I’ve just returned from speaking and listening at the annual meeting of the Historical Novel Society, held this year in San Diego. The American-British society is history-nerd heaven, and the keynote speaker was Cecilia Holland, who is still going strong in her 70s. Ohmigosh, I read her as a kid: she was an accomplished author at age 22! Some of us require a little more practice.
I read a scene from “The Barbary Pirates” for Friday Night Fight Scenes, enjoyed watching the Historical Costume Fashion Show – the two dozen gowns were dazzling – and just listened at Saturday Night Sex Scene Readings, which was all-female. Golly, the girls aren’t shy. It still has me blushing. Ladies, whew!
Every author has an interesting story. I was seated at a signing next to Denise Dietz, who turns out to be a near-neighbor (residing in Sydney, on Vancouver Island) and who also writes under the pen name Mary Ellen Dennis. It turns out she is the fifth wife of romance writer Victoria Gordon, who is actually Gordon Aalborg, an Australian who wrote a book with Denise, which led to marriage. They had a long-distance relationship with her in Colorado and him in Tasmania, and he talked about getting hitched before they’d even met! The whole story sounds more interesting than many novels, and now she serves as ‘her’ muse.
For aspiring novelists, the dash of cold water came from agent Jennifer Weltz of the Jean Naggar Literary Agency, who gave a terrific speech of practical advice (her speech in the next blog post) and who warned of fierce competition. Jennifer said she gets 8,000 queries from authors a year. Of those she asks for chapters from 10 percent, requests a full manuscript from 10 percent of that, and ultimately takes on just 5 new clients a year. For anyone being published, these conferences remind us how lucky we are.
Historical fiction is dominated by women, both as authors and readers (I’d guess the 300 attendees were at least 75 percent female) and is very heavy on Western European royalty and aristocrats from the late medieval period to the 19th Century. Editors advised attendees that ‘marquee names’ sell books, meaning books about historical figures people have heard of, like Anne Boleyn. That means a lot of imitation (think of the Jane Austen and Tudors craze) and frustration for writers who try to do something different. I was impressed by Vanitha Sankaran, an American-born woman of Indian descent, who managed to sell a story on a woman paper-maker in medieval France, breaking out of the queens-and-duchesses cliche. But even she said she would have a tough time marketing a book about the history of India.
Also of interest: the American historical fiction market is stronger for books about Europe than our own history, editors and agents said. I’ve experienced this with the Ethan Gage series, with stronger support for Ethan overseas than at home in “The Dakota Cipher.” Why are we Americans less interested in our own past? Not exotic enough? Curious.
This was my first time at HNS, but probably not my last: the panels were consistently interesting. I even got a handout guide to English royalty explaining the proper use of titles.
San Diego was great – a maritime museum that included the square-rigger ‘Star of India’ and the ‘HMS Surprise’ used in Master and Commander and the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie was right across the street – but the next conference is is London, Sept. 29-30, 2012. Lots of history tours planned. That would be a really fun one.
The Society website is http://www.historicalnovelsociety.org/.