Wednesday, 31 October 2012

NaNoWriMo - the Secrets of Success Part 1

Tomorrow, National Novel Writing Month – NaNo for short – starts again, and during the next 30 days hundreds of thousands of writers all over the world will attempt to write 50,000 words at a rate of 1667 a day. (In fact, they’ve started in New Zealand already …). They’ll join Forums, upload word counts, forget the housework and walking the dog. They’ll laugh crazily, weep tears of exhausted despair, stare at the screen, hit the keyboard, hit the screen, hit the wall … They’ll overdose on caffeine and triumph – and in all likelihood they’ll have difficulty remembering their own names by November 21st.

So here you are, on October 31st, wondering whether to join in with the creative insanity. Look, you’ve got a To Do List as long as a giant’s arm already – why do this? Why put yourself through it? What will you get out of it? If, on November 30th the magic 50,000 word mark has been reached, you get a certificate. Big wow, you might say. But there’s so much more to it: there’s an enormous sense of pride. You’ll have put 50,000 words on the hard disk, on paper – that simply weren’t there before. They may be raw, rushed and clumsy words, but they’re words plucked out of your brain and sent down the neural pathways to that paper or screen – ultimately to make their way into the brains of your readers. You’ve gone beyond the idle ‘I’d like to write a novel sometime …’ You’ve cut the tree down, chopped it into planks and staves and masts, nailed most of it together – you can now trim and hone, carve and plane, shaping your ship of dreams and sending it out onto the ocean … OK, enough of the seafaring metaphor!

In this and the next blogpost or two, I’m going to explore NaNo and how to make it work for you, with an honest discussion of the benefits and the pitfalls. I’ll talk about my past experience and what I’ve learned from it – and whether I’ve decided to join in this year (still dithering at this point, with eleven hours to go!)

So, what’s the first lesson in making it work for you?

Make it your own.

Even though this is a huge collective endeavour, make it your own personal NaNo.

It’s wonderful to have the structure of Nano behind you, with the sense of that global community – but this is your Nano. You don’t need to write 50,000 words.

You should set your own goals. Make them challenging – yes. Make them aspirational enough to give you a sense of satisfaction when you rise to the challenge. Don’t make them impossible – don’t set yourself up for a fall and for that horribly familiar feeling that you can’t do this writing thing.

At midnight on November 30th I want you to be sitting in a golden glow of Serene Self-Satisfaction or under the glitter-ball of Total Triumph – not weltering in a grey miasma of Despair.

Today’s the day to consider joining. Today’s the day to consider your writing project –

  • Is it a project that’s been on your mind and now you feel ready to start it?

  • Do you have several projects on the go? If so, pick one for NaNo.

  • If you’re just setting out, try to block out the rough shape of it and decide how much of it you’re going to tackle in the coming month.

  • If you’re midway, where in the arc of your story have you reached? My bet is, you’re in that difficult mid-section. If so, you might use NaNo to hammer your way through this tricky bit, gritting your teeth all the way if need be, knowing that you’ll have the pleasure of coasting to the denouement later on.

  • Is this a project that is well-advanced but which has beached itself? Now’s the time to refloat it (drifting into seafaring metaphors again, sorry!) Use NaNo to finish the thing, for good or ill.

  • You don’t even need to write new stuff if you don’t want to – you can use NaNo for concentrated editing of your manuscript.

Be honest with yourself: if NaNo is not for you, whether this year or ever, don’t do it! There’s no law saying you should. Be a rugged individualist, stand back and watch other people suffer in that peculiar NaNo way. Don’t guilt-trip about it. Writers have a strange talent for finding oh so many triggers for feeling guilty – don’t let non-participation be one of them.

The secret of NaNo, then, is to know whether to join in and how to make it work for you: I’ll talk some more about the latter in my next post.

In the meantime, pop over to the NaNoWriMo website, run by the delightfully-named Office of Letters and Light, at – you’ll find loads of inspirational advice and enthusiasm there. Sometimes it’s a bit cheerleader-y, but hey, in the gloom of November we need all the sunny positivity we can get …

Upcoming Fictionfire Focus Workshops - a reminder


VILLAINS WITH RELISH (November 10th - booking closes November 7th)
Everybody loves a baddie - but how do you describe a really good baddie? In this workshop we'll set about creating villains who are memorably nasty in all sorts of ways.

