Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The ultimate in niche fiction

I've always loved obscure books, and my taste for the obscure has been well satisfied by reading Grand Canyon QSO by Walker A. Tompkins, a prolific author in the mid-twentieth century who specialized in regional history and ham radio mysteries.

Ham radio mysteries? Yep, Tompkins was an avid amateur radio operator and wrote a series of books where a heroic young ham uses his wits and his rig to foil crime. Tompkins' mysteries were first published in the 1950s and republished by the American Radio Relay League in the 1980s. Now out of print, some of his titles command more than $100 on eBay. I scored this and another book from collector Jose Fritz in trade for some British 78s I'm hunting down for him. Isn't collecting grand?

I'd heard about these books when I got into amateur radio in college. I drifted away after a few years as travel and the Internet gave me the international connections that first attracted me to ham radio, but I was always curious about those books. One day I Googled them and came across Jose's excellent series of blog posts about the history of radio fiction.

So how was the book? Well. . .OK. The characters were cardboardy and the writing a bit labored, and it could have used a good edit to weed out overly expository sentences. It probably works better as a young adult book than an adult mystery, but it would be a bit shaky even for kids.

So why did ham radio operators lap up these books and are still looking for them twenty years after they went out of print?

Because the books are about them. A specific group of people are far more receptive to fiction if it's targeted directly at them. I have a feeling there are all sorts of obscure subgenres out there. Yard sale thrillers? Knitting mysteries? Pirate tales for yacht owners? Asian-American science fiction? Oh wait, I've read that last one! An anthology of Asian-American science fiction came out in the Nineties.

So writers shouldn't be afraid to write to very narrow groups. You won't make the bestseller list, but you just might make an enduring name for yourself.

1 comment:

irishoma said...

Hi Sean,
Another great post. Thanks for the good advice.

Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Civil War Horror blog, where he focuses on Civil War and Wild West history.

You can also find him on his Twitter feed and Facebook page.