An Innocent Abroad: A First-timer’s Experience at the HNS Maryland Conference


The adventure began for me with a day that lasted 23 hours, from wakening in London to falling into a gigantic bed in the Gaylord Resort hotel. Along the way I picked up Hazel Gaynor in Dublin, chatted with her non-stop through an eight-hour flight, sat in DC traffic, got into a lift (sorry, elevator) with a woman wearing a bustle so wide the doors would hardly close, drank wine, desperately tried to memorize new name/face combinations (not helped by the ones wearing woad), drank more wine, ate something with crab in it, and got caught in a torrential downpour.

Next morning, I turned up at the 8am “State of Historical Fiction” panel, an eager student with notebook and pen, and straight away it became apparent that I was in a foreign land, a land where they have “critique partners”, “sensitivity readers” and “koffee klatches” – and they don’t like “info dumps.” Lots more UK/US differences emerged.

The panel decreed that historical fiction readers don’t want books set more than 500 years ago and they don’t want male protagonists – but in the UK, Ben Kane and Bernard Cornwell regularly top the bestseller lists with those very things.

The panel said the market for World War I and II stories is crowded, but in the UK novels set during the Blitz are perennially popular – like AJ Pearce’s Dear Mrs Bird (Picador, 2018) – as are “saga” wartime novels.

The trend for fictionalized biographies of famous historical characters is passing, they opined (Damn! Just written one!), but there is a place for fictional characters observing real people and events from the side lines. In the UK, though, we love our Tudor and Stuart stories narrated by the key players: Hilary Mantel and Philippa Gregory go from strength to strength.

The book club market in the US is leading to the popularity of shorter novels, so all members have time to read them. Book clubs have less influence in the UK, but Trapeze editorial director Phoebe Morgan tells me: “Science fiction and fantasy novels tend to veer higher but commercial historical fiction is shorter now, perhaps 90–100K.”

I attended loads of talks and koffee klatches [klatch: an informal social gathering at which coffee is served] and spoke on a panel about tragic heroines. Overall, the audiences seemed more interested in craft tips. Most attendees are either published or unpublished novelists themselves, and they wanted the elusive golden key to writing bestsellers. Lots of speakers were incredibly generous in giving away their trade secrets, and I saw pens scribbling fast. It created a lovely atmosphere of mutual support and community spirit.

One theme that came up time and again in the questions after panels involved cultural appropriation. This surprised me, because surely there’s no way round it when you are writing history? I’ve put myself in the shoes of a Russian cavalry officer and a steward on the Titanic, as well as an 1850s nurse in the Crimea. But the North American experience of mass immigration and slavery brings with it tensions that are still being resolved, Heather Webb explained. She said she has been surprised when travelling in Europe and Latin America to find how little they strive for cohesion. Personally, I think we’re just behind the times, and that “sensitivity readers” will arrive on our shores before long.

What do you do if one of your characters behaves in a way that was acceptable in the historical period you’re writing about but is totally unacceptable in the #MeToo era? Do you let them get away with misogyny? Homophobia? Any form of racism? These were, of course, historical facts of life, but many authors said they would try to comment on the behaviour somehow, either through the voice of another character or in a historical afterword. Afterwords were judged an All Round Good Thing.

I would still be unpublished if I’d had to pitch to get a contract. I know I would blush, stammer and forget my characters’ names. Altogether more terrifying were the Cold Reads sessions, the literary equivalent of The X Factor. Authors submitted the first two pages of their mss to be read out loud in front of an agents/editors panel. One of the experts would stop the reader at the point she lost interest, and then explain why. Julianne Douglas told me: “Most readings were halted because of extensive info dumps or something confusing in the manuscript – i.e., too many characters introduced too quickly or stakes not clearly defined. It was a marvellous, though nerve-wracking, way to see what works and what doesn’t in a novel’s opening pages and how short a time authors have to catch a professional’s attention.” Thankfully, Julianne’s pages passed muster, and she was shaking with relief when I saw her afterwards.

Everyone’s favourite talk was by the funny and inspiring Dolen Perkins-Valdez, and she was responsible for the catchphrase on all lips: “MSU”. Readers choose historical fiction looking for a good story, she said, so do your research but don’t be ruled by it. The time comes when you have to put it aside and Make Shit Up. It’s a tip that works on either side of the Atlantic, and since then I’ve adopted it as my motto for life.

Thanks to all who came to Maryland! You were magnificent!

Tips for attendees

  • Get involved: pitch your own panels and talks; sign up to be a mentor; be brave enough to submit your ms for a Cold Reads session; or volunteer to help. You’ll meet many more people that way.
  • Take ARCs of your next novel to give away to other authors in the hope they will blurb it for you.
  • Take Instagram selfies with fellow authors; readers love seeing their favourite novelists get together.
  • Take plenty of business cards with all your social media handles.
  • Dress up, especially for the banquet and ball; there were some seriously glitzy outfits and killer shoes on display (name-checking Donna Russo).
  • Take bookplates; the bookshop will stick them on any leftover stock.
  • Follow up those contacts as soon as you get home.
  • Finally, don’t miss Kate Quinn’s conference round-up, which she traditionally posts on Facebook. It’s hysterical!

About the contributor: Gill Paul’s latest novel, The Lost Daughter, about Maria, the third Romanov daughter, is published by William Morrow.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 90 (November 2019)

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