture scenes she doesn’t tell me to take them out.

    I just don’t get it?

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