SHORT STORY WRITING (November 24th - booking closes November 21st)
In this workshop we'll explore the constraints and advantages of the genre and the writing skills you need to craft effective short fiction.

FESTIVITIES AND FROST (December 1st - booking closes November 28th)
As the festive season arrives, we'll explore how you can use Christmas and winter settings to create powerful scenes in your fiction which will resonate with your reader - whether the tone is 'Bah, humbug!' or 'God bless us, every one!'

There are discounts for booking more than one workshop. You can find out more and make your booking by going to the Focus Workshops page on my  Fictionfire website. I hope you can join us!

fire up your imagination
fuel your self-belief

Friday, 19 October 2012

Historical Novel Society Conference 2012 Part 5

The debate about what historical fiction is and how it's seen continued on the second day of the HNS Conference with a panel discussion of The Many Faces of HF, featuring writers Vanora Bennett, Rory Clements and Sarah Dunant, along with agent Carole Blake, editor Heather Lazare of Simon and Schuster and Project Director of Quick Reads, Cathy Rentzenbrink. Some of us might have been feeling dozy after the Saturday night banquet, or still reeling from the readings of titillating passages after that banquet (I was not at either but heard it was all quite ... stirring!), but if so, we were soon revived by the forceful and passionate way Sarah Dunant chaired the discussion and advocated HF. She asked each speaker to describe their view of the appeal of HF and where HF stands now in the marketplace.

Heather Lazare, Cathy Rentzenbrink, Sarah Dunant
Sarah herself thinks HF is 'on the cusp of a revolution', that we are all part of a huge project, all contributing to the greater picture, 'like pointillist painters'. We no longer just write about kings and queens, recognising that humble people have meaning and interest. History is 'vital' and 'if you're to do it well you have to get your history right'.

Heather Lazare wondered who the next 'marquee name' would be, 'the next Anne Boleyn' - yet also stressed you should 'write what's in your heart'. If you love a period, write about what interests you - all the more so because she tends to do '5-8 rounds of editing with a writer - so you have to love what you're writing'. She said it helps to have your platform, where you can show your expertise in the period and added that the ebooks upsurge has been good for the HF market, leading to a revival in writers such as Jean Plaidy. (Now where have we heard that name before ...?)

Vanora Bennett described the HF writer as 'taking old facts, building them into a new shape, a new way of looking at the past'. Fiction allows you to ask questions. Cathy Rentzenbrink - who also read Jean Plaidy as a child! - says HF 'makes you seem much cleverer than you really are'. She added that publishing 'is like the Wild West just now' and that people can find their own niche according to their interests, and there will be readers out there also interested in that niche. She reminded us that self-publishing and indie publishing can be a route into mainstream success (wish she hadn't used Fifty Shades of Grey as an example, though - so disheartening, my dear ...). The plus side is that 'it's never been easier to be read' but the downside is that it's 'never been more difficult to be paid: nobody has worked out how the money bit works.'

Rory Clements, Vanora Bennett, Carole Blake
Rory Clements grew up in the Georgette Heyer/Anya Seton era (cue audience gazing mistily back at their own youths. Don't forget Jean Plaidy, though, Rory ...). His opinion is that HF was 'quaint' then, but 'cool now'. He wants to make his fiction accessible, and shuns the 'verily' and 'thou' approach. 'It's got a great future, history', he said - one of my favourite quotes of the conference!

Carole Blake, also dieted on Mesdames Seton and Plaidy, told us that most of what she's learned about history she's learned from HF. Even if there are too many queens, she feels that every writer who tackles what might seem an overworked subject, finds different aspects, creates different people - this tied in with what Philippa Gregory was saying on the previous day of the conference when discussing her take on Catherine of Aragon or Mary Boleyn. Carole enjoys 'a different voice' and is one of those readers who relishes an author's note at the end of the book where the author 'unpicks it' for her.

Heather Lazare noted that when a writer submits an MS to her, she checks out their followers on Facebook and their level of engagement with a potential readership: this, she said, can increase the chance of a higher advance being offered.

Finally, there was hilarity all round when the panel took questions and comments: one avowedly-gay man claimed that in HF he was 'more interested in stable boys than queens' - he meant social class-wise. Of course.

