Thursday, 9 October 2014

Writing Inspiration in the Far West: Liz Carr guest-posts about Cornwall, creativity and her cottage, An Dyji

Zelah Studio,
looking out over St Ives Bay
(photo courtesy of
Lynda Davies)
My lovely writing friend Liz Carr guest-posts about what Cornwall means to her and about her cottage, An Dyji, which she bought and renovated as a holiday let and a haven of creativity. Those of us who visit and love Cornwall will understand full well the appeal she describes here!

I discovered Cornwall when I was a child on summer holidays. Learning to body surf on Fistral beach, eating gritty cheese sandwiches, drinking soup which was either scalding hot or barely tepid from a wide-necked Thermos: these are some of my earliest memories.

As an adult, I returned to the county – and specifically St Ives – thanks to my closest friend, who so generously shared her lovely house with me and other worn-out London refugees. Zelah Studio, standing above Porthgwidden beach, will be our venue for Fictionfire by the Sea, thanks again to Lynda’s vision of her house as a place of creativity.

The Merry Maidens
The layers of Cornwall’s history fascinate me: almost hidden from modern view stand mysterious worked pieces of monumental stone – remnants of its origins as an ancient and sacred place, separate from the rest of the country. Its magical quality hooked me early on. It was very easy to imagine piskies and other spirit creatures darting in and out of the great stones of Men an Tol or dancing among the Merry Maidens. It’s still easy for me to narrow my eyes and see mermaids swimming round St Piran’s rock, luring unwary fishermen into their underwater secrets.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Cornwall’s copper and tin mining industries overlaid the landscape. Now the ruins of mine chimneys, engine houses and lichen-coloured iron workings are visible on the skyline.

And today the far west has another life: as a sought-after destination for artists, writers and holidaymakers who come to enjoy the wonderful light, clean sweeps of pale sand and a turquoise sea that looks as though it belongs in the Caribbean.

In January 2014 we found ourselves able to invest in a small stone-built cottage just outside St Ives. At first sight, things weren’t too good. The house hadn’t been touched for about thirty years, and it definitely needed some TLC. But we knew it could be so different.

An Dyji
After just two months, An Dyji was reborn as a cosy two-bedroom cottage, ready for visitors. The name means ‘the small house’ in Cornish, which was its nickname throughout the works. We love being there: it’s tucked away in a hundred acres of woodland, but is only six minutes from the sea.

It’s the perfect place if you want to relax, recharge and rediscover your creativity. There’s something about being away from home that helps you to leave stuff behind and free your mind. Sighing: this is what happens to us the day after arriving. The combined effects of clean air, sparkling light and an ever-changing seascape cause muscles to unclench and jaws to unlock. The place gets in your bones and before long, you’re thinking about a new project or looking at your existing work with fresh eyes.

An Dyji
So, why not join us for a weekend exploring spirit of place, the spirit that the far west of Cornwall gives us? The programme is a unique blend of inspirational taught workshops and quiet writing time. We’ll be working with a group of like-minded people, and I’m looking forward to meeting Ann Kelley, an award-winning author who’s based locally. It’s going to be a fruitful two days, but for me the most important aspect is precious space and time.

Who knows what might happen?


You can find out more about An Dyji and book accommodation there, whether you're attending Fictionfire by the Sea or not, at www.stivesretreat.co.uk 

Fictionfire by the Sea Writers' Workshop and Retreat, 17-19 October 2014 in St Ives - details here. Bookings close on 15 October.

If you can't make it to Cornwall, Fictionfire Focus Workshops in Oxford, Oct - Dec 2014 are here.

Guest-speaker at Fictionfire by the Sea is Ann Kelley - see my post here.

(All photographs, except where noted, copyright Lorna Fergusson)






Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Writing the spirit of character and place: Ann Kelley guests at Fictionfire by the Sea

Ann Kelley
I’m delighted that award winning novelist Ann Kelley is going to join us during my Fictionfire by the Sea Writers’ Workshop and Retreat in less than two weeks. I first met Ann a few years ago, during one of my visits to St Ives and she kindly invited me to her gorgeous clifftop home overlooking Porthkidney sands and the Hayle estuary. It’s a stunning location, though not without its hazards – up there Ann has survived floods, a landslide, a lightning strike and part of their roof blowing away!

