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Thursday, 28 October 2010

More snippets from the Historical Novel Society Conference 2010

One of the best things about these sort of events is the opportunity to network with other writers and readers. During lunch the hubbub of conversation was almost deafening, and a few people escaped the noisy dining room for the bar, myself included. There I got chatting with some women from Yorkshire who are all at various stages with their historical works-in-progess and with a history teacher who is writing a novel set in the Civil War. We exchanged notes over our pizza, quiche and bread rolls, and heard a little about the ideas behind our work.

Sometimes you can end up a little drunk on other people's unwritten stories and enthusiasm!

In the afternoon we were treated to "A History of Violence" with panellists Harry Sidebottom, Doug Jackson, Robert Low and Ben Kane. There was general agreement amongst the panel that violence was a thrill that the adrenaline-junkie male sought through his reading in this somewhat sanitised society, and that combat and war are subjects that are somehow "sexy" at some visceral level.

Members of the panel were keen to point out the particular stresses of combat with its "to the death" theme can make for a very human story. It was these tales that the panel thought they were telling - the stories of one individual against the big canvas of armed conflict. The panel were asked whether women writers were equally able to do this, to conjure up the vast battlefields and set pieces of conflict, and several mentioned Robyn Young (author of The Brethren Trilogy and the new Insurrection.)

In times past, life was altogether more violent and this difference can alienate readers. Difficult areas that challenge readers are (unsurprisingly) rape scenes, and those featuring violence to animals. One of the panel said he had had complaints about a scene involving dismembering a dog although readers were happy to accept the same if the victim was human. In early cultures, particularly slave cultures, rape was endemic, for example in ancient Rome. Rape in any case was less about sexuality and more about status - i.e. it was acceptable in Rome if you were the rapist, but to be the victim was seen as dropping status. After hearing the all male panel dicuss this, it was a contrast to hear from the softly-spoken writer for young adults, Ann Turnbull.

Ann Turnbull writes historical fiction for young adults - a booming market which she says used to be almost invisible. Her books are set in the seventeenth century and focus on the Civil War, the Plague Years and the Great Fire of London. I have to say that to write of these subjects was probably a smart move as all these are on the standard history curriculum, although for younger children, and that her books seem to be doing very well despite somebody saying earlier in the day that the 17th century was difficult to sell. Ann's talk entertained us with a powerpoint presentation of maps of old London, engravings of a 17th century printers workshop, and forbidden Quaker meetings. Originally a writer of books for younger children Ann was delighted when her publisher suggested she should try writing historicals for Young Adults. Each book is 70-80000 words long, so each takes considerable research. But there is no doubt that there is a market there now for historical fiction for young adults where there wasn't one before.

The final presentation was from Jean Fullerton, whose immensely popular London based books are impeccably researched. "Ground your fiction in Fact" was the title of the session, as Jean is a firm believer in doing your homework, and goes to great lengths to make sure everything is as accurate as possible. She told us to look beneath the surface of the usual view and unearth the lesser known facts, for example that there were many black Victorians in London, but these images are not ones we would usually associate with Victorian London. She has the advantage of living in the place she writes about and has used her local contacts and the local studies archives to uncover exactly what was on the streets she writes of, so she can feature real pubs and shops. She even researched what grades of coal were on sale during the period she was describing.When challenged that such detailed research might be wasteful as it hardly features in the book, and time could be better spent writing, Jean took the view that if the writer knows the detail, then this will convey to the reader even if not in the most obvious way. And I have to say I agree - the confidence that comes from knowing your stuff helps the writing process and gives a flavour of veracity.

Jean finished by saying we will never be able to get it all right - there will always be something we miss and kick ourselves over once it has gone to the printer, but that is inevitable. The main thing is to have done the research the best way you are able.

In the gaps between the sessions I was able to network with other writers, both published and unpublished, and have the "writerly" conversations I am so often starved of at home, so my thanks go to the organisers and to the speakers. I look forward to next time!

Monday, 25 October 2010

Snippets from the Historical Novel Society Conference

The venue for this year's conference was the Mechanics Institute in Manchester, a solid edifice with an imposing stone staircase and walls full of prints and ephemera from the history of the Trades Unions.

