Thursday, 3 November 2016

The route march to publication - author Marg Roberts guest-posts about her novel A Time for Peace

I'm delighted to welcome author Marg Roberts to Literascribe to describe her route to publication and the challenges she met and overcame along the way. I'm full of admiration for how she has kept faith with her novel during its evolution and then the lengthy submission process - perseverance has paid off!

It has taken many years to reach the stage where I can hold the novel I have written in my hands. Part of the satisfaction relates to the time it’s taken- the classes and courses I’ve attended, the pages that have been critiqued – occasionally rubbished – and the life events that have disrupted the process. So my advice on how to keep writing is personal and not prescriptive.
Writing is a process of discovery, and like a good story, comes in a series of revelations rather than the waving of a wand at the last moment. Because I didn’t have a clear narrative or plot in mind when I began, but rather an idea I needed to develop, it took some time.
I was fascinated by the story of Flora Sandes, a woman who became a soldier in the Serbian army during the First World War. My first attempt at this novel alternated between the journeys of a Serb colonel and a British medic. Stefan wanted peace when other Serbs wanted to fight, but I couldn't discover a reason, so I concentrated on Ellen. After completing a full length novel about how she overcame antagonism from men within the army, and her personal repugnance at killing another human being, I wasn't satisfied. I wasn't satisfied that the character I described could actually shoot to kill and I changed her story.

During this time, I was writing, developing my craft, researching not only Serbia during the First World War, but finding out about its history, its place in the Balkans, its religion, its way of living. I learned how its army was structured, the role of aid agencies during that war and eventually, from all this confusion and passion, emerged the beginning of a love story. Two separate ones, actually: Stefan’s and Ellen’s. I explore how their relationships, Stefan with his wife, and Ellen with her fiancé, were threatened by the experience of war.
Initially I expected to be able to earn money by writing. It became evident that I couldn’t write mainstream commercial fiction. Many writers of prose and poetry have to take other paid employment in order to do the writing they choose, but by the time I came to write, I had an occupational pension and my husband was still working, so providing ourselves with food and shelter wasn’t an issue.
This, I appreciate, is a luxury. Many squeeze writing in after work, when children are in bed, or as they travel to and from work. What we have in common is the compulsion to write. Because I’d worked regular hours, I used this structure as a template for my new career. I’d visit a café first thing in the morning so I was with ‘real’ people–that I made friends in the various cafés was a bonus. Each day begins with the practice of writing and reflection even if the rest of the day doesn’t allow for any more.
As I finished each novel (4 in all), I submitted them to competitions and eventually to agents. Doing so helped me both take myself seriously and polish each submitted piece. Was I toughened by this process? No. Each disappointment I experienced as failure, despite advice to see if I could reach 100 rejections and view each as a triumph of some sort. I met agents at conferences and publishing events and came to understand the business world they operated in. Nonetheless, the rejections hit hard.
The big chance for publication came when Jan Fortune at Cinnamon Press offered a year’s mentorship for writers with potential. Jan and her son Rowan wrote a comprehensive analysis of the novel and for the first time, a professional liked it. After a year revising and tightening the plot, Jan advised I submit to mainstream publishers because she believed the novel deserved a wider readership than Cinnamon Press might provide. For 18 months I submitted online, by post and ‘pitches’, but without success. As that process drew to an end, I entered a Cinnamon Press novel competition, A Time for Peace was shortlisted to the last five and I was offered publication in 2016. After a further year of editing scenes, by March this year, I was at the stage of proofreading.

Marg's friends listen
intently at the book launch
On 18th October 2016, A Time for Peace was launched at Waterstones, Leamington Spa, in the company of family and friends. Jan Fortune introduced the novel in her passionate, inspiring way and with the help of Nigel Hutchinson, a friend, I read a couple of extracts from the novel. A Time for Peace was ready for its readers!

You can buy A Time for Peace via the Cinnamon shop here, and on here, and at Waterstone's here.

Marg's website is

A quick reminder - if you're interested in writing for teens booking closes next Friday (11th November) for Fictionfire's day course The Next Big Thing in Teen Fiction - Could You Be the One to Write It? with acclaimed author Julie Hearn. Julie talks about why she writes for teens here. Details of the day course are here.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Why write YA? Author Julie Hearn explains why writing for young adults matters to her

Some years ago, I came across an amazing book. It was written for a younger readership but like many books in that genre it pulled no punches when dealing with challenging, even poignant issues. At the same time it was packed with wit, energy and a kind of magical sprightliness I found immensely appealing. The book was Follow Me Down and its author was Julie Hearn.

