At conferences, I enjoy meeting people with whom I’ve
corresponded via email, such as Diana Gabaldon and Ann Parker. Almost never do I
have time to talk with everyone I want to meet. There’s so much to do, and
often several very interesting sessions are scheduled at the same time. Pick
and choose, the conference attendee’s universal lament.
So…was I frightened when I got stuck in the elevator during
a brief power failure Saturday morning at the hotel? Nope. I was frustrated
that I might miss all that good stuff going on out there. I took the stairs the
rest of the day.
Chris (C.C.) Humphreys’s session "Imagining Saratoga 1777: How an Author
Reconstructs a Famous Battle." Chris, an actor, interspersed lively readings from
his latest Jack Absolute book with discussion about what works for him
in writing and reading historical fiction. Chris’s key points:
- Don’t make him read a history lesson in historical fiction.
- A book has to be about vulnerable characters -– people -– to
keep readers interested and make them care.
- Doing on-site, hands-on work, especially when weapons are
involved, is crucial in providing writers with accurate sensory experience for
- Since many writers fall in love with the history and make
the mistake of choking a manuscript with details, insert details only on a
- When writing about a battle, focus on strategic points of
the battle where your character can interact, rather than trying to recount the
- A fight scene isn’t just a fight. Regard a fight as another
form of a conversation. The fight can serve double duty when you use it to move
the action onward and reveal some personal facet about a character.
Curious to hear the NYC agent take on what’s happening with
the historical fiction market, I attended Irene Goodman’s session,
"Whither Historical Fiction: the Market and Publishing Trends." Irene was moving fast, so I
probably missed a few points, but here are her
key points as I caught them:
- Fiction based on "marquee names" (real people) is
- The number 1 setting is England, but France, Italy, Greece,
and Rome are good, too. For the most part, America is too Puritanical to be
- Non-genre historicals are a hard sell.
- Today, there must be a character arc in a historical.
- In terms of protags or top characters, it’s a woman’s world
in historical fiction, and if you have more than one strong female character in
your book, that’s even better.
- One new angle for a book is viewing a dominant male
character from a strong female character’s POV.
- You can successfully base your book on popular characters
from classic fiction if you spotlight their strong female characters.
- Emotions and good characterizations are far more important
than events, so focus on how your strong female character experienced the
- The two elements that most make a character attractive or
sexy are wit and resourcefulness.
- Allow your character to have control of her own destiny.
- Just because a topic does well as a movie doesn’t mean it
will do well as a book and vice versa.
Because I returned to my room to look over notes for my
session, I missed most of the third morning session. I did catch an astute
comment from Alan Gordon on the panel "Putting the Who in Whodunit:
Historical Forensics." He noted that we in the 21st century have lost a
good bit of our observational ability. People long ago were much more
observant. Alan challenged writers to use that characteristic in building
believable historical characters.
Editors Hope Dellon (St. Martin’s Press), Allison McCabe
(Crown Publishers), and Jackie Swift (McBooks Press) formed the panel for
"Selling Historical Fiction," with Alana White acting as moderator.
The editors explained the differences in their publishing houses and discussed
such topics as whether non-agented submissions were accepted (no, except for
McBooks). I found it interesting that none of the editors performs at the
office those tasks we traditionally associate with editors: reading and
editing. While in the office, they’re too busy putting out fires, attending
meetings, and so forth. The editors also commented on the enhanced efficacy of
writers using Publishers Marketplace as a tool to search for agents vs. the
more traditional (and easily outdated) tools such as Literary Marketplace, and
they each said that they never checked writer web sites on PM for possible
clients because they had so much business coming to them through other
channels. What type of manuscript was the most difficult to turn down? One that
was very well written but too similar to a book already published. The dilemma would be how the editor could possibly differentiate the manuscript enough from
the published book to justify acquisition. Finally, all three editors admitted
that many times when they knew they couldn’t acquire a manuscript for one
reason or another, they still found themselves sucked into it if it was well
written. So the next time you receive a rejection from an editor that says,
"Read the whole thing and enjoyed it, but it’s not for me," guess
what might have happened?
My panel, "Rewriting the Role of Women," was
scheduled for the final time slot Saturday afternoon and very well attended.
Mary Sharratt moderated the panel, and the other panelists were Dr. Irene
Burgess, Provost at Eureka College in Eureka, IL; Susanne Dunlap; and Sandra
Gulland. (Pictured from left to right: Mary, Irene, me, Susanne, Sandra.) After introductions from Mary, Irene started us off by sketching the academic
landscape for the role of women in history. I discussed variables that have
allowed historical strictures on women’s actions to relax and permit them a
wider range of acceptable activities. Susanne discussed how involvement with
vocal and instrumental music has both helped and hindered women in the past.
And Sandra discussed historical aspects of women’s health and resultant quality
of life. We answered many questions from the audience and had a drawing for
copies of our books. Thanks to everyone who attended our panel. Comment on my
blog or email me if you attended. I’d like to hear from you. A special thanks
to Mary, Irene, Susanne, and Sandra.
Few pictures I took of other authors turned out well enough to post to the blog — I’m still getting used to my new digital camera — but here’s one of Bernard Cornwell and Diana Gabaldon at the mass booksigning that started at 4 p.m. Saturday afternoon. Author tables were arranged around one of the indoor swimming pools. I noted one particularly
tight corner with the tables close to the pool’s edge, somewhere near where
those authors with last names starting with E and F were signing, and predicted
that someone would go for a swim before the hour was up. Around 4:30, I heard
the tremendous splash from our accidental swimmer. I hope nobody’s books got
Our keynote speaker at the Saturday night banquet was Diana
Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series and numerous other novels. Have you
tried to work more than one job, raise multiple preschoolers, and write
novels without your spouse being the wiser? Diana did and recapped the humor
and irony of the situation. Turns out that inspiration for the character of
Jamie Fraser, the series’ hero, came when she happened to catch an old episode
of "Doctor Who" and noticed a guest actor portraying Scottish lad in
a kilt. The strapping lad made such an impression on her that she
was still thinking about him the next day, while in church. A (clueless) German
reporter once asked her to explain the appeal of a man in a kilt. She
responded, "Because you can have him up against a wall in less than a
A historical talent review followed Diana’s keynote, and
then after that, several authors including Diana promised to read sex scenes
from their books. Alas, I had to get up at the crack of dawn to start the drive
back to Raleigh. Otherwise, I’d have stuck around for Saturday night’s piece de
resistance. If you attended, please email me or comment in my blog. I’d love to
hear what happened.
A brilliant day. Thanks to all the folks from the HNS who
planned and helped execute it.