One of the nice things about being visible on the Internet is that I hear from all sorts of people. Aspiring history writer James Marushin asked me about how to break into the history market:
"I had a few questions for you after happening upon on article about freelance history writing that you had written.
"First, how is the market for freelance historical writing? Are places still taking, and paying, for articles? As a background, I graduated a couple years back with my BA in History and have been working as a museum curator since then; is there room in the market for someone like me to make some extra money writing articles? Are the places you listed in that article still interested in pieces?
"Second, is contacting a publisher and asking if I can submit an article the proper place to start? Or is it better to just submit an article without a first introductory contact? Do most have a call for specific types/themes of articles or is it pretty well open?
"Lastly, how critical is the need for primary sources? I understand this may sound like a naive question but I mean to pose it in a business sense not a historiographical one. If I have article ideas but struggle with finding primary sources for them, will an article based on secondary sources be acceptable? Or should I not bother unless I have primary source material?
I work for the Martin County Historical Society in Fairmont, MN. I would be primarily interested in Military History and our Local History and Stories. A lot of my collegiate research and writing was done on a wide array of Military topics while my time at the museum has focused more on local history."
OK, first thing's first. Yes, there is room for someone like you to earn money writing history. It won't be a lot of money to start with, but you can work your way up and with time and persistence you can make some decent money. As far as I know all the places I mentioned in the article are still interested in pieces. I know for a fact that Weider History Group is always open. Your job as a curator puts you in a good position because it lends you some authority as a professional historian. Always mention that when pitching articles, even if your proposal isn't about Martin County. The BA degree doesn't hurt either, but is less impressive because, as we all know, anyone with a pulse can earn a college degree. This cheapens the efforts of enthusiastic students like you and I were, but such is life.
Since you've been reading Writing World you probably know the basics about submitting a proposal, researching your market, etc., so I won't go into that here except to say don't knock yourself out writing an article, just write up a short proposal. The editor will probably tweak your idea anyway! Most history markets have some sort of niche, a region or a period or a specific subject they cover, so be sure to cater to that niche. The magazine market is very specialized. People buy magazines because they already have an idea what they're going to get.
Articles based on secondary sources are fine; many of my own articles fall into this category. That said, primary sources are a goldmine of information and make your articles more interesting. An old diary of a pioneer brings your subject to life. Quotes from period newspapers or speeches suck your readers into the time. Primary sources can lead to full articles or can be used to liven up articles that mostly rely on secondary sources. They aren't necessary, but they sure do help.
Since you want to do local and military history, and have daily access your society's archives, that's a good place to start. Perhaps your town paper would like some local history articles? Newspapers are always hungry for content. Pitch one or two ideas and if you get a good working relationship with the editor you may find yourself writing a regular column. That's happened to more than one of my colleagues. Then you might want to branch out into the magazines, either local or national.
Don't forget your biggest resource--the local historians you meet every day. I bet more than one of them has written articles and they can help with contacts, ideas, course material etc.
I hope this helps. If you have any other questions feel free to drop me a line.
Does anyone else have any suggestions for James? There's more than one professional history writer in my readership!
[In case you're wondering, the photo is of some Norman reenactors in front of Durham castle. The link leads to an article I wrote about the town]