I met Julie herself years later: we were both teaching on Oxford University's International Creative Writing Summer School. It was a joy to make friends with a writer who was as much fun and as charged with imaginative energy as the book she'd written. I'm delighted that Julie will be teaching a day course on writing teen fiction as part of my autumn programme of Fictionfire events: she's a truly inspiring teacher with so much knowledge of the craft and the industry to impart. I've asked her over to Literascribe to describe how she came to write in the YA genre and why it matters to her. Over to Julie -

“Why did you start writing Young Adult fiction?”
I get asked this a lot.
Firstly, I was tired of writing for adults. Aged thirty, I was a journalist, writing a mother and baby column for The Daily Star. Aged forty I was at Oxford University, writing about maternal power and witch-hunts in Early Modern England, for a MSt in Women’s Studies. I  felt – and still feel – a wicked sense of satisfaction over that shift but, aged forty-one, the thought of writing more stuff requiring footnotes appealed about as much as the thought of writing more dross for the tabloids.
I needed another shift.
Secondly, the story idea that hooked me so completely that it got into my dreams seemed tailor-made for  the Young Adult market (for readers aged eleven to seventeen, or thereabouts) I had found it in the Bodleian Library’s collection of  printed ephemera: an eighteenth century handbill, about a young girl being shown as a “monster” at Bartholomew Fair.

The Changeling Child

To be seen next door to the Black Raven in West Smithfield, during the time of Bartholomew Fair, a living skeleton taken from a Turkish Vessel. This is a Fairy Child supposed to be born of Hungarian parents but changed in the nursing. Aged nine years or more, not exceeding a foot and a half high, the legs, thighs and arms so very small that they scarce exceed the bigness of a man's thumb and the face no bigger than the palm of one's hand and seems so grave and solid as if it were threescore years old. You may see the whole anatomy of its body by setting it against the sun. It never speaks. It has no teeth but is the most hungry creature in the world, eating more victuals than the stoutest man in England. Gives great satisfaction to all that ever did, or shall, behold it.

I wanted to give this Changeling Child the happy ending she surely did not have in real life. I wanted to address issues of abuse, and difference, and love and loyalty without cynicism or the rueful wisdom of an adult author addressing adult readers.
I camped out in the Bodleian, researching Bartholomew Fair and eighteenth- century London. I read about the surgeons at  St Bartholomew’s  Hospital who dissected corpses as often, and as cheerfully, as they might have cut up a chop for supper. I read about the grave robbers who supplied those corpses, charging extra for anything “unusual”. My young protagonist, I decided, was going to be a time traveller who would meet the Changeling Child and uncover a plot that could see her dead before her time, and under the knife of my hard-hearted dissectionist, Dr Flint.
Writing Follow Me Down was like sliding down a rainbow – a giddy, exhilarating swoop towards – what? I didn’t know. I didn’t wonder, much, about the publication process. It was enough, back then, to be making things up, with no worries about libel actions or plagiarism!
Follow Me Down went to auction. It was translated into French, Italian, German, Spanish and Japanese. It was shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award and nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal. It paid for my kitchen extension and a holiday in Antigua.
Julie Hearn
Best of all it sent me on a writing journey that has been challenging, rewarding and never, ever dull. I care about this kind of  writing. I care about my readers and, while mindful of what author Madeleine L’Engle said - “…the best children’s books ask questions, and make the reader ask questions. And every new question is going to disturb someone’s universe.” – I am careful about the way I frame a question for impressionable young minds.
I care about my characters.
“How old is the protagonist in Follow Me Down?” I was asked, a while ago, during a radio interview.
“Tom’s fifteen,” I replied. And then I realised: “No … sorry… he’s twelve. In the book, I mean. He’s fifteen  now.”
The interviewer gave me a look that said “Are you mad?”
When I tell that story to other YA writers they smile, and nod. They absolutely get it. They, too, have worked so hard to create characters “real” teenagers will recognise, and bond with, that should those characters knock at the door one day they would not turn a hair.
They, too have slid down a few rainbows in their time.

It is great, great fun.  

