Wednesday 30 June 2021

The Historical Novel Society North America Conference 2021…in Quotes

I attended my first Historical Novel Society North America Conference in Maryland back in 2019 and wrote a detailed review about my experience. In 2021, one published book and one global pandemic later, I attended my second—this time virtually. 

My Zoom set up for the conference

On this occasion, I wasn’t a newbie, who’d just signed her first book deal, but a speaker, appearing on the “Shaking up the Brontes” panel with Michael Stewart, Syrie James, and Rowan Coleman. This time around, attendees jumped between Zoom calls and live streams, rather than racing between conference rooms. And we all posted and pinged, rather than chatting over glasses of wine. But still, one thing remained the same—we were brought together by a love of writing and reading historical fiction, and had access to a wealth of collective knowledge.

For this blog post then, I’m not going to review the conference (there’s little to say except “bravo!” to the beleaguered board and their band of trusty volunteers), or to write exhaustively about every session I attended (attendees have access to all recordings for 90 days so I still plan to listen to panels that I missed). Instead, I’m going to share a series of quotes that stood out and my thoughts on them.

“Disturb me if someone’s bleeding.”

A question that authors are often asked is how we have time to write, which is why I appreciated this quote from Sarah Woodbury. It’s what she tells her (don’t worry, older!) kids when she sits down at her keyboard. Woodbury shared her successful self-publishing journey, which requires her to be consistently productive.

“The thing that scares you most is what you’re meant to be writing next.”

Sadeqa Johnson received this advice from a friend and it’s stayed with her. At a conference of historical fiction obsessives, it was fascinating to hear the perspective of someone who turned to a historical subject (in The Yellow Wife) after first writing contemporary fiction. I liked her advice to make the braver choice when starting to work on your next idea.

“The great advantage of historical fiction is that there is already an established audience of people who are fans of your period.”

Publishing expert Jane Friedman gave this glimmer of marketing hope to the many historical fiction writers desperate to find readers for their books. She encouraged us to seek out the places where fans of our historical setting are already congregating online.

“Do characters have to be like your best friend? I think no.”

Nancy Bilyeau weighed in on character likability—something women characters are more often criticised for. One reason I love historical fiction is that it gives us the opportunity to enter the mind set of people from a different place and time with different values, so I’m in strong agreement with Bilyeau on this one. 

“They may have murdered people, but we like them.” 

Margaret George spoke about the merits of the morally ambiguous heroes we still love to root for (think Butch Cassidy, Robin Hood, or famous pirates). The majority of her examples in this vein were male historical figures, which interested me. Can our male main characters be killers, while female protagonists are expected to be best friend material?

My unimpressed conference buddy

“I don’t see it as my place to condemn.”

Lisa See has written about cultural traditions such as foot binding that might be difficult for modern audiences to understand, and she’s often asked by readers whether she wants us to come to specific conclusions on them. She sees her role as empathetic, rather than didactic, an approach that really resonated with me.

“I am happy to use real people for my own nefarious fictional ends.”

I’m surprised by how often I’m asked whether living descendants of Lydia Robinson have objected to my imagining of her life, so it was entertaining to hear Alex George talk unapologetically about borrowing from reality to make great fiction.

“It’s not a trend. It’s not a fad. It’s the way business should be run.”

This is what Denny S. Bryce had to say about the drive towards telling more diverse stories in historical fiction, and, in particular, the elevation of Black voices. Throughout the conference, she and many other writers and publishing professionals reiterated that inclusion isn’t just a conversation for 2021.

“Am I writing to explain this world to white people? I am not. I am not trying to translate.”

Leslye Penelope spoke about the intended audiences for her historical novels, and how for so long the assumed reader in this genre has been white. I loved the push to think beyond Black stories and characters to consider who we’re writing for and what cultural background we might be assuming.

“If a reader skips the sex scene they should miss part of the plot.”

Jennifer Hallock led a cozy chat on “good sex” in historical fiction. One takeaway? If your sex scenes are skippable, they aren’t doing their job. Good sex scenes aren’t just enjoyable in good fiction—they are vital to your story.

“What lies are people telling about themselves and what do those lies signify?”

I loved this question that Jeanne Mackin asks herself during the research phase. When she sees contradictions between what historical figures wrote about their own lives and other records, she asks herself what these lies and omissions could reveal about their characters.

“I hope that there’s an appetite from publishers and readers for novels about women who are totally unknown.”

One contradiction in the marketplace that was much discussed at the conference was publishing’s purported ambition to tell lesser-known stories from history, while it’s often marquee (i.e. recognisable) names that sell books. Marie Benedict expressed a desire I think many writers in the genre share—for the industry to elevate the stories of the truly unknown.

“You never hear a plumber say, ‘I just didn’t feel like plumbing today’.”

I’m not sure this statement’s entirely true (plumbers are allowed to complain too!), but I like the sentiment behind Erika Mailman’s words. Like her, I agree that writing is a job that takes perseverance, even when the going gets tough and the muse is silent.

Were you at the conference? If so, let me know what your favourite takeaways were—in the comments below, via Instagram or Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. My debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, is now available in paperback, as well as hardcover, audiobook, and e-book. To stay in the loop about my books and blog posts, subscribe to my monthly email newsletter below. 

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  1. I attended the HNS conference also. Your quotes have spurred me to go listen to some of the sessions I missed.
    Happy writing,
    Theresa Hupp

  2. This is lovely to hear, Theresa! Thanks for reading. <3