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CONFERENCE: The Historical Novel Society – London 2014

Historical Novel Society Conference - London, 2014
Historical Novel Society Conference - London, 2014
Historical Novel Society Conference – London, 2014

CONFERENCE: The Historical Novel Society – London 2014

I recently attended my first Historical Novel Society Conference in London. The London Historical Society holds annual meetings to showcase new literary talent, reward great authors, share industry news and information, and pitch new work to agents. 

About the Historical Novel Society

The historical novel society is devoted to the promotion of historical fiction. The society has chapters in the US and the UK but is open to members worldwide. It hold annual conferences and hosts a print magazine, the Historical Novel Review that contains book reviews and industry news. 

Conference Highlights

Normally, I tend to read historical fiction that sits squarely in the Medieval and Tudor camp but lately, I’ve broken away and discovered there are other great historical periods out there. I recently read Georgian thriller, The Devil in the Marshalsea by newcomer Antonia Hodgson, and really enjoyed it. I had the opportunity to meet Antonia at the conference after she was part of the ‘My Era is Better than Yours’. It’s nice to get to talk to fantastic authors. Although I wasn’t able to attend all the sessions, I’d like to share two that I really enjoyed. 

Me with Roman period author, Alison Morton at 'Veni, Vidi, Vici'
Me with Roman period author, Alison Morton 

Veni, Vidi, Vici: What Keeps Us Coming Back to the Romans?

As part of my exploration of other periods, I decided to attend Veni, Vidi, Vici: What Keeps Us Coming Back to the Romans?’, a workshop dedicated to writing about the Roman period. One of our websites , History of the Ancient World, has a book review section that’s collecting cobwebs so I popped in to see what was out there. ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’ was an informal, and at times humorous, panel about the difficulties inherent in writing Roman historical novels. The session was run by famed Roman author and historian, Harry Sidebottom. Seasoned authors up and coming authors shared their experiences dealing with academics, re-enactment groups and “super fans” and debated the importance of historical accuracy. I think I can safely say that the same problems plague writers in all historical genres when it comes down to “getting it right”; it seems every period has its pitfalls. 

There is a lot of history in Britain from Hadrian’s Wall and various other Roman sites that inspire writers to create Roman-based stories. In the US, the lack of a physical Roman presence is replaced by grand Roman movies, and television shows like the HBO series, Rome. To this day, there are Roman resonances in modern times; they imposed their world views on other cultures and acted as the policeman of the ancient world. 

The massive level of interest in the Roman world spanning from 200 BC to the Fall of the Roman Empire means that writers are expected to get the details right. Re-enactors, re-enactment groups and academics can provide a wealth of information about intricate details in costume and weaponry. Discussion also focused on the role of women in Roman literature. How does an author place women characters in Roman novels authentically? The result being that most writers tend to place women in politics so that they can take on powerful, yet historically accurate roles, like that of Agrippina the Younger, Nero’s mother. It was a fascinating talk and a great opportunity to meet writers outside my two staple, go-to periods.

The panel of 'My Era Is Better Than Yours' - Historical Novel Society Conference, London 2014.
The panel of ‘My Era Is Better Than Yours’ – Historical Novel Society Conference, London 2014.

My Era is Better than Yours’

My other favourite session was the large panel entitled, ‘My Era is Better than Yours’ which invited authors from Ancient Rome, Medieval, Tudor, Georgian and Viking and the English Civil War to discuss why their era was best. 

Ancient Rome was represented by Harry Sidebottom, who writes about Rome in the 3rd century AD. Harry contributed an ancient love story saying that contrary to popular belief, ‘Clearly love wasn’t invented by Anglo-Saxons, and nor was extreme violence invented by Giles and the Vikings’.

The Middle Ages were represented by Angus Donald. Angus writes about medieval outlaws and the Crusades, argued that, ’This is the era in which the love story was born’. When asked what inspired him to write about the Middle Ages, he answered that he discovered the 12th century Renaissance and became entranced by the flowering of culture and arts. His heroes were Robin Hood, and Alan-a-Dale, who was a poet and troubadour. Reading stories about Alan-a-Dale introduced him to the poetry of this age. ‘For the first time since the Roman Empire, we started to have attitudes towards women changing, women became venerated and looked up to…this huge change in culture towards women. You have fin amour, courtly love, and poetry begins to extol feminine virtues’…. Angus enjoyed the new sensibility towards arts and culture that occurred at the end of the twelfth century.