The Next Big Thing in Teen Fiction - Could You Be the One to Write It? 
Day course in Oxford, 19th November 2016

Are you keen to write or develop your fiction for teens or young adults? Julie Hearn, who has published seven acclaimed novels including Follow Me Down, The Merrybegot and Rowan the Strange, will help you develop your storytelling techniques, including crucial aspects such as openings, character and voice, plot and pace. You'll learn about the young adult genre and what's hot in the current market, maximising your chances of success with your submission. With discussion and writing exercises during the course, you'll leave with increased confidence, enhanced skills and the courage to make your pitch.
The course runs from 9.45-5.00 and includes all refreshments and a delicious lunch.

For full details and how to book, visit 
Other Fictionfire workshops are listed here and the next Simply Write Retreat is here.
Contact if you have any questions.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Historical Novel Society Conference Oxford 2016 Part 4: Rights, Responsibilities and Relationships

One of the Emperors outside the Sheldonian Theatre
is surprised to receive a visitor!
After the packed conference Saturday, we could be forgiven for feeling a little punch drunk on Sunday but more panel discussions, chat, bookstall foraging and friendship-making awaited!.

I attended a panel on Foreign Rights and Translation, with agent Carole Blake chairing, in discussion with Louise Rogers Lalaurie, a translator, and Laura Morelli, a novelist who has made her own successful foreign rights deals.

This is the sharp end of the industry: ‘This is business’, as Carole says. It’s the sort of area we writers might feel wary of and it’s certainly an area where I for one would prefer to have an agent to do the horse-trading rather than do it myself, though Laura has demonstrated that it’s perfectly possible.

Louise Rogers Lalaurie, Laura Morellis and Carole Blake
What are the key lessons to be learned? First of all, research. If you’re doing it yourself you need to research the markets in foreign countries and if someone makes an offer to publish or to translate your work, you need to do your homework. As Carole said, ‘Don’t be so grateful that you don’t ask around and do your research.’ Laura had been contacted by a Hungarian publisher and had the good sense to check them out.

Secondly, be aware of territories. Know which territories you can sell to and whether some rights have been reserved after your initial publishing deal. Has your agent sold UK rights first, followed by US/North America? Contracts will have a schedule of countries where rights are still available. Brexit – which had become a dark undertone to the conference – will make things like this more complicated in the future. In addition, Louise said that EU funding for translations of works will now decline – it’s already happening. Boo.

Thirdly, the contract. Carole said, ‘Think of every eventuality that might produce an argument’. Think of the relationship you have with your agent – you want someone with whom you can build a longterm partnership, not someone creaming off the profit from success you’ve already created for yourself, doing one deal and deserting you. She recommended that you have multiple income streams derived from separate sales of rights into different languages.

I learned that ‘In some markets it’s a legal requirement to pay a royalty to the translator’, which I hadn’t known before. Louise advocated encouraging the translator to become part of the whole selling process rather than being a temporary gun for hire. You can do this by offering a small royalty – the translator can end up being ‘your best advocate’. She said that some translators work with self-publishing authors. They may also have relationships with publishers that enable them to suggest to publishers that they should buy the rights to your work or commission a translation.

Favourite quote: ‘Agents hate the word “gave”.’ Carole Blake
Interesting book recommended: Tregiani’s Ground by Anne Cuneo

I ended up being very late for Tracy Chevalier’s Keynote Address (and as a result couldn't get a good photo of her). Luckily I’d seen her at the Oxford Literary Festival in the spring and since then I’ve read At the Edge of the Orchard which she was talking about then and very much enjoyed it.

Blackwell's bookstall was busy all weekend
Once again she proved to be a warm and witty speaker, discussing how she came to write HF: ‘It allows me to step outside myself – and no one will ask if it’s autobiographical’. She expressed wariness, though, when it comes to the HF label, saying that if she were to sum up each of her novels in a tagline, it would come across as a contemporary story. She added ‘Being interested in the past makes us better people’, clearly feeling that the modern age is a solipsistic one. Her latest work is a take on Shakespeare’s Othello, transferred to an American school in 1974. (Hogarth Press has been commissioning authors to re-envision Shakespeare – I’ll be attending Margaret Atwood’s talk here in Oxford in November. Her novel, Hag-seed, is an interpretation of The Tempest. I’m not sure, actually, how I feel about all this, but we’ll see.)

Writing this book led her to wonder whether 1974 could be said to be historical – so we were coming full circle to the discussion started by Fay Weldon and Jo Baker on Friday. This also led, as with Melvyn Bragg, to a consideration of the times we’re living in (or through), in this truly insane year of politics, of Brexit, of what Tracy called ‘terrible news’.  ‘Sometimes you feel you’re living history,’ she said and we all agreed. And to be honest, it doesn’t feel good. Maybe, I thought, that is one of the reasons we love HF – it’s the past and it’s safely in the past. Nothing feels all that safe right now.

