Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Historical Novel Society conference London 2012, part 1

The 2012 Historical Novel Society conference was held in London over the last weekend of September. This is the first of a couple of posts summarising the panels and workshops I attended. The coverage is skewed to my own preferences and interests, and the write-up is based on my notes and is not intended as a verbatim record! That said, I hope this is of interest/use to others too.

The conference programme (including biographies of panellists) is here.  

Panel session 1: What Sells Historical Fiction?
Panel: Matt Bates, Jade Chandler, Diana Gabaldon, David Headley, Simon Taylor, Susan Watt.

ST: A resurgence of the HF genre the last 15 years.
JC: Historical crime / thriller – a wide and expanding range. Murder sells. Also, publishers look for immediacy in the writing voice. A high concept [an easily statable premise] helps too.
SW: Some eras do better than others, Tudors and Romans as obvious examples, partly as these are the bits of history people remember from school. The history needs to be relatable. See, for example, the swathe of books about 1066 recently. Either / both a relatable period or subject matter or a high concept helps, or a clear comparison of the past with today.
ST: Concept, historical background, strong characters are all crucial.
DH: Character and voice are key. There aren’t any over-saturated periods (though the Roman is getting close).
MB: From a retail perspective, immediacy is key to sales, in terms of jacket, title and byline. Hence clearly defined ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ covers fixing on either an emblem (Wolf Hall as an example) a character (the stereotypical warrior in action pose) or a representative location. Titles should be triggers to the novel’s subject and thus purchase.
DG: The cross-genre nature of much HF is an issue: where to place in bookstores / how to package, design and market HF? However, some HF can be marketed to specific readerships.
Floor question: Please define ‘high concept’.
DG: A concept that’s immediately recognised.
JC: That takes less than 30 seconds to explain.
Floor question: What about different book packaging for different markets?
DH: Collectors will buy multiple copies plus this may raise interest in the book.
Floor question: What importance is attached to reviews?
MB: Reviews are less important on a book cover than a plot summary.
ST: HF is under-reviewed, but no-one is sure how much influence reviews have.
Floor question: Does self-publishing aid getting print publication?
JC: Yes. Some traditional publishers trial books in e- formats then print later. It’s possible, but not certain.
SW: A sample available for ebook download can be effective.
Session ends.   

Opening address: Philippa Gregory

Facts are not history. Archives or Google Streetview are not history. History needs narrative. Selection is key. For the macro historians, not much happens; a tendency to miss out the unexpected or incongruent facts, or to filter them out.
Historical fiction can be both fact and fiction. See also hybrids in creative non-fiction. The focus, though, is on the novel. Fiction tells the stories that history cannot tell. 

There's a video of the address here

Workshop: What Readers Want
Led by: Emma Darwin, Harry Sidebottom.

The session was devoted to discussing Mary Tod’s recent survey of historical fiction readers’ preferences. Mary’s research may be found here: and her own account of the background to the workshop (and why she couldn’t attend) is here.

Mention was also made of Ian Mortimer’s Guardian article “The lying art of historical fiction” which can be found here. Also referred to was Sam Wineburg’s “Historical thinking and other unnatural acts” - there's an overview here.   

Panel session 2: The Lying Art: Tensions and issues at the fact/fiction interface
Panel: Elizabeth Chadwick, Emma Darwin, Barbara Ewing, Daisy Goodwin, Ian Mortimer, Harry Sidebottom

IM: (referring back to the article above) Perhaps we should think not “is it accurate” but “is it any good”?
HS: Lying’s fine if it’s done for good reasons, either narrative or historical ones.
ED: Novel: we make things up.
EC: Lying’s justifiable under certain circumstances.
BE: Invention rather than lying. Imagination is fine, untruth isn’t.
IM: Accuracy? What’s more achievable, authenticity or accuracy?
ED: Reimagining involves some form of forgetting.
HS: You should reinvent the thought-world specific to the era being depicted.
EC: Doing the unseen research pays off. Don’t info-dump everything. Living history and re-enactment can help you understand their mindsets.
IM: If people read HF to find out about the past, is fiction misleading or dangerous?
EC: The expectations from readers have changed and some are pedantic about truth.
ED: Factual characters are useful hooks for fiction and thus there’s potential for confusion.
HS: Though many people’s ideas about what history is, are wrong.
IM: Internet rubbish never goes away, for example.
BE: Fibs are OK, lies not.
HS: History is interpretation, not the dull recording of fact. Historians and novelists aren’t at polar opposites.
ED: The truth-claims of novels and of history are different.
IM: There are 3,500 academic historians in the UK but very few do/can write for the public.
HS: It’s what the readership allows you to be creative with; what they bring to the text too.
IM: Author’s notes. There are two schools of opinion on them – that they’re good and bad.
ED: The novelist is trying to weave a single rope of invention. Trying to put together, not unpick history apart.
HS: Have the author’s note at the end, not the start of the book. Like the bonus features of a DVD/Bluray.
IM: Think of Shakespeare on Richard III: he’s a terrible historian but a great storyteller. Which would you prefer?
Session ends.  

Update: Part 2 of this conference report is here.


  1. Eamonn .. what great notes. Thank you for posting them. Interesting to see folks tangled up in the issue of historical accuracy. Do you think there's consensus? Regarding what sells HF - did folks talk about good stories being key to selling?

  2. Cheers! There's consensus that a basis in researched history is necessary, but the nature and extent of fictionalisation is open to much debate. There's surprisingly little openness to alternative approaches from some people - folks can get quite dogmatic at times! This is a key aspect of the thesis I'm writing up at the moment. Yep, there was broad agreement that stories are central, though some whiffs that sterile fidelity was preferable to changes for narrative/character reasons. I'll post up the rest of my notes in a day or two!