Tuesday 2 July 2019

Highlights from the Historical Novel Society North American Conference (HNSNA) 2019, Oxon Hill, Maryland

I’ve been blogging about historical fiction for the last six years, and, in 2020, my own debut historical novel, Brontë’s Mistress, will be published by Atria Books (more on this here). So this June I was delighted to attend the biannual North American conference run by the Historical Novel Society (HNS) and to connect with other lovers and writers of historical fiction there.

This year (the first year I’ve attended) the conference was held in the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, just outside Washington DC. We enjoyed keynotes from Dolen Perkins-Valdez and Jeff Shaara, period-specific panels and talks on everything from the roaring 20s to the Romanovs to French revolutionaries, and insights from agents and editors with a focus on #HistFic. In true historical fashion, attendees also donned their best period costumes for drinks, a banquet and a ball, while some tested their skills in swordsmanship.

In this post I wanted to share some of my personal highlights from the conference (if I can decipher the handwriting in my notebook!).

“Extraordinary women in extraordinary times"
This is how Rachel Kahan, Executive Editor at William Morrow, summed up the current landscape in historical fiction in the opening State of the State of the HF Industry roundtable. This phrase struck me and set the stage for many of the talks I enjoyed over the weekend. As a writer who focuses on real women who have been overlooked in the historical record, I love this descriptor!

“People are interested in how art is made”
Carrie Callaghan and Laura Morelli led a coffee discussion about historical fiction based on the lives of artists and the challenges of ekphrastic writing (i.e. describing a piece of visual art through words). Two ideas stayed with me from this session. First, writers and artists both experience an absorption in their work while creating. Writing about this feeling and process can be fascinating. Second, it can be difficult for a writer to balance featuring their artist character doing menial work with the tensions that come from interpersonal conflict. Any time you can combine the two will serve you well.

“Where the archive is silent"
Writer and keynote speaker Dolen Perkins-Valdez was the most eloquent speaker of the conference. Almost everything she said was tweetable/quotable. I loved how she described the work of the historical novelist as speaking “where the archive is silent”, as it mirrors my own writing experience, where I strive to be true to the historical record but get most excited where there’s a mystery I can speculate on. I also thought the writing exercise she suggested was genius. She urged us to write the same scene set in 1750, 1850 and 1950 without conducting any new research to demonstrate how much we already know and feel about different periods without being weighed down by the burden of history.

“The paranormal circumvents societal propriety”
Gaslamps, Ghosts & Tropes, a discussion between Nicole Evelina, Clarissa Harwood, Leanna Renee Hieber and Kris Waldherr, on Gothic novels, was my favourite panel of the conference. Hieber’s argument that paranormal activity (whether ‘real’ or imagined) allows characters in historical periods with stricter social etiquettes to step outside their normal boundaries was particularly resonant.

“You need to feel that anyone could win”
The second keynote speaker, Jeff Shaara, specialises, like his late father, the Pulitzer Prize winning Michael Shaara, in depicting famous conflicts, from the Revolutionary War to the American Civil War to the World Wars, from multiple character perspectives. I loved his advice that for a novel like this to be successful the reader has to feel that the outcome of the battle is anything but certain, even if they know the winner in reality.

“There are practical reasons to write dual time periods”
Another great panel was led by Kate Quinn and Beatriz Williams on the topic of historical novels that alternate between at least two periods (one of which may be contemporary). I’ve reviewed novels in the past (e.g. Meredith Jaeger’s The Dressmaker’s Dowry) which have struggled to pull off this structure but I’m fascinated by its current popularity. Quinn and Williams mentioned some practical reasons why writers might want to consider this structure: novels like this can be shelved in several areas of the bookstore and/or appear in multiple sections of Amazon, a dual narrative can help you sell a novel featuring a ‘less popular’ period of history and the inclusion of a modern perspective can make historical fiction less intimidating for infrequent readers of the genre. Fascinating stuff!

Meeting all the people
The biggest highlight of the conference was meeting fellow writers with a passion for depicting the past. I spoke to so many people! It was most exciting to spend time with Elizabeth Blackwell, as we share the same literary agent, and ‘Twitter friends’ who I was finally able to meet in person.

Buying all the books
Warning: there’s a side effect of going to a conference like this. I now have SO MANY new novels on my #TBR (to be read) list. Here’s a peek into what titles have made it onto my bedside table already:

On a Cold Dark Sea, Elizabeth Blackwell
A Light of Her Own, Carrie Callaghan
The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter, Hazel Gaynor
A Lady of Good Family, Jeanne Mackin
Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez
The Lost History of Dreams, Kris Waldherr

Were you at the HNS conference? What did you think? Or do you have any questions about attending a writing conference in the future? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

P.S. Want an inside peek at my writing and non-writing life? You can now follow finola_austin on Instagram!


  1. It was a great pleasure meeting you! I look forward to your debut novel--and all that follow!

    1. It was lovely to meet you too, Margaret. Thank you!

  2. Great take aways! It was nice to meet you. :)