Lovely slide design by Alison Morton
After the coffee-break I took part in a panel discussion myself, along with Alison Morton, Helen Hollick and Antoine Vanner. Our topic was Going Indie: Questions and Answers. We discussed the benefits of going indie: Control! Freedom! Transparent royalties and income! Choosing your own cover! Taking pride in producing your work as professionally as possible!

We were also honest about the pitfalls. As a literary consultant myself I stressed the importance of proper editing. We talked about the burden of responsibility that never ends: the constant marketing and promotion which can feel like a treadmill sometimes.

However, dear reader, bear this in mind: whether you are trade-published or indie, the ultimate responsibility for your book is yours. And you will always have to market it, no matter what.

Tracy Chevalier, Harry Sidebottom and CC Humphreys
After a lively Q & A session I made it to the final event, the hilarious HistFictionist Challenge, a quiz that pitted the panel – Tracy Chevalier, CC Humphreys, Harry Sidebottom - against the audience. We learned the many names under which Jean Plaidy wrote, the relative number of words in Ben Hur versus the population of London at a certain era and much much more …

Then, in a rush of final speeches, lunch, buying books and getting them signed, hugs and farewells, it was all over.

Carol McGrath and Jenny Barden
are thanked by HNS chairman Richard Lee
The committee breathed a collective, contented but utterly exhausted sigh of relief – Oxford 2016 had been everything we’d wanted it to be, under the guiding hands of Carol McGrath and Jenny Barden. Memories have been made, friendships forged – and Oxford itself was a star player, though it could have done slightly better on the weather front!

Shout-outs to the Committee:

Richard Lee (HNS Chairman), Carol McGrath, Jenny Barden, Liz Harris, Deborah Swift, Anita Chapman, Alison Morton, Nikki Fine, Clare Flynn, Antoine Vanner, Mary Fisk, Ouida Taafe, Charlotte Betts, Helen Hollick, Charlie Farrow.

I’d like to thank the staff at St Anne’s College who were incredibly helpful during many months when I was fielding accommodation inquiries!

Shout-outs to old friends and new acquaintances:

Essie Fox, Emma Darwin, Karen Maitland, Douglas Jackson, Alison Morton, Anna Belfrage and many others, plus the friends I knew were present – yet we didn’t even have time to say hello!
Farewell to the beautiful venue, the Andrew Wiles Building

Home again - and lucky me, home means Oxford!
A selection of my lovely conference swag!

Details of the new season of my Fictionfire workshops, a day course and a retreat can be found here, and you can sign up for my Fictionfire newsletter - articles, recommended reads and resources, competitions and more.

An Oxford Vengeance, my collection of short stories including 'Salt', which won the Conference London 2014 Award, is available to buy on Amazon here and here.

Part 1 of these posts on the 2016 HNS conference is here, Part 2 is here and Part 3 is here. My posts on the conferences of 2014 and 2012 go here.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Historical Novel Society Conference Oxford 2016 Part 3: Awards, Ears and Eating

Vanessa Lafaye and Ian Skillicorn
The first event of Saturday afternoon was Conference Oxford 2016 Short Story Award. This was so exciting because I’d been one of the judges, along with Deborah Swift and Ouida Taafe, who chose the longlist – and all twelve stories on that list were of an incredibly high standard. We didn’t envy judge Ian Skillicorn the task of selecting the top stories from the shortlist of six, but here they are and many congratulations to the writers! Third equal prize went to Richard Buxton for ‘Disunion’ and Anna Belfrage for ‘The Sharing of a Husband’. Second place went to Jeffrey Manton for ‘The Fat Lady Sings’ and the deserving winner was Vanessa Lafaye for ‘Fire on the Water’.

Lucienne Boyce
The award ceremony passed so speedily and I was so concerned to give out certificates and congratulations that I didn’t take many photos! The story award was followed by the HNS Indie Award 2016 – I was delighted to see Lucienne Boyce win with Bloody Bones jointly with Barbara Sjoholm for Fossil Island. The MM Bennetts Award 2016 went to Stuart Blackburn for Into the Hidden Valley.