Lindsey Davies and Richard Lee
After I attended a fascinating talk by the dauntingly-knowledgeable Ian Mortimer, it was - all too soon - time for the concluding address, given by Lindsey Davies. She took no prisoners but captured hearts and minds with her review of her long and successful career. There were gasps from the audience of amazement, recognition and shock - her words were so direct, unapologetic, sometimes even harsh. Birch twigs for the mind: a good slapping to stir the circulation.

She told us how in 1985 she resigned from the Civil Service, saying 'Frankly, I would rather sweep roads!' She was 35 and was told when she wrote The Silver Pigs, the first of her Falco stories, that there was no market for HF or for Roman novels. Arrow Books passed on it, saying it was too jokey. Ironically, they were later to publish the Falco novels. The month she got a cheque in her hand at last, her money had just run out and she'd had to borrow to pay the mortgage. She wrote The Silver Pigs to use up the research she'd done for The Course of Honour, her first book, which languished in a cupboard for ten years before being printed with no publicity and a smaller advance - 'if you have a book you believe in, be heartened by this'. An editor, on seeing it, said 'This is wonderful - why wasn't I shown it before?' As she shared this with us, Lindsey said 'I'm nearly crying', so the harshness of the struggle for recognition has left its mark, in spite of her ebullience.

For her, history is not central - writing a novel is. She told writers to be 'authoritative, not hesitant' and at the end of her initial speech said 'I will take questions but be warned, I will not necessarily answer them.' She let us know that she is 'a childless orphan which helps a lot, my partner conveniently died, which helps more.' Universal sharp intake of breath in the room. She is, though, making that Virginia Woolf point that having no dependents helps a writer - although she is impatient with those who make excuses for inactivity: 'I really hate people saying they're writers when they don't get down to it.' She doesn't write till gone three in the afternoon, and she 'doesn't do Twitter and Facebook' feeling she wouldn't write as many books as she does with social media to distract her. Well, we know, Lindsey, but there's Heather Lazare over there, telling us she checks our Facebook activity ... what's a poor would-be writer to do? To platform or not to platform?

I remember reading The Silver Pigs back in the 1980s and recognising a new voice there and then. 'Voice' was one of the repeated mantras of the conference: if you have voice you can sell the book. If you have voice you draw the reader in. If you have voice you can convince them of the era. If you have voice, you move away from history lesson and enter direct dramatic experience.

So, there we have it: a wonderful conference we were all sorry to see end. Apart from enjoying the talks and panel discussions, I loved meeting fellow writers - some of whom like Douglas Jackson and Emma Darwin, I'd met before, others who were new friends: so hello again, Dianne Ascroft, Mari Griffiths, Barbara Kyle, Anna Belfrage, Christina Courtenay, Helen Hollick, Lois Leveen (such a shame I couldn't buy her book at the conference!). Plus the writers I've worked with through Fictionfire: Yvonne Lyon, Katherine Clements, Hannah Cole. And finally, so many thanks are due to the indefatigable Jenny Barden, tearing around the hall with the microphone during Q and A sessions, Carol McGrath and Richard Lee himself, onlie begetter of the Society. Thanks for the wonderful venue, the positive and lively atmosphere - and the wonderful goody-bags!

Leaving the HNS 12  conference
Sadly, I doubt that I'll make it across the pond to the conference next year in Florida - but I'll be signing up for 2014 in Britain and I dearly hope that the novel I was pitching this time will have seen the light of day by then!

If you enjoyed this report on the HNS Conference 2012, there are four others on this blog: here are the links to them - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. Believe me, I didn't set out to write quite so much ...

Ironically, my next Fictionfire Focus Workshop, on 27th October, is on building your social platform through Facebook, Twitter and ... um, blogging! If you're interested, see details on my website,

Monday, 15 October 2012

Historical Novel Society Conference 2012 Part 4

Apologies, first of all, for the delay in bringing you Part 4 of these reports - I was preparing and running my Fictionfire Workshop on fictional heroes and heroines: how we view them, how to create them. Back to Day 1 of the Conference, and a panel discussion, called The Lying Art, featuring historical novelists Emma Darwin, Harry Sidebottom, Elizabeth Chadwick, Daisy Goodwin, Ian Mortimer and Barbara Ewing.

In this lively debate, the writers were addressing that thorny question of accuracy in historical fiction. There's a sliding scale in this: we are, after all, fiction writers. We are allowed to Make Stuff Up. However, where does the making stuff up distort and devalue the history we're trying to bring to life for the reader?