Unfortunately I couldn't be in two places at once so I had to make choices about which speakers I would listen to. The first was Mary Sharratt - seated in amongst us at a round table around which we all squashed ourselves - she was a very popular speaker and rightly so. Her talk on "The Daughters of Witching Hill", her new novel, was exemplary. She gave us plenty of historical detail about the religious and social background to the book -  how the Reformation changed attitudes to Catholicism, how the 17th century beliefs in spirits and the power of the cunning woman were repressed during the rise of Puritanism. Her extracts were well-chosen, and we all got to hear her read a little of the voices of the characters, during which you could hear a pin drop. She had photocopied some chapbooks and documents of the time which she referred to, and these added a note of veracity to what was a very well-planned and interesting session. And "The Daughters of Witching Hill" sounds like a great read.

Robert Low was next, talking about Reportage, Re-enactment and Fiction. A very imposing-looking man with a plaited beard, he looks as his readers might hope he would. His lively talk ranged across his experiences as a war reporter and re-enacter. As he pointed out, historical fiction is a genre with no awards, no specific shelf in a bookshop.

And for myself, probably my affinity with Viking, Roman or other so-called Sword and Sandals fiction is about the same as my affinity with Crime or Chick-Lit - i.e they are novels, but that's about as far as it goes. One end of the genre can feel miles away from another, separated by aeons in both time and writing style. So it always feels a little odd for us all to be lumped together in one genre.

But as a novelist Robert had some great things to say about the writer remaining invisible, listed with great good humour. My favourites were "Never open with the weather - the reader is looking for people","Try to leave out the parts readers skip", "If it sounds like writing, re-write it."

He said whatever the accuracy of our research in the end our "only obligation is to be persuasive," and I have to say this seemed a very good argument.

The Panel Discussion, "Where next for Historical Fiction?" chaired by Doug Jackson with Jim Gill (United Agents) Marcy Posner (Folio Literary Management) began by looking back to see where the current revival in interest in HF has come from, and traced it back to the rise of interest in historical  non-fiction, particularly Simon Schama's History of Britain, and books such as "Longitude" - non-fiction narratives which then paved the way for fiction. Readers like the "added value" of entertainment plus education that some HF provides. However, we need to be wary that we don't become so concerned with being accurate that we forget to write a novel! Story is key.

The conversation ranged over the power of the cover (8 seconds to make your choice in Tesco) to the fact that contrary to most writers' opinions, interest in the Tudors shows no sign of waning. On the contrary, readers like to read books where they already have a smattering of knowledge. Periods the reader has scant knowledge of will fail to sell. The English Civil War, although it has a lot going for it in terms of dramaic action, is apparently a difficult period as readers do not understand the complex causes of the conflict and therefore have no "in" on the subject. (Shame, as that is my period!)

Marcy Posner said there was absolutely no market for WWII novels in the States.

She also said that since the rise of ebooks and self-publishing it was interesting that no less than five new independent bookshops have opened in New York, indicating that the public are wanting a more informed choice and a personal service. Good news for all of us whose books are somewhere in the mid-list.

Both Jim and Marcy agreed that the job of the novelist includes being "out and about", although there is no hard evidence to show (certainly in the States ) that readings and tours work to sell more books. Generally, facebook, tweeting, blogs etc do not necessarily increase your profile as there is so much "information static" drowning out the potential to connect with readers. This was contested by some members who thought that they had successfully used these media to sell their own books.

In the afternoon I listened to a Panel Discussion on A History of Violence" and Ann Turnbull talking about Love and conflict in the 17th century. This was followed by Jean Fullerton's presentation "Ground your fiction in Fact." I also had a very entertaining lunch, and a discussion with two other writers about the benefits of the Kindle.More about these in my next post.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Gilded Lily to be published by Pan Macmillan

I am delighted to announce that my second novel, The Gilded Lily will be published by Pan Macmillan, date of publication to be confirmed soon.

The Gilded Lily is a companion volume to The Lady's Slipper, but can also be read as a stand-alone novel.