Jo Baker, Suzannah Dunn, Charlotte Betts,
Deborah Swift
I then attended a panel discussion, Ears at the Door, looking at how novelists can use servants’ points of view in their fiction, with Jo Baker, author of Longbourn, Charlotte Betts, author of The House in Quill Court and Suzannah Dunn, whose most recent novel is The Lady of Misrule, chaired by Deborah Swift. 

In their discussion they talked of the advantages of using servants – sometimes servants could go to places their mistresses couldn’t and they could be privy to knowledge or make independent observations. This new point of view could be enlightening: Jo Baker referred to the servants in Jane Austen’s novels as ‘the ghosts in the texts’. Suzannah Dunn’s agent had said to her ‘Don’t just tell us what we already know’ so a servant’s perspective could cast a new light on things. She said that the servant figures need to be more than just observers, though: ‘they have to have their own story’. Jo Baker agreed – and this is the point of Longbourn where the servants’ stories weave in and out of the action of Pride and Prejudice – or is it the other way about? Charlotte Betts pointed out that it can be difficult to have a maid or social inferior at ‘the right place at the right time’, which led to a discussion of the separation of employer and servants in the rigid hierarchies of past centuries. Considering the kind of language to employ, Jo said it helped to read documents never originally intended for publication, such as Jane Austen’s letters and that she aimed for a kind of ‘demotic’ style. 

Suzannah Dunn
The session ended with a communal shaking of heads over inappropriate ‘frilly frocks’ on covers. This struck a chord with me because I’d recently read Tracy Chevalier’s novel At the Edge of the Orchard in hardback, the (admittedly lovely) cover of which featured a swampy woodland (yup), an apple (yup) and someone holding an axe (yup – though not of primary importance, I felt) but the person holding said axe was a young lady wearing a white dress, clearly to make us think a young woman is at the heart of this story (nope).

Manda Scott, Kate Williams and Margaret George
I was unable to attend any of the next panel discussions as I was on front of house duty, but was there for a conversation about Faith and Morality in Historical Fiction and Biography, chaired by Manda Scott and featuring Kate Williams and Margaret George. And wouldn’t you know it, much of the discussion was about that line between what was true of the time and the degree to which one can invent or stretch things to satisfy readers’ demands. Margaret George said ‘You might have to step on some toes, offend some readers’. In addition, Margaret said, it can ‘turn off readers to portray the mindset and discourse of centuries where religion was permeating everything’. Kate Williams said we often don’t perceive how ‘radical’ it was for characters to ‘break convention’, referring to Jane Austen’s writing and how to us that doesn’t seem all that startling an activity for a young woman to pursue but it was back then. She mentioned that one of the criticisms levelled at Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist is that the main character wanders about Amsterdam quite a lot, unescorted – but that ‘we need some licence’ as storytellers. Manda pointed out that there is a dividing line and that if you give your characters overly ‘modern sensibilities … it rings false’, so, once again, our question as HF writers is whether ‘we do have a duty’ to represent the past accurately. Kate said we need to ‘try to give the truth of the characters’ and that ‘In fiction you have to come down on one side’.

My favourite quote of the day came from Margaret George: Emperor ‘Nero has had a terrible press because of the Christians’. Shucks, those pesky cults …

And so, to the Gala Dinner, held at St Anne’s College. Lovely food and the buzz of chat, a glorious Costume Pageant and an inspiring after-dinner speech by Christopher Gortner. Finally, some extraordinary readings by Joanna Courtney, Gillian Bagwell and CC Humphreys – the last of these so powerful and brilliantly read that I made sure next day to buy the book in question, Fire.

Here are some more photos – my next blogpost will be about the Sunday sessions.

The longlisted short story writers waiting for the result!
Jo Baker
Lovely photo of writer friends David Penny and Alison Morton
(Alison was on the shortlist for the Indie Award)

Details of the new season of my Fictionfire workshops, a day course and a retreat can be found here, and you can sign up for my Fictionfire newsletter - articles, recommended reads and resources, competitions and more.

An Oxford Vengeance, my collection of short stories including 'Salt', which won the Conference London 2014 Award, is available to buy on Amazon here and here.

Part 1 of these posts on the 2016 HNS conference is here and Part 2 is here.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Historical Novel Society Conference Oxford 2016 Part 2: The Next Big Thing, Re-enactors and Rebellions

Take a deep breath, dear reader; we’re going in. Saturday 3rd September marked the central day of the HNS conference. It began with a panel discussion ‘The Next Big Thing in Historical Fiction, featuring Carole Blake as Chair, with David Headley of Goldsboro Books, Nick Sayers of Hodder and Stoughton, Simon Taylor of Transworld and Jane Johnson of HarperCollins. Quite a powerhouse panel, all trying to answer the unanswerable question – yet a question asked at every conference: where is HF going? Which era will be the most fashionable?