Ann is the sort of person who’s naturally gifted both with empathy and with an incredible sensitivity to location. Her house was full of quirky, unusual and beautifully presented objects and artworks. She’s a photographer and poet as well as a novelist, and this can be seen in her eye for composition and selection, for lyrical celebration, for economy, for precise and lovely images.

‘If you lie down and put your ear to the beach, you can hear the surf booming through the sand.’ (The Burying Beetle)

A view like this is worth a landslide or a lightning strike!
She has written three books of poetry and runs poetry workshops. She gave me a copy of The Poetry Remedy and I found it both moving and helpful in a recent period of stress and grief. She’s also written YA fiction – her latest novel, Last Days in Eden, was published in July and her previous teen books are Runners, Koh Tabu and Lost Girls.

However, for me, it’s all about the Gussie books: the series of stories tracing the experiences of a young girl suffering from incipient heart failure – this was inspired by Ann’s own son Nathan, who sadly died after a heart-lung transplant but who seems to have been a most extraordinary person. Gussie is an equally striking character. Her situation is grievous but her spirit is never bowed. She is a creature, quite simply, of joy. She’s cheeky, rebellious, imaginative, often solitary, eccentric. She celebrates life – and this is where Ann’s talent comes into play for she shows us what I suppose we would call ‘mindfulness’ in action. Gussie, aware that her illness may limit her lifespan, doesn’t intend to waste a second. She notices everything from the tiniest insects through to the undercurrents in the adult relationships around her. She’s endlessly curious, not always tactful, but always lovable. You root for her from start to finish. When she gets the chance of an operation with the potential to save her life, you’re willing it all to go smoothly.

When I read the Gussie books, I found her character compelling of course – but I was also seduced by the mesmerising descriptions of location and the fine detail of the natural history in them. In an interview, Ann described the books as ‘a hymn of praise to this place’ – to St Ives and its environs. And I tell you this, these novels get better every time you go back to them!

I hope you’ll join us at Fictionfire by the Sea, from 17th to 19th October, for our workshops, for quiet time to write and to hear Ann give a reading and answer our questions about her aims and practices as a writer.

Ann’s website is www.annkelley.co.uk

The Gussie series of novels: The Burying Beetle, shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award; The Bower Bird, winner of the Costa Children’s Book of the Year 2007; Inchworm and A Snail’s Broken Shell.

‘It’s exciting to be here when there’s a strong wind blowing. The rooks look like broken umbrellas or black tattered cloaks, thrown away and tumbled by the gusts. The gale shaves the tops off the waves and sends the spray flying back into the sea.’ (The Burying Beetle)

Come and hear Ann – join us at Fictionfire by the Sea Writers’ Workshop and Retreat 17th to 19th October, in a beautiful artists’ studio by the sea in St Ives. Workshops will focus on how to stay true to your writing dreams and how to evoke the spirit of place – but there will be lots of time as well for you to simply write! Full details and how to book are at www.fictionfire.co.uk/page28.htm

Don’t forget my October to December programme of Focus Workshops in Oxford starts this Saturday (11th October)! Details at www.fictionfire.co.uk/page26.htm

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Historical Novel Society Conference London 2014 Part 5: Myths, Ivory Towers and a Curious Quiz

Panel chairperson Kate Forsyth with Jessie Burton
So, my blogposts arrive at last at HNS Conference Day 2 – Sunday 7th September – and a most intriguing, rich discussion, ‘Confronting Historical Fact with the Unexplained’, chaired by Kate Forsyth and featuring Jessie Burton, Essie Fox, Deborah Harkness and Professor Diana Wallace. I found this debate intensely interesting and the thoughts and opinions of the speakers really well-formulated.

Each of the speakers talked about the kind of HF she writes and about how she transforms what are often ancient and traditional tales into something appealing to the modern reader. This took us to familiar territory: one of the key areas of discussion during the conference was that of understanding and portraying the people of the past. How do we bridge the gap between our modern sensibilities and old belief-systems and codes of behaviour?

Deborah Harkness
Deborah Harkness, an academic who’s turned to fiction-writing, knows ‘how limiting a fact is’ and how for historians ‘it’s all about the interpretation’. This came up at the London 2012 conference too, when Philippa Gregory compared HF with the kinds of books historians write. Both forms require what Deborah calls ‘historical empathy’, an understanding of ‘where facts stop and imagination and interpretation begin’. Historians, she says ‘really are writing fiction most of the time.’ Kate Forsyth reinforced this notion: historical fiction is ‘history set to music’. Jessie Burton says ‘novels hit the bloodstream quicker than a didactic exercise'. Deborah advised academics (such as a certain David Starkey, anyone?) to ‘stop standing in ivory towers and throwing rocks’.

