Not long ago, I wrote about the "deadliness" of taking the maxim "write what you know" too literally. Since then, I've had an interesting conversation with my (live) writing partner, about whether one should "write for the market" or "write what one loves". Neither of us are published, yet, and I haven't even had the courage to try to peddle my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals to an agent. Since the current draft of the first book in my trilogy is a lot stronger and better organized than my first draft was -- partly because I know my characters a lot better, I've been more careful with the timeline, and am making fewer(I hope) "historical mistakes", and some characters have developed that weren't there before, I think I'm getting closer to the point where I can start sending out query letters to agents.
But here's the problem. Science fiction doesn't seem much interested in Neandertals right now. Even worse, the time period I've set my book in There's lots of "Tudor themed" stuff, fiction about the Crusades, and tons of American Civil War historical fiction out there. Trouble is, I'm not really interested in writing anything in those periods. I don't think I can write "hard" science fiction; my writing is more like Ursula le Guin's or an early woman s-f writer by the name of Zenna Henderson. Its only saving grace, in a way(as a selling point, at least), is that it also could be sort of described as Harry Potter for adults, in a "real" medieval setting. But late Anglo-Saxon/early Anglo-Norman????? For what will presumably be an American audience who has probably never heard of some of the (real) characters? I don't know. I've been told(mostly by writers of primarily historical fiction), that certain periods just don't "sell". Some authors, particularly in the romance field, will "update" their settings(though not their genre), to reflect what "sells" at the moment. This is one reason, I think, why there is such a plethora of material about shapeshifting werewolves, vampires, and the like. Especially after the success of the Twilight series. But that's another story. I think it's easier for romance novelists to do this, since the conventions of romance writing are still fairly strict(unlike mysteries, where there seem to be a lot of variations, though there's always a "mystery" of some kind).
On the other hand, writers who tell you how to write your own novel -- and, interestingly, a number of very good writers(Stephen King and Terry Brooks come to mind, but there are others), pretty much tell you to "write what you love" and never mind the "market". Of course, both Terry Brooks and Stephen King are extremely successful at what they do, and they love what they write. This is extremely obvious from the way they write. They aren't just "churning it out", although Stephen King admitted he almost did, for a while, when he had other problems. Even Nora Roberts, who generated an article in a recent New Yorker magazine, seems to write what she loves, which is basically romance and "women's fiction", and, as J.D. Robb, suspense. And she's successful at it. She doesn't have to worry about a "day job", because she has a loyal fan base and her stories are, well, comforting, I guess. I've never read anything by her, but she soulnds like an interesting and fun person to be around, and doesn't take herself too seriously.
Unfortunately, most writers aren't going to be this lucky. I"m writing something that at least seems kind of "oddball" on the face of it, partly because it's a sort of "hybrid" of science fiction and historical novel, and partly because the period in question isn't "popular" or well-known, at least to the average American(besides which, Americans in particular seem to have some extremely odd ideas about medieval life. Which, surprisingly or unsurprisingly, turns some potential readers off. On the other hand, this is more true of romance novels, than it is regarding other genres.
My writing partner probably isn't going to be so lucky, either, if she decides to try to peddle her current efforts, which have kind of come out like Little House on the Prairie meets, well, I don't know exactly, except that there are wizards involved. Of course, a lot of people have loved the Little House books over the years. I did, as a child. My writing partner loved them even more. But then, I grew up and have always lived in, cities, whereas she grew up in a small town that was, in some ways, more like the environment of the Little House books than Seattle was when I grew up(even though it was at that time, just an overgrown small town). But will books written like this sell to a modern audience? Even to a modern Young Adult audience? I don't know? Should she and I care? Again, I don't know. I know that some writers on another e-mail list are willing to shape their work to the "market". I don't know how willing I would be to do this. I can't write what I don't particularly love, and neither can my writing partner. Though we have different interests(in some ways), and different writing styles), we agree on this: we can't write what we aren't really passionate about. Neither could Stephen King and Terry Brooks, and several others I can't think of at the moment. They got lucky. I'd like to get lucky. So would my writing partner. But it won't be easy, if it happens. And if either or both of us do get lucky, I have a feeling it won't be because we shaped our writing efforts to whatever the market "wants". Besides which, as Stephen King and others point out, what the market "wants" keeps changing all the time, and there's no guarantee that if you write about vampires or werewolves, that your writing will be anything other than "derivative", and heaven knows, I"ve seen far too much of that sort of writing, to be impressed with the willingness of some writers to "write to the market".
But perhaps there's hope. I have something "on the shelf" that might work as a Young Adult novel. I didn't conceive of it this way, but who knows? It might work. And yes, there are Neandertals in it. And wolves put in an appearance, too. No knights or castles, though. Because it takes place in the near future, in a former Western Washington timber town(a creation of my imagination, but here, I really am "writing what I know", since I know Western Washington fairly well).