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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Wednesday 23 June 2021

Writers’ Questions: What’s in a format? Hardcover, paperback, e-book and more.

My debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, came out in paperback yesterday (!), having been released in hardcover, e-book and audiobook in August 2020. So, in this latest post in my Writers’ Questions series, it felt apt to talk about the different formats books can be published in, and what you need to know about them as an author. Check out the rest of the series for other publishing questions I’ve covered, on everything from finding an agent to formatting dialogue


A digital book might not be the first format you think of if I ask you to imagine “a book”, but I’m starting with this format for a reason. E-books are the cheapest type of book to produce and, for this reason, they’re a natural first choice for self-published authors as well as, nowadays, always part of the equation for traditionally published authors like me. E-books are accessible for those with eyesight issues and because of their lower price point. They also allow people to start reading right away when they order your book online. For these reasons they are particularly popular in high volume genres (think of readers who race through several romances or mysteries a day), but e-book sales are now crucial no matter what you write and for whom.


Not every book comes out in hardcover, but those that do seem to fall into four main and overlapping categories. 1: Books deemed high brow/elevated/literary by a traditional publisher. 2: Books predicated to sell a lot of copies. 3: Self-published books, where the author wanted to see their book in this format. 4: Books that were paperback for the consumer market but which had a hardcover edition for libraries. In this last instance, this is because hardcover books are more durable than paperbacks, so can withstand the wear and tear of multiple readers. Hardcovers are more expensive to produce than paperbacks and retail at a higher price point. Typically, traditionally published writers receive a slightly higher royalty on hardcovers than paperbacks.


The modern publishing industry distinguishes between two types of paperbacks—trade paperbacks, of the kind you find at bookstores, and “mass market” paperbacks. Mass market paperbacks are shorter, fatter books, printed on lower quality paper, which you might pick up at a mass grocery store. Again, not every book will have a mass market paperback edition. These are most common for bestsellers, genres with widespread appeal like romance and thrillers and authors with a huge readership.


We’re in the midst of an audio revolution, and this has affected the fiction business too. Yet, while increasingly popular, audiobooks are expensive to produce (prohibitively so for many self-published writers), and not every traditional publisher will exercise audio rights even if they purchase them. Some established writers have sought to have the audio rights to their backlist returned to them, to self-publish and ride the audio wave. Meanwhile, pay-per-minute vs. credit business models for audio are gaining popularity abroad, demonstrating that the audiobook landscape it still evolving.

So, there you have it. I hope that this quick overview has been helpful for you as you navigate the complex world of publishing. Check out the other posts in my Writers’ Questions series here and get info on my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, (now in all of these formats!), here. You can always contact me on Facebook or Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And you can stay in touch by signing up to my newsletter below.

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Friday 11 June 2021

Introducing Finola & Friends: An Instagram Live “Tour” for the Bronte’s Mistress Paperback Release

It’s June 2021, which means it’s release month for the paperback edition of my novel, Bronte’s Mistress. If you love historical fiction and/or the Brontes, and are in search of a great beach read for this summer, pre-order your copy now!

In honour of the occasion, I’m doing something a little bit different—an Instagram Live “tour” talking to author friends I’ve made over the last year and a half. It’s my way of thanking them for their kindness and support, and it means I get to tell you about lots of other great books you should read, while celebrating my own release.

The tour kicks off on June 16th. Make sure you follow me on Instagram to be notified when I go live!

Here are the authors I’ll be speaking to, in order of the events:

Lindsey Rogers Cook, author of two books about Southern families, How to Bury Your Brother and Learning to Speak Southern.

Molly Greeley, the writer behind two novels inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I reviewed her first novel, The Clergyman’s Wife, on this blog, and blurbed her latest book, The Heiress.

Julie Carrick Dalton, author of Waiting for the Night Song, a novel about friendship and secrets.

Molly Gartland, whose novel, The Girl from the Hermitage, takes us from the siege of Leningrad in 1941 to 21st-century Saint Petersburg.

Barbara Conrey, USA Today bestselling author of Nowhere Near Goodbye, a novel about a mother’s love vs. a doctor’s oath.

Greer Macallister, bestselling historical novelist. Her latest book, The Artic Fury, is about 13 women who join a secret 1850s Arctic expedition, and the sensational murder trial that unfolds when some of them don’t come back.

A.H. Kim, author of A Good Family, a novel that fans of Orange is the New Black should check out.

Carrie Callaghan, author of two historical novels—A Light of Her Own, inspired by Dutch Golden Age painter Judith Leyster, and Salt the Snow, the story of an American journalist in 1930s Moscow.

Cate Simon, author of historical romance novel Courting Anna, about a woman lawyer in 1880s Montana Territory and an outlaw who crosses her path.

Lyn Liao Butler, author of The Tiger Mom’s Tale, a novel about a woman returning to Taiwan to confront the scars of her past.

Sarah Archer, romance novelist. Her novel, The Plus One, tells the story of a robotics engineer who builds a boyfriend to have a date to her sister’s wedding.

Rowan Coleman, aka Bella Ellis, author of the Bronte Sisters Mysteries series. Check out my review of The Vanished Bride, her first novel starring the Bronte sisters as sleuths, here.

Martha Waters, writer behind Regency romantic comedy novels To Have and To Hoax and To Love and To Loathe

Alison Hammer, writer of upmarket women’s fiction. Her novels You and Me and Us and Little Pieces of Me both focus on family relationships.

Natalie Jenner, author of international bestseller The Jane Austen Society. Read my write up of the novel here.

Michael Stewart, another Bronte-inspired novelist. I reviewed his novel, Ill Will, about Heathcliff’s “lost years” in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights here.

Susanne Dunlap, author of 10 historical novels. Her latest, The Paris Affair, is a tale of music, mystery, love, and murder in pre-revolutionary France.

Ellen Birkett Morris, author of Lost Girls, a short story collection exploring the experiences of women and girls as they grieve, find love, face uncertainty, take a stand, find their future and say goodbye to the past.

Sarah McCraw Crow, author of The Wrong Kind of Woman, which transports us back to the 1970s and explores what a woman can be when what she should be is no longer an option.

Lainey Cameron, award-winning author of Amazon bestseller The Exit Strategy, a novel about sexism and the power of female friendship in Silicon Valley.

Linda Rosen, writer behind The Disharmony of Silence and Sisters of the Vine, both great book club picks about women reinventing themselves despite the obstacles in their way.

Elizabeth Blackwell, bestselling writer of four novels. Her latest, Red Mistress, tells the story of a woman who breaks with her past to become a Soviet spy in the wake of the Russian Revolution.

Janie Chang, bestselling writer of historical fiction with a personal connection. Her latest novel, The Library of Legends, explores China’s recent past and is an evocative tale of love, sacrifice, and the extraordinary power of storytelling.

Nicole Mabry and Steph Mullin, a writing duo whose thriller The Family Tree, will be published later in 2021.

Kris Waldherr, author of 19th-century set Gothic historical The Lost History of Dreams, which I reviewed here.

Amanda Brainerd, author of The Age of Consent, literary fiction set in 1980s New York City, where David Bowie reigns supreme. 

Eddy Boudel Tan, award-winning author of the novels After Elias and The Rebellious Tide.

Thank you so much to all the writers who’ve agreed to be part of this, and to everyone who orders a copy of the Bronte's Mistress paperback. It means so much. Stay in touch—via Instagram or Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And make sure you sign up to my monthly email newsletter below.

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