David Headley wants to see more sweeping World War 2 sagas. Simon Taylor thinks ancient Greece. Jane Johnson wants more diversity, having ‘had enough of Tudor/Elizabethan’ and she’d like more cross-cultural HF. Nick Sayers is keen on literature in translation, referencing as an example Christina Eckhart’s Wolf Winter, the subject of which is the relationship between Sweden and Lapland in the 17th century. Carole Blake asked him if that had been ‘an easy sell within the publishing house’ – he replied that ‘It was easy because it was a wonderful read.’

Carole Blake, Nick Sayers, Simon Taylor,
David Headley, Jane Johnson
When I’m giving workshops on self-editing or pitching, I always draw people’s attention to this very point: that selling isn’t just about selling your book to the reader, the end-user. There are many different selling junctures throughout the process: you ‘sell’ to the agent, the agent sells to the editor, the editor sells in-house to the sales and marketing people who then sell to the bookseller – and eventually, if you’re lucky, your book is sitting on a shelf ready to catch the eye of the browsing customer. Phew! As Carole Blake said: ‘Every book has to be sold half a dozen times. … The editors here are not the gatekeepers. The gatekeepers are the sales teams.’

The panel members highlighted how, at every stage, a clear sense of the book’s essence is necessary. However ‘fresh’ the voice, however individual the topic or treatment, we seek to encapsulate it, whether by comparison with other established writers, or by period, or by genre or sub-genre such as historical crime. This, as Jane Johnson said, is why Tudor or Roman HF is successful: ‘It’s seen as an easier sell’. David Headley commented that ‘It’s difficult to sell a period that’s not sexy’ and Jane said that HF ‘often has feet in different genres but sales teams want to pin it down’ before adding that ‘centralised buyers … don’t seem to read. If they don’t like the look … they simply won’t stock it’, reminding us how crucial the cover treatment is to that instant assessment of what the book is, without the bother of ploughing through all those pesky words … Nick Sayers said that ‘people might think a cover beautiful but walk past, not knowing what it is.’ He also said ‘Booksellers like a label.’

You’ll have noticed by now that the conversation had strayed from ‘the next big thing’ to ‘reasons why the current big things are big’. The panel also segued into a discussion of publicity, particularly with regard to social media now that newspaper review space is shrinking more and more. Carole Blake uttered a heartfelt ‘Thank God for bloggers’. Jane Johnson highlighted how poor publicity departments in big trade publishing houses can be sometimes when it comes to tweeting about books and authors on their lists. Carole echoed this: ‘It takes up time and some authors don’t enjoy it …  there are times when the publishers sit back and let the authors do all the marketing.’

Jane’s comment that ‘As a writer you don’t want to be doing the hard sell. … Writers want to write’ will have struck a chord with many in the audience. Carole stressed, quite rightly, that if you engage with social media you shouldn’t shout ‘Buy my book!’ all the time, but instead take part in natural ‘water-cooler’ chats, establishing a presence and creating relationships rather than indulging in a digital version of marching up and down with a placard.

Finally, the panel returned to that old chestnut – that ‘You can’t write to the market. You have to write what’s in your heart – it’s the only thing that will let the voice shine out.’ (Jane Johnson). Yes, that’s true. I probably talked about this in the aftermath of the last HNS UK conference and the one before that. Heart v head, Muse v Mammon, the individual voice v genre expectations. We writers square circles like these all the time!

As I was on front of house duty after that, I couldn’t attend any of the interesting panels – though I did see the 1066 Re-enactors demonstrating an Anglo-Saxon shield-wall to the war-cry ‘Ut! Ut! UT! – great fun!

Before lunch the keynote address was given by Melvyn Bragg whose latest novel, Now is the Time, focuses on the Peasants’ Revolt – or as he’d prefer, Rebellion – in the fourteenth century.