Author Suzannah Dunn, who represented the Tudor period, didn’t come from a historical background like some of the other panelists but was fascinated by Anne Boleyn and wanted to write about her. When she started doing research she realised that the Tudors were the beginnings of the ‘early moderns’ and she liked that aspect. The Tudor period was also filled with many famous and powerful women. It was also a period that was very much a soap opera and scandals like Henry VIII’s six marriages were as shocking then as they would be now.

Antonia Hodgson, weighed in on the Georgian period. Although Antonia has a background in medieval literature, she decided to write about this oft neglected period in English history, saying, ‘I’m drawn to neglected abandoned things’. Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, and his pictures depicting life in eighteenth century London fascinated her – the drinking, whoring, and gambling. ‘One of the things you learn is how much we’ve changed and how little we’ve changed...those connections are really important’. During this period, censorship had broken down, and it was a time of satirists, and pamphleteers, before empire. It was a little chink of time that felt more modern than Victorian, and there was much less of the stiff upper lip of the nineteenth century.

Giles Christian writes about Vikings because his mother is Norwegian and he spent a lot of time on the fjords. He writes about a culture that was illiterate and a time before written culture saying, that this was ‘One of the rares instances where history was written by the losers’. The historical side of the period doesn’t get in the way and allows you to get completely creative. He writes because he wants to entertain. Giles also writes an English Civil War series, which is conversely, full of rich written sources; ‘there is a lot you have to research and get right’. He finds writing in the Viking period refreshing because he can write more freely.

That of course prompted the question: is it easier to write about earlier periods with fewer resources? 

Antonia thought that too much information can make a book stifling. She offered the following tip: A good way to keep it simple yet remain true to your period was by narrowing it down to a specific time and location to prevent the sources becoming overwhelming. Giles added to that sentiment by saying that the English Civil war is a huge subject full of politics and religion but he doesn’t want to chronicle the Civil War as a historian. ‘My books probably won’t teach you about the English Civil War’, he writes about people based in that period, rather than trying to encompass the whole environment. Harry added that while the surface story can be made up, getting the underlying world correct and they way they (people of the period) thought was important. Angus mentioned the fact that he found it incredibly difficult to get into the medieval mind because it was an age where faith was so important, but you still have to try and do it. Religion permeated every aspect of their lives. ‘Our modern and liberal society comes from that brutal defence of Christianity of the Middle Ages’. Suzannah stayed that she does put a modern sensibility in her books, and doesn’t try to avoid it creeping into her work because her goal is to bridge the gap. ‘You either stress the alien or draw on the similarities’, and she is drawn to doing the latter. 

Another question along the same lines asked: is too much accuracy boring to the reader? 

Giles mentioned a concern for what readers will think of a character if they are particularly amoral or do heinous things. He had encountered this in a rape scene in one of his Viking novels and decided to leave the passage in, stating, ‘Sometimes, you have to leave it in and shock audiences. Do you keep it accurate or appeal to the reader? What can your main character get away with?” It’s like “Breaking Bad”; you have an irredeemable character, but people still watch and still root for him.’ Antonia also added that you need to understand your character and their time; they are not separate. Is likeability more important that being interesting? Angus believes being interesting is more important, you don’t have to have a likeable character to write a good story.Lastly, audience members wanted to know: What kick started your interest in your period in writing?

Harry is an academic, and has always been interested in the Classical world. He was annoyed by the fact that academia thinks you’re ‘slumming it” when you write historical novel. He is bridging the gap between academia and historical fiction. Giles humorously resounded that he wanted to make a living by doing nothing. He wanted to write about people living outside of society’s rules, people who did what they wanted, when they wanted, because if he can’t do it, his characters can! Suzannah came to reading later on in life as she grew up in a house without writing and books and loved Ann Boleyn. Antonia loves conveying her interests to her readers.

It was a fantastic and fun panel. There were lots of laughs and great advice. The next Historical Novel Society Conference will be held in Sydney, Australia March 20-22, 2015 and the North American Conference will be held inDenver Colorado June 26-28, 2015.

~Sandra Alvarez

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