Writers, in general, tend to be wee, sleekit, cowran, tim’rous beasties and writers of historical fiction are no different. We hide, seeing nobody, ignoring even our friends and family, concentrating only on our research/writing/editing, only the occasional glance at Twitter for light relief and kittens.
However, collect 100+ historical fiction writers together in a Hotel and Golf Resort in Scotland and you can barely hear yourself think for the noise.
Yes it was the end of August 2018 and time for the Historical Novel Society Conference. I don’t know why HNS arranged all those Keynote speeches, and Break-out sessions, they could have just locked the doors and let us chat in peace.
Friday afternoon and attendees gathered, the main topic of conversation was where we were from and how far we had travelled. Naturally there were a lot of Scots, and Americans. The English seemed to be in short supply. For anyone who has never been to one of these events, the conversation then continues: Am I talking to another author, or someone else? What era? What stage – planning, writing, published? If so, how? Sometimes you find a “twin” and can end up in a deep and meaningful discussion in the type of mud and height of reeds in the fenland near Ely.
But what about the planned program? There were too many alternatives to go into detail, so I will just pick out what I remember.
Friday evening, after a buffet dinner, there was supposed to be a talk by Robin Ellis, the original Poldark, but he was indisposed. Instead Graham Hunter, costume designer for Outlander and other films and TV, showed us some of the original clothes he had collected over the years, mostly survivals from the eighteenth century. He was informative and enthusiastic, but unfortunately let down by the microphone system – something that was to plague other speakers. The clothes were modelled by his assistant (Laurie?). Why don’t men look so smart nowadays?
This was followed by the Late Night Question Time Special, which was probably a bit too late for many.
Saturday was a beautiful day, what a pity we had to spend it indoors, but it was worth it. The first Keynote session was Alison Weir talking about Jane Seymour. Alison writes both fiction and non fiction and discussed the different constraints this puts on how you write. We heard a lot about the life of King Henry’s third wife and how difficult it can be to know what she felt about her position and what her intentions were. In non fiction we cannot say, in fiction we can take an educated guess. Alison also told us about a new theory about what caused the death of Jane. Fascinating.
There was a pause for refreshments and for the room to be rearranged and it was on to the first Break-out Session. I had chosen Ben Kane on “Clash of Empires Rome v Greece.” Ben has written many acclaimed books on the Romans, but has decided on a change to the Greeks. He gave a brief run down on the world a generation after Alexander the Great, after the Roman army had been almost totally destroyed at Cannae. Fighting broke out in Macedonia where Phillip V was surrounded by enemies. Rome intervened around 200 BC. What happened is told in Ben’s latest book, Clash of Empires, which of course I had to buy. An interesting talk about a little known period of history.
The next session was about using Ingram Spark, less exciting, but useful if I decide to self publish my next book. This was followed by a buffet Lunch and then a session on writing Children’s Historical Fiction. I only caught the beginning and end of this as I had a pitch meeting booked. I don’t know why I put myself through it, but at least I wasn’t as nervous as last time, which I suppose is progress. Finding out about Children’s Historical Fiction would have been more helpful.
Later in the afternoon were more Plenary Sessions: The HNS Awards and reading of extracts from the winning entries, then “From Book to Radio/Screen. Paul Welsh and Trevor Royle discussed the differing methods of translating a book for transmission in other media. Both routes need much changes to the source material – in radio, how to suggest the things that cannot be seen, with film the difficulty is to capture the thoughts of the characters by the way they react to the world around them. Something to think about when writing.
We were then allowed a break. I went and lay on my bed for half an hour, before dressing for the Gala Dinner and Ceilidh.
As we gathered in the bar, we could hear a piper. He marched up and down outside (it was a lovely evening) and then he piped us into dinner.
I spoke earlier about the constant talk. As we waited for our food, we hardly noticed how long it took, although I heard some people gave up. Dinner was at 7.00 pm and it was after 8.00 before our starters arrived, perhaps too long, although it was very nice when it finally arrived.
The ceilidh, when it finally arrived was worth waiting for. By the number of people who asked how to pronounce the word, I realised that many participants had no idea what was to happen – some, I think were still mystified by the end. I will draw a veil over the proceedings, except to say that anyone who watched the dancing of the Gay Gordons will never forget it – those who took part probably still have the bruises – hilarious chaos.
On Sunday morning, people were already starting to leave – trains to catch etc. They probably don’t want to know, but they missed the best talk of the conference: the keynote speech by Sarah Dunant. This was slightly late in starting, I’m not sure why – had someone overslept? It was worth the wait though. Sarah writes about women’s lives in the Italian Renaissance, but today she was talking about the Borgias. Everyone knows about the Borgias – the pope and his family – the corruption, the poison, the incest. We had fun looking at some of the ways they have been portrayed in books and films, but was that the truth? Apparently not. Alexander VI was certainly not the most well behaved of renaissance popes, but he was by no means the worst. He was vilified because he was foreign, the family was Spanish. His daughter, Lucrezia gained a bad reputation from which, as can happen to a woman, she was unable to escape. The Fake News started almost immediately, never to let up. Until now, when Sarah Dunant has produced a possibly more accurate view of this famous family.
Something struck me when I came to write this post. I only bought two books at this conference. Fairly restrained for me, but I didn’t have much room in my luggage! They were books by the most informative and entertaining speakers, Sarah Dunant and Ben Kane. Is there any significance in this? Does being an engaging speaker help to sell your books. Something to think about!
The rest of the morning passed in a rush. The next session I attended was that of Margaret Skea on Stealing Stories, using real places and people and using them as a basis for your fiction. She explained how she used one castle she knew for the outside of her fictional version and a different one for the inside. She tried to use a real person as her main character, but found it too constricting, finally letting a minor imaginary character to tell the story.
At this point I would like to thank Margaret for all her work in organising the conference. She was continually on the move, solving problems, checking people were in the right place and allways with a smile on her face.
Galloping swiftly on to the final Break-out session: The Horse, a workshop with Jane Harlond on how to avoid making mistakes while using horses in our books. She even got us sitting backwards on our chairs to demonstrate the different stirrup positions when using a sword or throwing a lance. I wish we had had more time, but I learned a lot. I will certainly watch Poldark riding his horse along the cliffs in a new light!
Then it was time for the Historical Fiction Challenge, a series of questions to the panel and the audience. Despite the easy questions fed to the panel, the final winners were the audience. Congratulations all round. Then the conference was wrapped up, with an advert for the next, in USA in June 2019. I think I’ll wait for the next British event – I should have got my voice back by then!
I first went to a HNS conference two years ago. At the time I was still writing my first book. This time, that book is published and the next is nearly finished. I enquired before the conference about selling my book there, but was informed that, due to lack of space, only speakers and helpers were allowed on the book stall – a very reasonable decision. However one of the speakers was Jeremy Thompson, Managing Director of Troubador Publishing Ltd and The Book Guild Ltd. He brought along a display for Matador Books and a few historical fiction books they have published. It included my book, Bright Sword, so although it wasn’t for sale, it was visible. Thank you Jeremy.
It was an amazing few days and wonderful to meet up with old friends and Twitter friends and to make new friends. See you all in 2020.
If you want to see more pictures taken at the Conference see the HNS website
And Finally, a picture to prove that I am unable to go to a HNS Conference and not get my hands on a sword!