Reflections on the Salt Lake City HNS Conference

TAMARA MAZZEI and GEORGINE OLSON reflect on the first North American Historical Novel Society conference

Tamara Mazzei:

“Saving civilization is a big job. We’ve all got to work at it.” —Judith Merkle Riley

When I originally offered to report on the first North American conference of the HNS, I wasn’t aware that so many authors were planning to sign up for an editor appointment, leaving me with only enough time to attend one session. So, in lieu of describing all the wonderful panels (and I know there were many—everyone I spoke with was just delighted with them), I can only add my general impressions.

First and foremost, from my point of view, it was a smashing success. Sarah Johnson, Ann Chamberlin, Claire Morris, and everyone else involved did an excellent job on what was, by far, the most interesting conference I have ever attended—and the most fun. How can you top getting to meet long-time e-mail friends like Teresa Eckford in person, knowing that you can chat about the best primary sources for researching King Stephen as easily as you can chat about your pets or your families?

And apart from the joy I felt in meeting like-minded souls who don’t greet the words “historical novels” with a quizzical stare, I was also excited by what I perceive as indications of a positive trend. From the moment I decided to concentrate my publishing efforts on historical fiction, I hoped to find a path to success publishing in a niche that often receives pejorative labels and negative attention from the mainstream. In fact, I’ve often felt as if I were searching for an elusive, un-nameable stream, with no certainty it was there.

Like anyone who reads the Historical Novels Review and Solander, I am aware of the variety of historical fiction that is being published all the time. But what the conference brought home to me is the incredible range of material this “genre” can include—and where it is going. And yes, I believe it is going somewhere—somewhere very good. I feel this way for a number of reasons, but the diversity of material I saw at the HNS conference is reflective of what, to my mind, is the most important reason: historical fiction is finally beginning to coalesce into a distinctive entity—I hesitate to use the word “genre” simply because it often implies a strict definition of type, and historical fiction will never be defined so narrowly in any way other than by the boundaries of time.

The conference provided an excellent opportunity to see this coalescence in action. I spoke with so many authors known for writing “romances” or “mysteries,” who have written something historical—some falling into the strict confines of an existing genre, and some not; but all with an overriding passion and knowledge about the stories they want to bring to the world. Knowledge and passion are important, of course, yet even more so for those of us who love it, is the growing awareness that the words “historical fiction” do not denote “bodice rippers” or arguably worse, the Cliffs Notes version of the “real” history that some of us avoided in school. These stories and the ways that we tell them are an essential part of our culture. They are not history “light;” they are literature, a point made very nicely by Jack Whyte in his Friday night speech.

For me, a high point of the conference was in the single session I did manage to attend, which focused on bridging the gap between modern readers and the primary sources many authors need to use for research. It was led by Judith Merkle Riley, one of my all-time favorite authors, who brought photocopied examples from The Book of Margery Kempe, Chaucer, Nostradamus, and The Paston Letters. She described some of the ways that authors can absorb and synthesize their sources so that they don’t lose their original disposition, but can still be appreciated by modern readers. This is heady stuff for anyone who has struggled to shed the image that historical fiction requires less intellectual rigor than other types of fiction (add a knight in shining armor, a ripping bodice or two, a bit of flowery dialogue, and boom; you have a novel).

Judith Merkle Riley was joking when she said the words that appear at the beginning of this article, and yet, they have stayed with me because they were an echo of many similar sentiments I heard expressed during the conference. I went away with the feeling that all of us, whether we are the tellers of the stories, or the audience who gratefully receives them, have begun to realize the value of these tales and how important it is that we not allow them to fall by the wayside simply because the mainstream has run a different course for a while.

Listening to Jack Whyte speak of his own passion for stories, to Rachel Kahan describe her work with the Jean Plaidy estate to re-issue those much-loved books, to the authors with whom I had appointments telling me of novels set in Dutch Colonial Jakarta, ancient Rome, prehistoric Britain, early modern France, and countless others, I began to feel as if my divining rod is very near to finding water—not a stream, but a river!

Georgine Olson:

For the life of me, I can’t remember what made me decide to attend the Historical Novel Society Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, this spring – but I’m so glad I did! I’m not even sure I thought I’d be getting more than food for my reader’s soul, but I sure did. Those who decided not to attend what they felt would be purely a writer’s conference really missed out on an informative and energizing experience.

