Historical Novel Society–San Diego 2011

I’m back from the Historical Novel Society’s fourth North American conference, held in San Diego this weekend. As promised, here’s my recap, with the caveat that there was a choice of panel discussions offered and I can only report on the ones which I attended. (Sadly, I didn’t take notes, as I was too busy enjoying the discussions, so I’m writing here from memory–if there’s anything I got wrong, let me know.)

Friday night kicked off with a dinner banquet, with Harry Turtledove as the keynote speaker. Turtledove is primarily an author of alternative history, which isn’t a genre I prefer, but I found him to be an engaging and lively speaker. I definitely plan on looking into his “straight” historical novels someday.

Since I’ve been pondering trying to write a young adult novel at some point, the first panel I attended Saturday morning was “Adult Versus Young Adult Fiction,” moderated by Gina Iorio, a librarian, with Susan Coventry, C. C. Humphreys, Pamela Bauer Mueller, and Dori Jones Yang as the panelists. The impression I took away from the panel is that the only hard-and-fast rule about young adult fiction is that the protagonist has to be in his or her teens; otherwise, the fast-growing genre offers a lot of room for play and has a growing appeal for adult readers as well.

Next was “Making Characters Believable,” moderated by Jess Wells and featuring Gillian Bagwell, Christy English, Tony Hays, and Kathryn Johnson. I found it interesting to see how a variety of authors accomplished this challenging task.

One of the hot-button topics in the historical fiction community has been the perception that in order to attract readers (and publishers), historical novels require “marquee names”–the Anne Boleyns and Eleanor of Aquitaines of the world, as opposed to lesser-known historical characters and ordinary folk. Mary Sharratt moderated the panel, which included Susanne Dunlap, C. W. Gortner, Vanitha Sankaran, and Margaret George, some who have chosen the famous for their protagonists, some of whom have not. This panel attracted a lot of audience questions. The consensus appeared to be that while there is a preference for marquee names, the well-written novel about lesser folk can find a home, provided that it tells a compelling story.

The lunch speaker was agent Jennifer Weltz, who stayed around to moderate an editor’s panel on “Selling Historical Fiction” with Deni Dietz (Five Star), Shana Drehs (my own editor from Sourcebooks), Heather Lazare (Crown), and Charles Spicer from St. Martin’s. I didn’t stick around for the entire panel, as I had to primp for my own panel discussion, but there was a very interesting discussion on the e-book phenomenon.

Next up was “Whose Side Are You On? Turning the Antagonists of History into Sympathetic Protagonists,” moderated by Elizabeth Kerri Mahon and featuring Emma Campion (writing about Alice Perrers), C. W. Gortner (writing about Catherine de Medici), Anne Easter Smith (writing about Richard III), and your friendly blogger (writing about Margaret of Anjou). We talked about how we went about portraying in a sympathetic light those who have been traditionally cast as history’s villains.

Our keynote speaker at dinner was Cecelia Holland, who gave a very short and very successful speech on the role of the historical novelist, proving that one doesn’t need to give a long talk to captivate an audience! The dinner was followed by a fashion show, spanning ancient times through the nineteenth century and emceed very entertainingly by Valerie Sokol. I was one of the participants, so I can’t offer pictures, but I suspect a few will be appearing on the web over the next few days.

A hit of the last conference was the “Saturday Night Sex Scene” readings, which were repeated (with new scenes, of course) for this conference. I confess that I missed these, however, since at that time jet lag was beginning to tell on me and my hotel room was looking awfully good. (There were also “Friday Night Fight Scenes” for the pugilistically inclined.)

On Sunday, editor jay Dixon, novelist Sarah Mallory, and librarian Barbara Sedlock offered a program on “Library Research.” Sedlock gave us a brief rundown on ways to find repositories of primary source materials on line, complete with a nifty handout, which I’ll be utilizing soon. Mallory reminded us that while research is essential for the historical novel, the author needs to avoid the trap of turning the finished product into an “information dump.” Dixon gave us cautionary tales of the novelist who doesn’t do enough research, and also offered some helpful reminders on British versus American usage and a cheat sheet for addressing the nobility.

The last session I attended was “Writing Biographical Fiction: How Much Fiction, How Much Fact?” moderated by Frederick Ramsay and featuring Margaret George, Cecelia Holland, Joyce Elson Moore, and Susan Vreeland as panelists. I have to say that this was my favorite panel of the conference, and I really regret not being able to recap what was said. The panelists offered a variety of opinions on such topics as to how one should treat pastimes that might offend modern sensibilities, such as bear-baiting, and the moderator asked good questions and drew out each of the authors (none of whom were showboaters). (Another reason I liked this panel was because every person on it was wearing spectacles. Glasses rule!)

One of the best aspects of the conference, however, was what took place before, after, and in-between discussions–getting to mingle with readers, bloggers, and fellow authors. I seldom get a chance to do this in person, so it was a real boon for me. I would mention some of the people I met, but I have a terrible head for names and faces, and I’m afraid I’d leave someone out. If I met you, it was a delight!*

I also enjoyed San Diego itself, though I didn’t get to venture out much except for during a few hours on Friday afternoon. My hotel room had a fine view of the Santa Fe train depot, and there are few things I find more soothing than the sound of train whistles blowing in the night.

Looking forward to the HNS North American Conference for 2013!

*Unless you’re the man who, when I mentioned at breakfast that I had thought I had seen you on a certain website, you responded, “Oh, I’ve been on lots of sites!” and shoved a multi-page handout about your prize-winning books in my face and told me to read it, without bothering to ask me anything about my own self or whether I was interested in seeing said handout. When you scooted off seconds later to speak to someone who was evidently of more use to you, there’s a reason I let someone else have your seat next to me. You lost a potential reader that morning, dude, and you’re not getting her back until you use the manners your mother taught you.

12 thoughts on “Historical Novel Society–San Diego 2011”

  1. It sounds like you had a great time, Susan! I'm still sorry I had to miss it but I am loving hearing all the stories of how it went!!

  2. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks, Destiny! We missed you. Your books were in the store, at least, and I saw some people eying them!

  3. It was great getting to meet you! The conference was absolutely wonderful and I cannot wait for the next one.

    ~Heather @ The Maiden's Court blog

  4. Patricia O'Sullivan


    It was an honor sitting across from you at the banquet on Saturday. I was a little star struck, but your graciousness set the tone for our table. Thanks for making a first-timer feel so welcome!

  5. Susan Higginbotham

    Marg, you'd love it!

    Heather, it was great meeting you also! I agree, it was a great conference!

    Patricia, thanks so much! I enjoyed meeting you. I just wish the banquet room had been more conducive to conversation!

  6. A great account of what sounds like a fascinating conference. I'm in UK but am about to join the Association. I would have loved to have been at almost any of the sessions you describe, especially fact v fiction and 'marquee names'.

  7. DeAnna Cameron

    I loved reading this post and it brought back so many wonderful memories. Meeting you was such a delight and I too was more than a bit starstruck. I'll always treasure my signed copy of "Traitor's Wife."

  8. Great recap! Enjoyed meeting you and THANK YOU again for historicalfictiononline.com 🙂 You rock!

  9. Susan Higginbotham

    Wendy, you'll love it! The next conference is in 2012 in London.

    DeAnna, thank you so much! I'm looking forward to reading your book too.

    Amanda, thank you!

  10. Whatever short speech that Cecelia Holland made, you've got me intrigued!! Glad you had so much fun at the conference (as if we doubted it would happen!).

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