Ian Mortimer said that the criticism shouldn't be based on inaccuracy as much as 'Is it any good?' Emma Darwin reinforced this by declaring 'It's a novel! Get over it!' Harry Sidebottom said he wasn't so hung up on the question of 'lying' as he explains later what it is he lied about. He also pointed out that Roman historians used to do it all the time and that modern historians like Simon Schama are using imaginative approaches.

Emma Darwin, Harry Sidebottom, Daisy Goodwin
Daisy Goodwin introduced a note of warning, reminding us of the film Anonymous which not only claims that Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare (oh, not that all over again!) but that Queen Elizabeth wasn't the Virgin Queen - that she had not one, but two illegitimate children! Here we have one of the challenges of re-envisaging history through art. The writer has a perfect right to imagine whatever they wish, and those of their audience with a reasonable knowledge of the period in question will have an instinctive response in terms of knowing what is or is not feasible or acceptable. However, young audiences often gain their knowledge of history, whether it's of William Wallace (who, apparently, broke off from battle and face-painting to have an affair with the Princess of France) or Pearl Harbour or the breaking of the Enigma Code - from film versions. This fictionalising of history has always gone on -  Shakespeare himself was guilty of prejudicing many of our opinions to fit his artistic or political agenda. His Richard III, the 'bottled spider', is notorious. His Cleopatra does not overtly test out the effects of poison on prisoners to check out which poison is a) painless, b) quick - as she does in Plutarch, because he doesn't want to draw our attention to how sadistic and calculating that is: that's one part of her 'infinite variety' he wants to leave out.

The truth is, it's impossible to be true. We cannot truly enter the mindset of the people of the past: it's our duty as writers, though, to have a damn good try. Too many female characters in HF are feminists in bustles ... or wimples. I adore the novels of Ariana Franklin, for example, whose medieval heroine Adelia Aguilar is rebellious, intelligent, strong-willed, courageous - but very modern in her attitudes, speeches and practices (applying forensic techniques to murder investigation). I still love the books even when being jarred, because they're full of energy, pace and great dialogue. The research is very definitely there - but the writer is doing what she wants with it - and damn your eyes if you don't like it!

Emma Darwin reminded us that we see the past through the eyes of our own era: she said Dickens' view of the French Revolution ought to be more accurate because he was closer to it in time, but we don't see him as being as 'authentic' as Hilary Mantel is in A Place of Greater Safety. She said we need to try to get the mindset right (mentioning the notoriously anachronistic dialogue in Downton Abbey) but that when you've done your research you can end up writing badly if you have your textbook in your hand. So there's a degree of stepping away from the research: 're-imagining implies some measure of forgetting'.

Harry Sidebottom added 'I imagine the bits in between the evidence' and Elizabeth Chadwick claimed that 'as a novelist you're building a bridge between the past and the present for readers to walk over.'

Elizabeth Chadwick, Barbara Ewing, Ian Mortimer
Finally, they debated the relevance of notes and explanations: Ian Mortimer asked if 'they punctuate the bubble', Emma said she 'doesn't want to unpick the rope', the tie between the past and her re-imagining of it for the reader. Harry likes end-notes (so do I) as they give the reader the chance to find out what 'really' happened - to him they're the literary equivalent of 'the add-on bonus features of DVDs'. I thought that was an excellent way of describing them.

The debate is bound to go on and on: all we can hope for is that balance and good sense will prevail. We're writing novels, not lectures: we hope to cast a spell where the reader is drawn so well into a past era they lose the sense of being a visitor, we try not to crush people under the weight of 'forsooths' but at the same time not jar them out of the time-period by having a character in Downton Abbey talk about having a 'time out' (!!!).

I didn't manage to hear all of the next Panel Discussion, Brawn v. Heart, as I had a pitch-appointment. This was a debate about gender in historical fiction, featuring novelists Angus Donald, Karen Harper, CW Gortner and Douglas Jackson, along with editors Gillian Green of Ebury and Shana Drehs of the Landmark imprint of Sourcebooks. They talked of the cover-design issue I mentioned in Part 1 of these reports - how predictable the images are for male v. female fiction topics. Karen Harper told us, interestingly, that she was writing about Mary Boleyn in 1982, long before Philippa Gregory did: her novel was called 'The Golden Snare' and its focus was on Mary's struggle to survive. However, when it was published, its title was Passion's Reign and it was sold as romance. When Random House re-issued it in 2004, its title had become The Last Boleyn, with a portrait of Mary Boleyn on it - at which point male readers did read it. As she says, different 'covers can give you different audiences'.