The conference was well organized from the get-go and the organizing team was a pleasure to work with. Even an afternoon of helping file registration materials was a pleasant interlude (made even more so later when, along with other conference volunteers, I received a lovely book for my “hard work”). From my point of view, as a librarian working with the reading public and as a reader, there was not one time slot where I felt I could “skip” a session. I was right; every session was interesting, and every session had a bit of information or piece of knowledge that will be put to good use as I read, and as I work for and with others who read Historical Fiction.

For me, Jack Whyte’s keynote really set the tone of the conference when he spoke of novelists as storytellers, who, like bards and troubadours of old, could open reader’s eyes to the world. I particularly enjoyed his “eleventh commandment”: Thou shalt not commit boredom upon your reader. Now, if we only knew, as librarians and readers’ advisors (or as writers), just the right turn of phrase or storytelling style that would prevent that infliction of boredom, our lives would be so much simpler.

It gave me a bit of guilty enjoyment (or was it more a wry twinge of shared pain?) as panelists in two sessions discussed and wrestled with the concept of “literary” vs. “genre”. The speakers and comments from the audience indicated that authors, publishers, and readers’ advisory librarians face similar problems in getting beyond the perception that writers and readers of popular or genre fiction are somewhat “less” compared to readers and writers of what contemporary reviewers term “literary fiction.” I didn’t say anything at the time, but I personally like to remind myself that Charles Dickens, the Brontés, AND William Shakespeare (to name a few) were, in their time, writers for the masses – not the icons of literature they have since become. Since I’m primarily a genre reader, I find great comfort in this analogy.

I thoroughly enjoyed the presentations and discussions about historical research: where to go; what to look for; how much is enough; is there such a thing as too much? That’s a problem librarians face, too, as we work with our patrons doing research. When someone asks for information about English sumptuary laws, it makes a difference whether it is for a two-page history report (probably due tomorrow), information for planning an upcoming SCA activity, or a major plot thread in a novel. In my business, it’s just as bad to overwhelm the harried student with too much information that cannot be readily distilled into what’s needed as it is not to be able to head the serious researcher in the right direction. Your local public library isn’t likely to have the primary sources so near and dear to the hearts of the authors who spoke in Salt Lake City (unless it’s local information), but we sure should be able to help the novice find the solid secondary resources that will get research headed in the right direction. From what I heard, it would seem that there’s no such thing as too much information for an author digging into history, so I will no longer worry about making too many suggestions about where information might be found or having too long a list of titles that we could borrow from other libraries.

Even as I devoted my time to attending the sessions and workshops I felt would be of most interest and use to readers, there was no way to not become more aware of a major concern of the authors: marketing and sales. It was obvious that the authors were paying serious attention to what the editors and publishers in attendance said – even when it was a short comment during a program. I really don’t know whether the editor/publisher aspect of the conference met the expectations of the authors, but as I noted the postcards, bookmarks, and flyers on the handout table and in the hands of authors as they chatted during breaks and at meal functions, I thought back to Fairbanks and a local author whose first novel (science fiction) is coming out toward the end of the year. Once the euphoria of having sold his novel passed, and the nitty gritty of publishing began to settle in, he realized that HE was going to have to do some self-promotion if he wanted to earn more than his advance from the publisher. We have spent some time lately (over coffee and away from work) talking about how he can market his book to libraries – and, maybe, just maybe, push it into a second or a larger print run. It has been an eye-opening experience for me. In fact, I’m beginning to think that a useful program at the next conference might be one where authors could learn ways to work successfully with libraries to market their books.

I was sad to leave Salt Lake City. It was not just leaving behind green grass and spring flowers in full bloom to come home to several inches of new snow; it was knowing that it will be two years before there’s another such energetic and energizing gathering of the Historical Novel Society on this side of The Pond. Ah, well, it just might take me that long to work my way through the contents of that extra piece of luggage I brought with such foresight – the one that came home packed with a dozen or so new books to read and lots and lots of scribbled notes, business cards, bookmarks, flyers et al that will lead me and the readers I serve to many an hour happily experiencing other times and other places.

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First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, v.9 no.1 (May 2005): 34-36..

Posted by Sarah Johnson

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