Melvyn’s keynote was passion: he was tripping over himself at times, in his enthusiasm and his indignation. He drew contrasts between our world and the time of Richard II but at the same time highlighted the similarities. He felt the peasants – not that they were peasants, in his view – were like those who recently voted for Brexit: tired, quite simply, of not being heard, of being disregarded by the high and the mighty of the land, taking drastic action to be listened to. It was an unsettling parallel to draw – the Revolt/Rebellion didn’t exactly turn out well …

He mentioned the focus on mortality back then, perfectly understandable in the wake of the Black Death, where ‘the only cure at their disposal was prayer’, and the rise of English as the language of political debate and poetry – how Wyclif and Chaucer were creating new audiences for expression in English words, not Latin or French. He told us how much he hated William the Conqueror. He asserted ‘the rights of fiction’ to inhabit that space I was discussing in my previous post, that space between what happened and what is imaginable. If Herodotus and Shakespeare could reimagine history, why can’t we?

Delegates had much to discuss, then, over lunch. I’ll tell you about the story awards, afternoon session and gala dinner in my next post!
Essie Fox - whose novel The Last Days of Leda Grey
 comes out in November. I can't wait to read it!

Karen Maitland, one of my favourite writers

Details of the new season of my Fictionfire workshops, a day course and a retreat can be found here, and you can sign up for my Fictionfire newsletter - articles, recommended reads and resources, competitions and more.

An Oxford Vengeance is available to buy on Amazon here and here.

Part 1 of these posts on the 2016 HNS conference is here.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Historical Novel Society Conference Oxford 2016 Part 1: Dreaming of History among the Spires

Welcome to the first of my posts on the HNS Conference of 2016, this time held in the glorious city of Oxford, last weekend.

Historical fiction has been on my mind all summer. I gave a lecture at the Oxford University Creative Writing Summer School at Exeter College at the start of August, the title of which was ‘Writing Historical Fiction: Spinning Fact into Fiction’. That was a title decided upon a very long time ago, so it was ironic to see on the HNS conference programme, that Tracy Chevalier would be talking about ‘Fact into Fiction: A Historical Novelist’s Relationship to the Past’ and Lord Melvyn Bragg’s speech would be ‘Now is the Time: Historical Fact or Fiction?’

This highlights the constant concern debated in HF: the interface between fact and fiction, between what is known and what can be imagined. A couple of days before the conference opened, I published an ebook, An Oxford Vengeance, because I wanted to celebrate the privilege of living here, in a city where extraordinary facts jump out at you, crying out to be turned into fiction. Oxford has inspired writers for centuries and those who attended the conference could very well see why. Their eagerness to come here, their joy and fascination during their brief stay, served to remind me how incredibly lucky I am to be surrounded by such beauty and tradition in a location that oozes history from every pore.

The title story of An Oxford Vengeance straddles fact and fiction: in it I imagine what might have happened in the aftermath of the events of Chaucer’s ‘The Miller’s Tale’, one of the famous Canterbury Tales. He located it in Oxford, in Osney – so I set about researching the 14th century history and creating a darker set of consequences from the farcical scenario he relates.

But, back to the conference! Friday afternoon saw willing helpers and members of the committee, who have been dedicating themselves to the preparation and smooth running of the event for many months now, gather at the Mathematics Institute to fill goody bags for delegates. The logistics of this operation were quite something and very well described in Nikki Fine’s post on the subject! Hundreds of bags were stacked against the wall, to vanish quickly during the course of that evening and the following day.

The conference proper got under way in the evening. Conference co-ordinator Carol McGrath welcomed Fay Weldon and Jo Baker to discuss The Big House Story. Fay wrote the first parts of Upstairs, Downstairs and Jo Baker wrote Longbourn, which focuses on the stories of the servants in the household of the Bennets of Pride and Prejudice fame.

They started with an analysis of the importance of servants – how, as Jo said, they were ‘the clockwork of the house’. Fay said that ‘The life downstairs is the real life’. They went on to discuss the paradoxical position of servants, able to eavesdrop and observe, but in some cases not even allowed to make eye contact with their employers.

Broadening the discussion from the central topic, they discussed their writing practices and aims. Jo said she’d discovered she’d been writing a large part of her current work in progress in a stage of ‘indignation’ – ‘Indignation is a great thing’, Fay reassured her, before asserting that ‘You have to choose your characters to make your point and your novel has to have a point.’ When discussing historical fiction and the accuracy of research, Jo told us ‘If you become too mimetic you make it less accessible to a reader’, so there we are, at that interface between the actual and the imagined once more.

As for what counts as historical fiction, Jo claimed that ‘Books start to be historical when clothes count as vintage.’ That’s a goodly portion of my life turning into history, then …

The evening concluded with a wine and canapés reception. I’ll tell you all about the packed Saturday programme in my next post – in the meantime, enjoy the photos!