The Gilded Lily

a Winter of Snow and Ice 1661

Timid Sadie Appleby has always lived in her small village. One night she is rudely awoken by her older and bolder sister, Ella, who has robbed her employer and is on the run. The girls flee their rural home of Westmorland to head for London, hoping to lose themselves in the teeming city. But the dead man's relatives are in hot pursuit, and soon a game of cat and mouse begins.

Ella is soon obsessed with the glitter and glamour of city life and sets her sights on flamboyant man-about-town, Jay Whitgift. But nothing is what it seems - not even Jay Whitgift.

Can Sadie survive a fugitive's life in the big city? But even more
pressing, can she survive life with her older sister Ella?

Set in London's atmospheric coffee houses, the rich mansions of
Whitehall, and the pawnshops, slums and rookeries hidden from rich men's view, The Gilded Lily is about beauty and desire, about the stories we tell ourselves, and about how sisterhood can be both a burden and a saving grace.

At the same time as I was celebrating my own good news I heard that Terence Morgan, a fellow Macmillan New Writer and author of historical fiction, has signed a similar two book deal with Pan Mac. Check out his recent book, The Master of Bruges. His new one will be entitled "The Last Plantagenet."

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Historical Fiction paperback designers

The final design for the US paperback of The Lady's Slipper arrived today and it looks absolutely gorgeous with its lovely gold embossed writing. I am always really interested in visual things, having spent a lot of years working in the design field, so I looked up the designer and illustrator on the web and it is interesting to see the other excellent book designs they have produced.

So first up - the designer, Jason Ramirez. Click on the name to follow a link to other excellent book covers he has designed.

Next - the cover illustrator, Larry Rostant. His work is extremely popular at the moment for historical fiction, and also for fantasy, being a skilful combination of photo-manipulation and illustration. His illustrations for historical novels keep the period costume whilst making the female protagonist seem a little more contemporary. On his website I notice that my friend Gaby's book, published in the UK His Last Duchess was also illustrated by him, so obviously he must work internationally.

So many thanks to both of them and the team at St Martin's Press for such a great design.

And I was just chatting to my editor today about the UK paperback design which is also underway, so I'll post about that cover too as soon as I have more information.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Macmillan New Writers blog interviews begin

My love affair with historical fiction - my post telling you about this is on the MNW blog here, along with quesions for the fantasy writer MFW Curran, author of The Secret War and The Hoard of Mhorrer.

Monday, 11 October 2010

A thousand request The Lady's Slipper on Goodreads

More than a thousand people in the US entered a giveaway for The Lady's Slipper on Goodreads. This was such a great response that the publishers have offered another 48 copies. You can enter this free draw by going to Goodreads, the offer is open to US residents only.

Doing research, and Macmillan New Writers blog

I'm busy researching my next work in progresss and I'm out and about in Museums and libraries looking at non-fiction books and 16th and 17th century objects. I'm lucky in that I live in a very historic village next to two old towns - Kendal and Lancaster, both of which have castles. Kendal castle is a very scenic ruin and Lancaster Castle featured in The Lady's Slipper as it is also (still) the town gaol.

Last week I was in the museum at Lancaster, (see picture left) which tells the history of Lancaster, its Georgian heyday in the days of slave-trading and sugar, as well as its Roman artefacts.

In Kendal this week I went on a guided walk of Quaker sites (It being Quaker week), past the old burial ground, the sites of the soup kitchen during the famine, and the typical Kendal octagonal summerhouses. Kendal was a town with many well-to-do men who were Quakers, so their influence is very evident in the town. Most were involved in the woollen industry or in banking - Quakers were renowned for their fairness in monetary transactions. Below is Sepulchre Lane, the route to the old Quaker Burial Ground.

At the moment I am following my interest in the 17th century, but recently I have had a feeling I would like to go further back to the end of the Elizabethan era for my next book, so I am picking up books about the turn of the century and also collecting a store of visual images. I am investigating the period in Spain when England entered the thirty years war, and looking into the moorish influence on philosophy and religion in Spain, not to mention on architecture. Most of this I am doing through books and online, but I'm planning a visit to Spain soon!

If you want to know why I write historical fiction and why I choose the periods I write in, you can find out this week on the Macmillan New Writers Blog.