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Historical Novel Society

by bdietrich on June 20, 2011

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/.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristen Hannum June 20, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Thanks for this wrap-up – it was a great conference and one of the best parts about it is the ability to mingle with best-selling writers like William Dietrich (great to meet you, Bill!) and C.C. Gortner; astonishing writers like Ann Chamberlain, Anne Easter Smith, Susan Higginbotham, and Mary Sharratt; as well as dozens of yet unpublished writers, young and old, with great ideas and interesting stories.
The sense of gate-keeping – how difficult it is to break into print – isn’t glossed over at the HNS conference, and it is humbling for those of us without published novels. How many rewrites? How many years? Gortner self-published his first novel? He still can’t get one of his novels published?
Arggh. Enjoy the conversations, the dinners, the sessions, and then back to the keyboard. (With next year in London in the back of my mind!)


bdietrich June 21, 2011 at 5:44 am

I’m always impressed by the persistence of most successful authors. Many overnight successes are anything but when you learn more about them.


Linda Collison June 20, 2011 at 6:12 pm

I’m glad to have found your website and I appreciate the informative wrap-up concerning the 2011 Historical Novel Conference. It was fun following the flurry of tweets coming from San Diego over the weekend and I was gnashing my teeth that I couldn’t be there myself. I hope to meet some more historical fiction authors face to face next year at the HNS Conference in London.


bdietrich June 21, 2011 at 5:48 am

One of the activities announced for next year was a possible boat ride up the Thames to Hampton Court…sounds awesome!


Gilli June 21, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Great post, Bill! I really enjoyed meeting you and your enthusiastic and knowledgeable contribution to the maritime history panel. As to the sex scenes being all female – don’t forget Chris Humphreys! His sonnet, though brief, was memorable, and my scene from “The Darling Strumpet” wouldn’t have been the same without his masterful reading as the Earl of Rochester!


Gillian Bagwell June 21, 2011 at 1:03 pm

Oops – somehow first try at this got posted with my name incomplete!
Great post, Bill! I really enjoyed meeting you and your enthusiastic and knowledgeable contribution to the maritime history panel. As to the sex scenes being all female – don’t forget Chris Humphreys! His sonnet, though brief, was memorable, and my scene from “The Darling Strumpet” wouldn’t have been the same without his masterful reading as the Earl of Rochester!


William Dietrich June 21, 2011 at 2:43 pm

Yes, Chris was masterful! From reciting Shakespeare’s Henry V to Gillian Bagwell’s uhm, er, golly…well, we just have to read it! Again. And again. You played your role well, too, with the handicap of often having your mouth full. Really enjoyed the conference and the maritime panel you so ably commanded.


Teralyn Rose Pilgrim June 21, 2011 at 2:54 pm

Thanks for the recap! This was the first conference I ever went to, and it was so much more than I expected. I hope to go to the one in England next year.


Victoria Dixon June 21, 2011 at 4:28 pm

Yes, thanks for this info. I’ll be back again for the agent’s talk. ;D As far as why we’re not interested in our own history, I’d have to ask: “What history?” America has scarcely existed in comparison to other countries’ written history. If I’m going to write history, I’m doing it because I want the drama of escape to a different time and place and America’s just too close on both counts. Just my .02, of course.


William Dietrich June 21, 2011 at 4:46 pm

Fair enough. We all write what grabs us, and I’ve gone as far back as the Roman Empire. But to some college students I’ve had, the 1960s were an exotically ancient different time and place. We all have different perspective, and surely our 500-plus years have plenty of good stories.


Patti O'Sullivan June 22, 2011 at 9:18 pm

Bill, great wrap up. The conference left me conflicted – full of hope, yet not. I write about American history. Jennifer Weltz let her small group sessions know immediately that she has a hard time selling American fiction. This sentiment was echoed by the editor’s panel on Saturday after lunch.

At the same time, I felt there was a lot of interest in American history in the Jewish historical fiction panel. Jewish colonial history in particular is a widely untapped topic. I see good things ahead for those of us who write in that genre.

Gillian – I loved The Darling Strumpet. I just love Charles II. Your Nell grows so much in the novel. I hated to see her grow up and take on so many of Barbara’s qualities, but I suppose Charles’s laissez faire attitude forced these women to be strong for their children.


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