Finally on Day 1, novelist Margaret George gave the closing address. She told us she's 'Tudor'd out' and is going back to ancient history for her subjects. She told us, rather beautifully, that we're 'the time machines for other people to go back by', that 'we give a kind of immortality to the figures of history' and that we should never be ashamed of being historical novelists.

Which seems to be a pretty good note to end on!

Part 5 of my Conference report later this week!

Here are the links to the other reports on HNS 2012:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 5

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Historical Novel Society Conference 2012 Part 3

What Are Publishers Looking For? Well, you can't resist a title like that, can you? If only we knew! This was the title of the session I attended after the coffee-break on Day 1 of the Conference. Jade Chandler and Laura MacDougall of Hodder talked about trends and expectations - this was all enlightening, exciting and sometimes daunting. They talked of the timeless (hah!) appeal of certain periods of history - the Romans, the Wars of the Roses, the Tudors, the Restoration - but also how certain eras have been, historically, (hah again!) a hard sell - the Georgian period being one. In discussion, we all groaned in sympathy with the writer who told us she'd submitted her book to various agents and one had loved the writing but didn't think he/she could sell it, because of the period it was set in. Oh dear me. Ironically, Jade and Laura had also pointed out that there's such a thing as 'the Downton effect' - that TV, whether through dramas like 'Downton' and 'The Bletchley Circle' or book-programmes like Richard and Judy's book club, has a knock-on effect. People submit post-war dramas or beneath-stairs sagas because a fashion has been created and is sustained by writers tapping into it. Still, as writers are constantly told to write what's in their hearts and that if the writing's good enough it will be published, while at the same time being reminded of trends and market-forces like these, it's small wonder we become confused!

So, what do publishers want? Well, they want concept, as I mentioned in my first report on the Conference. They want the zingingly economical pitch-phrase that they can sling at the in-house marketing folks before it becomes the hook to sell the book. They want the same but different - they always have. They want the fresh voice and the fresh angle, but the paradox is that the angle needs to be easily comprehensible as a marketing definition. The book needs to offer something that's different from the other titles on their list, it needs to have strong dialogue (always a challenge in HF) and a great character who drives the story and with whom the reader can feel involved.

Laura talked of reading-group appeal: she likes books with issues for debate, well-written yet accessible and thoughtful. This is the sort of fiction for which the patronising term 'lit-lite' was invented.

Both Laura and Jade said cross-genre novels were a current selling-point, where you mash up more than one genre, (Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, anyone?), citing an upcoming novel featuring a time-travelling serial killer. SF + thriller + HF! Cue various writers in the room face-palming - now why didn't I think of that!

After lunch, it was time for the presentation of the HNS Short Story Award - I'm delighted that I was one of the finalists, with my story Reputation. Such was the excitement of that, I'll need to check the name of the overall winner, as chosen by Ebury editor Gillian Green and literary agent Jonathan Pegg, and add it to this post later!

Reputation is a story I really loved writing and its events take place slightly later than the era my current novel-in-progress is set in. Reaching the Final of the Award was a great morale-boost.

[Additional: links to the other four reports on HNS 2012:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 4
Part 5]

 A reminder: next Wednesday, 10th October 2012, is when bookings will close for my next Fictionfire Focus Workshop, I Need a Hero, on 13th October.

In the workshop we'll be exploring how to create believable and sympathetic heroes and heroines. How do we define heroes? How do we stop them from being too good to be true?

Full details of this and the other workshops in the series are at and on my website

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Historical Novel Society Conference 2012 Part 2

Author Philippa Gregory
Philippa Gregory gave the formal opening address of the HNS Conference - and a polished, confident, witty and fascinating speech it was. Some authors are so practised at public speaking that they can hold the audience in the palm of their hand, and she's one of them. Her talk was also beautifully illustrated by a slide-show. She set out to describe her own path towards writing HF, what she thinks HF's appeal is to the reader - and to defend it from the often sneering attitude shown to it by 'proper' historians and writers. I think we all agreed she did a damn fine job!