Professor Diana Wallace and Essie Fox
Essie advised writers to be aware of the social conditions of the era they’re writing about by reading contemporary stories – for her, these included The Water Babies, The Little Mermaid, Varney the Vampire and Hindu myths. Deborah said, very cogently, that ‘power isn’t a thing, it’s a set of relationships’ – this, of course, is why the getting or losing of power makes great fiction.

Power relationhips, of course, exist between the sexes. Historical fiction can address the objectivisation of women and the limits of their freedom, for instance. Diana talked of the sense of guilt she felt about reading HF when she was younger, the feeling that if she read Georgette Heyer she should do it on the quiet. She feels that HF used to be neglected because it was seen as women’s fiction. A.S. Byatt’s Possession changed perceptions: literary critics started to take HF seriously. She pointed out that it’s always assumed that Sir Walter Scott was the father of HF but many were writing it before then, including women. HF can fill the gaps, ‘tell the story from the other side’.

The panel also discussed myth and fairy-tale as triggers for fiction. (One of my favourite quotes on this has always been Angela Carter’s claim that she put ‘new wine in old bottles’.) Deborah was fascinated by the occult sciences lost or sidelined by the advent of modern science. She thought about how in the 1500s people had a certain world view which included believing in mythical creatures. She started to wonder how such creatures could live in the modern world and not be noticed – before she knew it, she was writing a novel. Essie talked about serendipity – how she enjoyed reading Angela Carter and Gothic fiction, how she was drawn to the fusion of HF with magic realism, how a visit to Wilton’s Music Hall led her to the theme of lost love and the atmosphere of dark secrecy. Kate quoted J.R.R. Tolkien: ‘History often resembles myth, because they are both ultimately of the same stuff.’

The heroic quiz panel!
 James Heneage, Anthony Riches
 and Cathy Rentzenbrink
After a workshop where I learned that the word ‘feisty’ meant originally ‘breaking wind’ (note to self, do not describe any heroine in such terms from now on), the conference was rounded off by a hilarious Historical Fictionist Quiz, with Jon Watt as quizmaster. He pitted the panel – James Heneage, Cathy Rentzenbrink and Anthony Riches - against the audience. Yup, the whole audience! It was a joyous way to round off proceedings and one which I hope will be repeated in future conferences, particularly if a photo of Sean Bean in his prime as Richard Sharpe features again …

Charlie Farrow and Richard Lee
Katherine Clements and Dianne Ascroft
With Alison Morton and Anna Belfrage
Many many thanks to Richard Lee, Charlie Farrow, Jenny Barden and everyone involved in organising another successful and very happy conference. Thanks once more to the short story competition readers Carol McGrath, Ouida Taafe, Charlotte Betts and judge Ian Skillicorn. I loved the chance to meet old friends (Doug Jackson, Dianne Ascroft, Essie Fox, Anna Belfrage, Alison Morton, Emma Darwin, Hana Cole, Helen Hart, Henriette Guyland, Katherine Clements, Liz Fenwick, Margaret Skea) and new (Mary Tod, Katherine Lim, Helen Hollick), although of course, afterwards I realised there were several people there I had wanted to meet but somehow missed.


All good wishes to the organisers of HNS Australasia and HNS North America next year. I’m already looking forward to HNS London 2016! As Bernard Cornwell said at HNS London 2012, ‘It’s got a great future, history!’
By the way, did I mention I'd won a prize ...?


Part 4 of these posts is here
Part 3 of my reports on HNS London 2014 is here and Parts 1 and 2 are here and here.

Here are my posts on HNS London 2012:
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5 
My upcoming Fictionfire by the Sea workshop/retreat in Cornwall is here.

My upcoming season of Focus Workshops for writers, from October to December, is here.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Historical Novel Society Conference London 2014 Part 4: Writing Freedom

Douglas Jackson chaired a very topical debate on the afternoon of Saturday 6th September, considering the Scottish Independence referendum was due to take place a couple of weeks after the conference. On the panel were Emma Darwin, Elizabeth Fremantle, Margaret George, Andrew Taylor and Robyn Young, all discussing ‘Freedom, Independence and Equality’.