An Oxford Vengeance is available to buy on Amazon here and here.

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Thursday, 18 August 2016

M.K.Tod and the Making of a Novel

I've had a very busy creative writing teaching schedule this summer, plus I've given a lecture at Oxford University on writing historical fiction and am getting ready for the Historical Novel Society conference here in Oxford at the start of September - I've been helping judge the short story competition and I'll be on a panel at the conference discussing the relative advantages and disadvantages of traditional and self-publishing. With this focus on historical fiction, I'm particularly delighted to welcome M.K. (Mary) Tod to Literascribe with a guest-post on how she set about writing her third novel, Time and Regret, published this week by Lake Union Press. If you're interested in historical fiction, Mary also writes a brilliant blog on it at 

Each author creates and writes in her or his own way. There is no best approach; what matters most is whether in the end the story is compelling from a reader’s point of view. I tend to get an idea and then put flesh on it using a detailed chapter outline before I begin the real writing. The idea for my latest novel, Time and Regret, came while travelling in France with my husband Ian to visit the battlefields, monuments, cemeteries, and museums dedicated to World War One.

On that trip, we went to Bailleul, Lille, Amiens, Ypres, Mont St. Eloi and other towns and villages, and to memorials at Vimy, Courcelette, Thiepval and Passchendaele. We visited the Musée de la Grande Guerre in Peronne. We stayed at a charming hotel that used to be a château and dined at its next-door restaurant. Those places and the landscape of the region engaged every sense and, along with the hundreds of pictures taken have fuelled descriptions of meadows, villages, windows, tastes, gardens, restaurants, and other parts of Time and Regret.

Of most significance to this novel is the night we spent at a café in the small town of Honfleur across the mouth of the Seine from Le Havre. Shortly after the waiter poured our first glass of red wine, I wrote a few words in a small notebook.

“What are you writing?” Ian said.

“An idea for a story,” I replied.

Refusing to be put off by my cryptic response, Ian persisted. “What’s the idea?”

“Nothing much. Just thought it might make a good story to have a granddaughter follow the path her grandfather took during World War One in order to find out more about him.”

Ian took on a pensive look and no doubt had another sip of wine. “You could include a mystery,” he said.

Now, you should know that mysteries are my husband’s favourite genre. Indeed, I suspect mysteries represent at least eighty percent of his reading. So I played along.

“What kind of mystery?”

And that was the birth of Time & Regret, as ideas tumbled out and the plot took shape. Needless to say, the bottle of wine was soon empty.

Tackling a mystery was new for me – my first novels were a combination of war and romance. But a mystery, well, that’s something different. Mysteries need clues artfully dropped in an unsuspecting manner and more than one potential culprit. The plot needs to be full of tension and drama and unexpected twists. And you have to wait until almost the very end to reveal ‘who dunnit’.

To make the job more difficult, I decided to write Time and Regret with two time periods, one in early 1990s and the other in World War One, which meant interleaving chapters in a way that was effective rather than confusing.

The Town Hall at Bailleul
As with any historical novel, research was critical. Beyond the trip to France, I spent ages investigating a particular infantry unit of the Canadian army (my WWI protagonist is in the Canadian army although after the war he moves to New York). For purposes of story and authenticity, I needed to know his whereabouts and the battles in which he participated. Fortunately, the Canadian government has stored battalion diaries online which meant I could read about troop movements, casualties, weather conditions, important visitors, training programs, skirmishes with the enemy, battles, preparations for battle and other details the battalion commander chose to record during every day of the war.

Beyond that, I researched casualty clearing stations, hospitals in London serving WWI officers, the effects of shell shock, military weapons, the use of tanks. And for the more present day portion of the story, I found things like information on French beers, French food, fashion styles and major events of 1991, the world of museums and art galleries and many more details.

Writing is a labour of love. Passion and serendipity keep me going.

Time and Regret: A cryptic letter. A family secret. A search for answers.
When Grace Hansen finds a box belonging to her beloved grandfather, she has no idea it holds the key to his past—and to long buried secrets. In the box are his World War I diaries and a cryptic note addressed to her. Determined to solve her grandfather’s puzzle, Grace follows his diary entries across towns and battle sites in northern France, where she becomes increasingly drawn to a charming French man—and suddenly aware that someone is following her.

-- Juliet Grey: author of the acclaimed Marie Antoinette trilogy

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET will be published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website