Historians Writing Fiction outside the Academy: Elizabeth Elliott Reflects after the Session

Historians can take a wide variety of career paths, from policy to public history and beyond. The 129th annual meeting has already hosted many sessions showcasing the nontraditional career tracks many of our colleagues have chosen. “Historians Writing Fiction: Outside of the Academy,” held on Saturday morning in the Hilton’s Sutton Center, featured three successful fiction writers who decided to leave an academic trajectory to pursue their craft independently.

Andrea Cremer, author of the bestselling Nightshade series; David Coe, an award-winning fantasy writer; and Laura Kamoie, who writes romance and historical fiction under the pen name Laura Kaye, had all earned doctorates in history before deciding to pursue fiction writing full-time. While Coe fortuitously received an offer to publish his first book the same day he was offered a teaching position, Cremer and Kamoie left established tenure-track positions at Macalester College and the Naval Academy.

One of the challenges faced by the group was having to “relearn” a creative writing style after spending so many years crafting their words for an academic audience. Each panelist expressed a wish that beautiful prose was more valued in the historical community. Coe, for example, was lucky to have a graduate school advisor who stressed the narrative aspect of the dissertation – such as pacing and syntax – which ended up serving him well as a professional writer. Kamoie also tried to lend her dissertation “a fictional narrative kind of voice” in order to engage more readers.

The writers cautioned that a writing career path is not linear like the academic trajectory is. Due to the nature of the publishing world, authors can experience times when they wonder if their career is over – hence the mantra “you are always only as successful as your last book.” Planning finances is difficult too, as advances for books can be spread out in quarters over several years. There are also no provisions for health insurance or retirement in publishing contracts.

Despite the differences between their new careers and their old experiences in academia, none of the writers have lost touch with their historical roots. Cremer used her knowledge to help with the world-building and mythology behind her Nightshade series. Kamoie studied vast amounts of primary source materials to inform a novel about Thomas Jefferson’s daughter Patsy, and Coe found the inspiration for his Thieftaker Chronicles series in the footnotes of a history book. The success and happiness that these historians have found in commercial publishing shows that there are rewarding alternatives for individuals who are unsure about staying in the academy.

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