This is, of course, a pretty wide-ranging topic, so during the course of the session, issues of power within society and power and freedom according to gender were discussed. In terms of gender, Elizabeth Fremantle reminded us Queen Elizabeth 1 was less free than other monarchs because she was female. Katherine Parr ‘accepts that she is a lesser being’ than men, in spite of being an author and scholar. Emma Darwin pointed out the problem of having ‘a woman as your protagonist – we look at the gap in the written history but it may be a gap because there’s not a lot going on.’ It’s not good, she went on, ‘to turn every fifteenth century woman into a feminist and every fifteenth century man you’d like the reader to like into a fifteenth century feminist.’ Later Robyn Young said ‘women are ghosts in the narrative.’

Douglas Jackson
It isn’t just in the area of gender that we have to be careful as novelists: Robyn said it’s dangerous to hook modern ideas of independence onto the past. She highlighted the irony of the Scottish Nationalist Party having sought to have the independence vote on the anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, given that Robert the Bruce, who won that battle so famously, had switched sides three times and had originally started by fighting on the English side.

Elizabeth Fremantle and Emma Darwin
This led us to another issue: the relative powerlessness of those who seem to have power. Robert the Bruce was trying to find independence within his own family. Elizabeth 1 said no to the ‘one big thing’ – marriage. Margaret George pointed out that the monstrous Emperor Nero wanted to be free to pursue acting and poetry, but didn’t have the power to do what he wanted to do. Douglas Jackson said ‘power isn’t the same as freedom’.

Finally, there is the question of the novelist’s relative freedom to portray things as they actually were, or as we think they were. Elizabeth Fremantle, dealing with Mary Tudor’s burning of heretics, wanted to ‘demonstrate’ how this made ‘complete sense’ to Mary in the context of her faith: ‘I wanted her to be fully human’. When Robyn was describing the violence of war, ‘it was difficult to know how far to go … dancing across the line of not wanting to do a disservice to history and desensitising readers. … I dance as close to that as I think I can – making it true but not over-egging it.’

Robyn Young and Andrew Taylor
All these issues play a part in our perennial interest in reading about the people of the past. As Margaret George says, ‘Everybody knows what they did but we want to know why’. Andrew Taylor refers to the ‘psychological furniture’ of his characters and how he can only approach notions ‘through the individual’. He doesn’t ‘think in terms of these huge concepts’ but goes in search of ‘the way in, the chink’ that will allow him ‘to inhabit that particular period’.

Saturday’s final event in the Hogg Lecture Theatre was a conversation between Lindsey Davis and Jerome de Groot. Lindsey gave a barnstorming performance at London 2012 and she didn’t let us down this time round, either. Many of her replies were teasing or challenging: Lindsey takes no prisoners. Those ‘lads’ writing Roman novels now might not have been able to sell their books had she not found a publisher with The Silver Pigs. Writers should ‘have a real job’ and ‘live in the real world’. They should be hard on themselves and ‘cut, cut, cut’ their work.


Lindsey Davis
She also gave practical advice and there’s absolutely no doubt that she cares deeply about her craft and is dedicated to it. A novel is ‘about people in situations’ – it doesn’t matter if they lived two thousand years ago: they’re still people in situations. As a historical novelist you ‘have to find a way where you don’t use words so modern they stand out or are anachronisms.’ She thinks ‘it is important that you should enjoy doing research. Afterwards, use as little as you can because it’s didactic and boring. The aim of using it is to make it part of your narrative.’ However, ‘Nobody’s going to know what you haven’t read. … You don’t have to know it all. What I’ve put in the books is what I’ve selected.’

When Jerome asked her how difficult it was to get out of the head of Falco, her most famous character, and into the psyche of a new character, she sharply answered ‘This is called writing. This is imagination.’


No argument there, Lindsey. We’re all dancing the line between the known and the imagined. And God, it’s fun.

Part 3 of my reports on HNS London 2014 is here and Parts 1 and 2 are here and here.

Here are my posts on HNS London 2012:
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5 
My upcoming Fictionfire by the Sea workshop/retreat in Cornwall is here.

My upcoming season of Focus Workshops for writers, from October to December, is here.



Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Historical Novel Society Conference London 2014 Part 3: Short Story Award and Big Axes to Grind

The first afternoon event on Saturday 6th September was the giving out of the Conference Short Story Award. At HNS London 2012 my story ‘Reputation’ reached the longlist – later published in the e-anthology The Beggar at the Gate. This year I entered very late on, at the end of a challenging summer, so it was enormously gratifying to make the longlist again with my story ‘Salt’. How much more gratifying, then, to actually win! People afterwards asked ‘Did you know in advance?’ Well, if you take a look at the Society’s photo on the Conference website you’ll see that I’m wearing a bemused rabbit-in-the-headlights expression, so no, I definitely didn’t!

‘Salt’ was a satisfying story to write – I had racked my brains as the deadline approached, searching for an idea, the idea. It’s set during the Great War, but it’s not a war story as such. It was triggered by a single sentence, something my grandmother said to me when I was a child. So it’s based on fact but is, of course, embroidered. I started out with that sentence and wrote with only a vague sense of where it would go, but partway through and without my having planned it, the way to end it arrived with an almost audible ‘click’ in my head. It felt totally right. Especially the final word …

Judge Ian Skillicorn
announcing the results
Thank you so much, readers Carol McGrath, Charlotte Betts and Ouida Tafe and judge Ian Skillicorn, for picking me! I look forward to reading all the other stories, if another anthology is published. (Here’s the link to the competition results and all the stories reaching the top twelve, including ‘The Man with No Hands’ by Anne Aylor, who came second and ‘For Love of Megan’ by Mari Griffith, who came third.)

The Award presentation was followed by a panel debate, ‘My Era is Better than Yours’. Philip Stevens chaired an often hilarious discussion of the merits of various historical periods for writers. Favouring the 12th century, Angus Donald writer of a series about Robin Hood, declared that ‘this is the era in which the love story was born’, which was a slightly unexpected claim, really, given that he writes about an outlaw and having been a journalist in locations like Afghanistan is well-used to describing acts of violence. Of his hero, he said ‘There’s an internal logic to his actions and that’s more important than likeability.’ ‘If you’re the leader of a gang of criminals in the Middle Ages,’ he added, ‘you’re not going to be a cream puff.’

Giles Kristian is certainly no cream puff, if his assertion that he has ‘a very big axe’ is to be believed. The debate dwelt quite a lot on violence and the size of people’s weapons – one of Giles’ main characters commits rape because that’s what a warrior in his historical context would have done, in all likelihood. Giles sets his stories in the Viking era and also during the English Civil War. The former, he says, gives him more freedom because ‘the history of the period doesn’t get in the way’. That history, indeed, was recorded ‘by the losers’. When he writes about the Civil War, he’s concerned not to ‘chronicle’ it but to let his characters ‘inhabit’ that world.

Harry Sidebottom, advocating Ancient Rome, said that the Greeks had ‘invented extreme violence and love’, pre-empting both the Vikings and the courtly lovers of the medieval period. In the opinion of a colleague at Oxford University, Harry had chosen the 1st century AD because it was ‘so obscure nobody can prove you wrong’. He referred to Mary Renault saying that the tension between what’s specific to a time and place and what is universal is what makes historical fiction work.

Susannah Dunn spoke up for the Tudor era: she’s fascinated by Anne Boleyn and loves the Reformation – ‘it made us who we are’. She enjoys the ‘soap opera’ element of the Tudor period, with lots of ‘big women’. She likes to ‘bring a modern sensibility’ to her characters because although they lived long ago, she’s ‘drawn to the similarities’ between us and them.

Susannah Dunn, Philip Stevens, Giles Kristian
, Harry Sidebottom and Angus Donald.
Apologies to Antonia Hodgson, who has swapped her head for a lectern!
Finally, Antonia Hodgson advocated the Georgian period. She is a publisher as well as writer, so she knew before she started that the Georgian period doesn’t sell well, but, as she says, ‘if something isn’t what interests you, why write it?’ She described how she loved researching the era, how research throws up stories – including the enormous amount of ‘vomiting in corners’ the Georgians did. She found the era ‘almost more modern than the Victorians’ with the pamphleteering, the irreverence, the bad behaviour. She echoed Susannah, saying that what is striking is ‘how much we’ve changed and how little we’ve changed.’


So, from big axes to big women, from cream puffery to courtly love, from violence to vomiting – find the era that speaks to you, find the common humanity, track down the quirky research facts that trigger story and make it live!

The link to my previous post about HNS London 2014 Part 1, and Part 2. 

Here are my posts on HNS London 2012:
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5 
My upcoming Fictionfire by the Sea workshop/retreat in Cornwall is here.

