Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Historical Novel Society Conference

I attended my first Historical Novel Society conference this past weekend and had a blast. The Historical Novel Society has a broad definition of historical fiction that includes historical romance, historical fantasy, and alternate history. Thus, the master of alternate history, Harry Turtledove, not only was there but was also a guest of honor.

I'm not going to name any of the books I bought or heard about at the conference, both because I haven't read any yet and because I'd be afraid of offending an author by forgetting to mention their book, but I will make an exception for Dr. Turtledove because he spoke in his entertaining keynote address about the role of serendipity in finding cool book ideas.

Turtledove was looking through some stamp-collecting materials of his daughter's and found a reference to a false king of Albania who managed to reign for five days before skedaddling right before the rightful king arrived. Turtledove's interest was piqued. He researched wily circus acrobat Otto Witte and decided to write a book about him. However, because Otto's life was too strange to be plausible, Turtledove wrote the novel, not as historical fiction, but as a comic fantasy, Every Inch a King.

What a great reminder to look for story ideas everywhere! And I came home with a cool book I probably would never have heard of otherwise.

The hot topic at the conference was "marquee names." The historical novels that get the big publicity push from publishers not only tend to be set in a limited range of places and time periods, but also they increasingly feature people with "marquee names" such as Tudor, Borgia, and Cleopatra.

Anxiety about marquee names dominated many conversations and some panels. Although most authors wanted to write what they wanted to write, one editor on the "Selling Historical Fiction" editors' panel said outright that an author could not sell a historical novel nowadays without a marquee name unless she or he was "an amazing writer." On other panels, authors revealed that they had included a famous person as a minor character in their novels solely to make them more marketable. Other authors had been pressured by their agents to write a book starring a marquee name so that they could move up from the midlist to the big leagues.

I'm tired of reading about the same people over and over again, and many of the other historical authors I spoke to were as well. As a matter of principle, I no longer buy novels about Tudors, no matter how interesting the books look, and I do buy historical novels that are about everyday people or that are set in less-popular time periods or places.My tiny message to publishers that enough is enough.

Luckily, that editor did not speak for every publisher. I came home with many novels set in ancient times; who knew there were so many recent ones? I also bought many novels published by major publishers that were set in unusual times or places or that did not feature a marquee name.

The HNS conference was particularly fun because there were only 300 attendees. The small attendance made it easier to meet people, reduced the crowds at panels, and allowed you to run into people over and over again.

I could go on and on, but I'll just mention some of the highlights for me. •Having in-person conversations with my long-time friend and mentor Lynna Banning. •Being on a panel and making some good contributions to the discussion. •Seeing the look of excitement on the face of the person who won Like Mayflies in a Stream in the raffle after the panel. •Sitting next to fascinating people at meals and having interesting conversations about topics as diverse as Jewish mysticism and the Civil War. •Attending panels on YA books and talking to people who've written YA, which has convinced me to write a YA novel.

To learn more about the Historical Novel Society and how to join, visit http://www.historicalnovelsociety.org/. Membership fees include two magazines, one that reviews new historical novels and one that features interviews with authors and articles about topics of interest to writers, as well as some marketing help. Next year's conference, to be held in London in September 2012, sounds as if it will be a real treat.

I'll be blogging again on Sunday, July 5. Until then, enjoy your summer!

—Shauna Roberts


Charles Gramlich said...

I did not know they had a historical novel society. That's cool. I wonder if Candy knows about it.

Shauna Roberts said...

A couple of years ago, one of her St. Cyr novels was a Top Pick in the society's review magazine, and alerted her. I had the impression she hadn't heard of the society before, but I don't know whether she looked into it after that.

KeVin K. said...

Well, my rule has always been only spend money earned through writing on writers' conferences. So the plan is:
1. Join Historical Novel Society
2. Write historical novel.
3. Have it published by a major house.
4. Attend 2013 Historical Novel Society Conference.

Okay, I can handle 1, 2, & 4 on my own. Going to need the cooperation of a major house for #3. Otherwise doable...

I envy you the experience, Shauna. Sounds like a wonderful conference. Interesting insight into the trends of the market and the differences between editors' views on what's needed. And to know what the 'name' writers are worried about.
Now I have another Turtledove title for my TBR list.

Shauna Roberts said...

It was great fun, KEVIN. I really enjoy writers' conferences far more than fan conferences.

As for getting your novel published by a major house, I think there are a few Tudor-related people who are not yet the subject of a novel. Henry VIII's chamberpot emptier, for example. Probably.