Philippa studied at Sussex University at a time when the historical focus on 'ordinary' people's lives - and include women in that - was getting going. Throughout her career, as those of us who've read her novels know, she's been concerned to give a voice to the women characters of history and to allow us to see events from their perspective. If at times, I've felt that she becomes a little strident or repetitive about this, I think also that we shouldn't take for granted what has become more usual in both HF and straight history - the focus on the experiences of the downtrodden and the voiceless. We are fascinated by women's history, by the history of peasants and merchants, by slavery - whether it's in the Deep South or, as in Giles Milton's wonderful White Gold (straight history) about white slaves abducted from Cornwall and brought to North Africa.

There is an irony, though, because Philippa is also famous for writing novels about female monarchs - and if they're not rulers themselves, they're at the side of famous men - or at their backs, nudging them somewhat forcefully towards their destinies! During the conference, one complaint was that HF involves 'too many Queens' - that there are only so many accounts of Ann Boleyn's tragic life that we can take. Philippa's answer to this would be that she either deals with women whose story and role in history is not that well known, as with her current Cousins War series - or that she approaches a known story from a different angle. It was this ability to see the potential of a story that led her to her hugely successful The Other Boleyn Girl - which has, to my mind, the most perfect title - a concept in a phrase.  She pointed out that often when we review archive material, we fail to see what's there - but at times, something intrigues, niggles, sets the imagination whirring.  This is what happened when she noticed, in the Navy records, the name of a ship: the Mary Boleyn. Later she found a letter Mary Boleyn had written defending her marriage to William Stafford. She shared the letter with us and it was one of the most gorgeously-phrased declarations of love and devotion I've ever heard. No wonder she had to write the novel!

HF, Philippa says, is 'the animation and recreation of a life' in which the writer joins the 'selection of facts' with 'the craft of the novel'. She said 'I shape the story according to my response to' the characters. She likes to use present tense as she finds past tense narrative 'stodgy' - I disagree, often finding a huge novel written entirely in the present tense rather wearing.

Her plea is that we should be proud of ourselves for being novelists, because a 'novel rescues history from the past'. If it's done well, it 'conquers death and time', 'it tells the story history cannot tell.' As a further defence, she quoted the waspish historian David Starkey's would-be withering put-down of her work as having allocated 75 pages to each fact, which she blithely dismissed, reminding us that historians are describing imagined characters quite as much as novelists do - only they don't admit it. If anybody has watched the laboured versions of history television gives us these days: the centre-stage historian pacing through the halls of the famous, the bombastic use of music to flog us into feeling the requisite emotions, the repetitions and over-simplifications and the dire use of lame vignettes from the past, acted out in soft-focus behind The Historian - well, I think any of us would prefer to pick up a good novel where the experience is somehow more direct, more genuinely involving, than any number of versions by the Schamas or the Starkeys of this world.

Philippa finished by reminding us that the very first novel was written by a woman (yay!), a very long time ago: Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji, in the early eleventh century.

And how did Philippa herself come to a love of HF in her youth? Jean Plaidy, of course! (See my previous post)

I thought I'd be writing a couple of reports, but I seem to be producing a series! I'll post about the rest of Day 1 of the Conference tomorrow.

ADDITIONAL NOTE 16th October 2012: Philippa's full speech is now up on the HNS website here -

Philippa Gregory's website is

Here are the links to my other reports on HNS 2012:
Part 1
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

A reminder: next Wednesday, 10th October 2012, is when bookings will close for my next Fictionfire Focus Workshop, I Need a Hero, on 13th October.

In the workshop we'll be exploring how to create believable and sympathetic heroes and heroines. How do we define heroes? How do we stop them from being too good to be true?

Full details of this and the other workshops in the series are at and on my website

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Historical Novel Society Conference 2012 Part 1

The Historical Novel Society's much-anticipated conference took place at the University of Westminster on Regent Street, London, last weekend - here's the first of my reports, because I can't possibly fit it all into one! Ever since I joined the Society I've found it a warm and welcoming community of writers and readers, so the conference was a great opportunity to meet people I'd met only through Facebook before and to hear some big-name writers of historical fiction in discussion about the genre, what it means to them, where they think it's going.
Reception desk for HNS 

Now, during the speeches, panel-sessions and chats, which writer's name came up most often, do you think? Was it Bernard Cornwell (I wasn't at the Friday reception or Saturday evening banquet, so missed hearing the great man himself)? Was it Philippa Gregory? Patrick O'Brien? Conn Iggulden?