My upcoming season of Focus Workshops for writers, from October to December, is here.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Historical Novel Society Conference London 2014 Part 2: Conn Confidential, High Stakes and Parachutes

Conn Iggulden
The keynote speaker at the conference was Conn Iggulden, who paced about, wielding a microphone like a roving reporter from the front line of history. There are some authors who know how to work a crowd and he’s one of them: he was energetic, amusing and utterly engaging. He entertained us with anecdotes, including one of his father’s wartime experiences and one about a henchman of Al Capone’s – not only were these stories fascinating but they were there to illustrate an irony: coincidence, truly amazing coincidence, can happen in real life, but the writer can’t include it because it would seem so unlikely.

He talked about his path to publication and how when he wrote The Gates of Rome he had nobody saying to him ‘You can’t do that!’ He regrets including a healer in that book, though when I read it, I had no problem with it: it seemed consistent with that world. He’s keen to avoid vocabulary that would jar with the era – words like ‘silhouette’ for instance. His is ‘the George Orwell style of historical fiction’: simple, not ornate. He tells us that as a historical writer ‘Your duty is to do the research, as much as is humanly possible,’ particularly as people so often learn their history from fiction. However, he adds that ‘history has gaps and it is the job of the historical fiction writer to fill those gaps intelligently.’

One of the best moments in his presentation came when he asked the perennial question ‘Did Richard III kill his nephews?’ and a lone voice from the crowd called out ‘How long have you got?’ The point, of course, was that no matter which resource you lean on, no matter how considered and reinforced your theories, somebody is bound to disagree.

You could tell that Conn had been a teacher – and a good one, I’d assume. He was pitching to his audience, he was articulate, he balanced anecdote and point, he was personable and he radiated unextinguished enthusiasm.

Elizabeth Chadwick and Conn Iggulden
at the signing tables
And yes, I bought his book, the second in his Wars of the Roses series, Trinity, at the book signing afterwards!

We could select the final session before lunch from a range of really interesting topics, which made it a hard choice! I went along to a discussion of the relative richness of long-ago lives compared to ours, which featured Elizabeth Chadwick, Jerome de Groot and Elizabeth Fremantle. Jerome referenced Hilary Mantel as having said that we clean up the ‘obscenity’ of the past, which led to audience discussion of how too often when we read HF we feel modern characters and attitudes have been ‘parachuted’ into the past.

Elizabeth Chadwick said the HF writer is ‘the bridge between the past and readers’ and that it takes a ‘heck of a lot of research to make it organic’. I follow her on Facebook, where she posts fascinating images of books in her reference library or objects from the Middle Ages (some of which are truly exquisite): I feel she’s very generous in inviting her readers to share in that organic process of discovery and reconstitution. She says she’s ‘never not researching’ – and I believe her! All the same, she stresses it’s not about research for research’s sake: ‘if it goes in the novel it has to have a reason’. Story has primacy.
 
Elizabeth Fremantle said that what makes HF so compelling is that the characters have so much to lose, so much to risk, in eras of war, persecution and gory methods of execution: ‘the high stakes make for an extraordinary tension in HF.’


(A short post today because I’m fighting a nasty wee virus – but more to come!)

Here's the link to my previous post about HNS London 2014. 

Here are my posts on HNS London 2012:
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5 
My upcoming Fictionfire by the Sea workshop/retreat in Cornwall is here.

My upcoming season of Focus Workshops for writers, from October to December, is here.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Historical Novel Society Conference London 2014 Part 1: Selling Historical Fiction

Here’s the paradox – both writing and reading are solitary activities, yet writers and readers love to create communities, particularly in this hyperactive era of social media. We find peer groups, like-minded souls, supporters – we share ideas, enthusiasms and dislikes. I’ve always been a reader, pretty much always been a writer and in the past few years I’ve felt more and more part of solidarity and fellowship, whether online or when attending writerly events.

Which leads me to the Historical Novel Society’s London Conference 2014. Cue bemusement that two years could have passed since I attended HNS London 2012! (See links to blogposts on that at the end of this post.) This year’s conference was held at the University of Westminster’s Marylebone campus, right opposite Madame Tussaud’s in London. It ran from Friday 5th to Sunday 7th September, and here’s the first part of my experience of it.

