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


Charlie Farrow said...


Can I pinch your pic of the reception desk for http://www.hns-conference.org.uk/ I'd like to do a post about the tote bags that we are making available as event souvenirs.


Lorna F said...

Hi Charlie,

Yes, that's absolutely fine. Would you like me to email the photo? Let me know via Facebook - DM me.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for doing this. I couldn't afford to attend, and this is the next best thing. Very grateful!

Lorna F said...

Tim - you're very welcome. I'm glad you enjoyed the reports and that they helped to compensate for not being there. Next year I'll be relying on reports from the conference in America!