Nope. It was Jean Plaidy. I lost count of the times writers said they'd first fallen in love with HF through reading Jean Plaidy when they were young. As did I, for that matter. They also loved Anya Seton, Georgette Heyer, Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliff. Oh, yes. They'd learned about Tudor monarchs, wars and passions, Roman legions and medieval power-struggles, by being drawn into the stories of the figures from history which these writers so powerfully re-imagined.

Now, HF has moved on, of course. All genres have their waxings and their wanings, all have to evolve or die. History is only what we say it was. If we watch a historical film made in the Forties or the Seventies, Tudor gowns may be worn by the actresses but the flick of eye-liner, the carefully-welded curls or the suspiciously-supportive undergarments will tell us which era is currently doing the re-imagining.

Throughout the weekend, there was celebration of the current strength of the genre in the market, both here in Britain and in America and Canada - but there was also debate about fashions within the industry in terms of 'hot' eras and tired cover-treatments.

Here, then, is the first instalment of my summary of Saturday's conference speakers and sessions: 

Soldiers need cuppas too!
After we were welcomed by Richard Lee, who founded HNS back in 1997 (it now has 1000 members, which is great news), the first panel session What Sells HF? starred Matt Bates, Fiction Buyer for WH Smith Travel; Jade Chandler, commissioning editor for Sphere; author Diana Gabaldon; David Headley, who owns Goldsboro Books (see my last blogpost for my report on the History in the Court event there); Simon Taylor, editorial director at Transworld; and Susan Watt, publishing director at HarperCollins.

Simon Taylor reminded us that in the 1990s HF was a dead genre, before the panel moved on to discuss what attracts editors nowadays. Jade Chandler talked about 'that tingling feeling' you get when you read something good, but she linked that with a phrase we were to hear more than once during the weekend - 'high concept', which is, essentially, an easily-pitchable concept. We as writers struggle with the task of fitting the wonder and richness of our novel into the elevator pitch, the sizzle - not the steak, the concept. Most of us would agree that trying to boil our story down to a saleable pitch-sentence or two is the hardest, most frustrating thing in the world, but here it is - the editors and agents who may buy your work and who then have the task of selling it on to their sales/marketing bods, love to latch onto the 'concept'. In the discussion, concept, background, characters and voice were all cited as important when appealing to editors - and all of this was reiterated throughout the weekend. Now, these are matters over which the writer has some control - but there are other, unnerving issues which come into play. If you've written a novel set during the English Civil War, the editor may end up rejecting it because they already have three Civil War novels on their list. That's not your fault and there's nothing you can do about it. Simon Taylor, for instance, has enough Roman-set fiction on his list, thanks. David Headley also felt the Roman market is flagging and that certain historical periods are a hard sell, but repeated that 'if you've got a great character and great voice that is what will sell a book', no matter when it's set.

Doug Jackson - writes Roman thrillers and doesn't think the market is flagging!
Matt Bates of WH Smith Travel led the discussion towards the issue of cover-treatments. Lots of laughter and groaning followed as he divided the masculine and feminine sides of the market as shown on book-jackets. Male: bloke with sword. Or emblem. Or armour. Female: dress, worn by model with cut-off head. Everyone claimed they'd love to see more originality - but the truth is that cover-packages are carefully thought out and act as a powerful shortcut, telling the reader what to expect when they open the book. I was intrigued by the idea that in the future, especially with e-book covers, books will appear with various different jacket-treatments according to the divisions of the market the book can appeal to. Diana Gabaldon said that in the early days of her career when she was hand-selling books in shopping-malls, she'd give a different genre description of the book according to who approached her - a spotty youth would be told it was fantasy, a middle-aged man that it was military history and so on. She also broke from the 'I came to HF via Jean Plaidy' tradition by telling us she'd been drawn to it by seeing an old episode of Doctor Who, where his assistant wore a kilt and was a bit of all right - so Jamie (as played by Fraser Hines, remember him?) led to novels set in 18th century Scotland!

Right - I'm off now to discuss Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber with my son, who's doing his A levels, so I'll post more about the conference tomorrow.

Here are the links to the other reports I wrote about HNS 2012:

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5