I’m afraid I wasn’t there at the start, at the Friday reception, where Elizabeth Chadwick awarded the HNS Indie Novel Award to Victoria Cox for The Subtlest Soul – I’m sorry to have missed that. I was there bright and early for the Saturday conference activities, though, which started with  words of welcome from the Society’s earliest benefactor and founder of its fortunes Richard Lee. The first panel discussion was ‘Selling Historical Fiction: the challenges and triumphs’, chaired by Carole Blake and featuring Matt Bates, fiction buyer for WH Smith Travel and possessor of a megawatt smile; Nick Sayers, publisher at Hodder and Stoughton; Simon Taylor, editorial director of Transworld; Susan Watt, editor at Heron Books; Katie Bond, once with Bloomsbury, now publisher with the National Trust.

Katie Bond
It’s interesting to compare this discussion with HNS London 2012, which also kicked off with an analysis of what sells HF – back then, there was a focus on covers. At the time, whether wearing embroidered gowns or wielding broadswords, headless characters featured on book-jackets all over the place, like a mass-exodus from Sleepy Hollow. This year, the speakers once again emphasised the importance of  ‘a really strong jacket’ (Matt). Katie Bond, talking about the difficulty of getting ‘the buzz' going, said that to break out a new writer, you need ‘a fabulous jacket’ – but you also need to ‘do something different’. As an example, she referred to Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and how Madeline started as an ‘American blue-stocking’ who rewrote the Trojan War as a gay love story. Ah, that’s how you do it …

Carole Blake
Carole Blake said, ‘You can’t force the public to buy a book simply because you like it … we’re competing with every other form of entertainment.’ Publicity campaigns are risky and costly: Nick Sayers commented that ‘We can’t spend that kind of money to get someone from a standing start to being known … there’s no short cut’. As readers, we’re all aware of times when publishers have invested heavily in pushing a book only to find the public cold-shoulders it – that no matter how gorgeous the cover, how sparky the blurb, how saturated the media attention, something doesn’t fire the readers’ imaginations – or, indeed, has the contradictory effect of making readers not want to read the book. Readers can be resistant to hype or to feel challenged by it – leading to a slightly belligerent ‘Go on, prove yourself!’ attitude towards the hapless author. Conversely, there are the ‘sleeper hits’ – the novels no one saw coming, but which sidled into popularity with a shy embarrassed smile; novels whose quality spoke out, spoke directly to the readers who discovered them – and then shared them.

Carole Blake and Simon Taylor
The panel was asked whether paid adverts or social media influenced sales more. Simon Taylor felt a mixture worked best but that a ‘butt-kicking campaign’ is less likely these days. Susan Watt felt that an advert wouldn’t work as well with an unknown author, although a London Tube strike had benefitted Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace, simply because there was a captive audience, as it were. Oh, and it had a lovely cover, of course. Carole Blake reminded us that a gorgeous cover may not always work for both print and ebook versions: we need to bear in mind that a thumbnail image has to be both eye-catching and legible.

Matt Bates, Katie Bond, Nick Sayers
Debate moved into which era sells best – a topic about to be picked up in the next panel session. Matt Bates reiterated the popularity of the Tudor period. Indeed, Susan Watt, when asked how to break out an author who’s not yet known, said ‘I would recommend you start with a Tudor!’

The panel referred to the power of TV series not only to promote specific books but to influence what is produced: ‘sales guys love a good label’. Game of Thrones was mentioned, of course, along with Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series and Bernard Cornwell’s Anglo-Saxon series – bought by the team who brought us Downton Abbey. Visions of Maggie Smith as a shield-matriarch …

Carole Blake, Simon Taylor
Susan Watt, Matt Bates
(lighting conditions not ideal!)
At the end of the discussion, each panel member gave a final piece of advice. Simon Taylor: ‘Don’t give up the day job.’ Susan Watt: ‘Tell a story.’ Matt Bates: ‘Get the cover right.’ Katie Bond: ‘Enjoy the writing of it and edit and edit.’ Nick Sayers: ‘It’s got to have something about it to sell.’ Carole Blake: ‘Don’t follow a trend.’

I’ll round off this first post on the conference by giving the last word to Carole – when pitching, she says, ‘Don’t be mad.’

Duly noted.

Here are my posts on HNS London 2012:
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5 
My upcoming Fictionfire by the Sea workshop/retreat in Cornwall is here.

My upcoming season of Focus Workshops for writers, from October to December, is here.

The HNS Conference teaser video  will give you a flavour of what it was like to attend the conference  - much hilarity involved!