I’m newly back from the 2019 Historical Novel Society Conference, and I promise I’ll get my recap up soon–but in case you missed the Koffee Klatch I did with the fabulous Beatriz Williams on how to craft a dual-narrative historical novel, here are the high points.
Why write a dual narrative historical novel?
- FIRST AND FOREMOST–it’s a way to make a less-marketable historical era more marketable. We all know how hard it is to pitch hist-fic that isn’t set in an era deemed trendy, and adding a second timeline set in a more popular era will help. Maybe you’ve seen eyes glaze when you say “It’s a story about an 8th century Benedictine nun in the south of France” but when you add in “combined with a French Resistance tale that links to the past with a long-hidden murder” those eyes may light back up. Think of it as luring readers and publishers into letting you tell the story you actually want to tell by wrapping it in sparkly, on-trend ribbons.
- Your book can be shelved, tagged, and categorized as more than just historical fiction. If your title can also be found under Contemporary, Women’s Fiction, Mystery, Historical Mystery, and any other tag your secondary timeline gives you, then more readers will find it.
- Variety. If you have a grim war-time drama full of rationing and marching, maybe your secondary timeline introduces a shot of glamour or a setting with some sunshine to vary the pace and give your reader a break. Variety is the spice of books as well as life.
Ok, I want to write a dual timeline historical narrative. What types are there?
- A historical timeline juxtaposed with a modern-day timeline. (Beatriz Williams’s Wicked City)
- A historical timeline juxtaposed with a second historical timeline (Beatriz Williams’s The Secret Life of Violet Grant, my The Alice Network)
- Two historical timelines told by the same narrator, generally flipping from Before and After some pivotal event whose details are slowly revealed to the reader (look no further than Beatriz Williams’s The Summer Wives. Two of the three story threads in my The Huntress also take this route, though told by two different narrators.)
You need a link between your timelines. What creates that link?
- Artifacts are frequently the link between timelines–mysterious photographs, antique objects, a cache of letters (although the “I found a trove of letters in a hatbox in my grandmother’s attic” has been done quite a bit, it feels to me). Examples: Susanna Kearsley’s The Firebird or Jennifer Robson’s The Gown.
- Characters can provide the link, often seen as a young person in one timeline and a much older person in the other–I did this in The Alice Network. Family ties count here too, as a younger family member unravels the mystery of a mother or relative–see Chanel Cleeton’s Next Year in Havana.
- Locations can link stories through time as well as space. Stephanie Dray’s upcoming The Women of Chavaniac features multiple generations of women across several centuries who all live at the Marquis de Lafayette’s castle in France.
What are the pitfalls and problems in writing dual narrative historicals?
- Lots and lots of research. If you choose to write two historical narratives in one novel, that’s double the historical research.
- If you have two stories, it is going to be harder to keep your word count to a reasonable length.
- Balancing the stakes in both narratives. Putting two timelines together invites comparison–maybe in a story of her own, your modern-day college student struggling with an identity crisis and the death of her mother would be 100% sympathetic, but when she’s juxtaposed against your secondary heroine starving to death in the Leningrad siege, your reader may be inclined to think “You’re not starving in a war zone, kid, pull yourself together!” and shut the book in irritation. Keep your stakes high in both timelines.
How do you write your dual narratives–each separately or both together?
- You can write each timeline A-Z, then have a braiding session afterward intercutting the two. Advantages: you can keep the voice more distinct while staying firmly in one timeline, and also keep your historical details more consistent if you don’t have to continually ask yourself what era you’re (only after you realize WWII slang has crept across the timelines into your 1880 heroine’s mouth). Disadvantages: It’s easy to over-write if you do the timelines separately, and end up with way more than you need.
- You can write both timelines at once, cutting between them as the reader would in the final draft. Advantages: It’s easier to tease out the parallels between timelines when you’re going back and forth. Disadvantages: Historical detail has a tendency to drift from one timeline to the next when you aren’t firmly anchored in one time and place, see above.
- Ultimately, however, there is no One True Way. Do what feels most natural for you.
The takeaway: A dual timeline isn’t a sure-fire sale, but agents and editors are still buying them, and readers like them. So why not consider it?
I’m preparing for this year’s Historical Novel Society Conference, and I’m going as a seasoned veteran, with three previous cons under my belt. Each one was fantastic and memorable in its own right. But as I pack my semi-famous red stilettos for this June, I’ve realized it’s kinda fun to look back at my last three conference recaps. Here’s a highlight reel from year to year: what has changed, what has stayed the same, and what always makes it worthwhile to go!
2011: Since it’s my first time at this rodeo, I spend hours agonizing what to wear. I pack approximately thirty outfits for two days, and nothing seems right. If I wear a suit, everyone is bound to be in jeans. If I wear jeans, I’ll be the rube in a power-suited bunch of professionals. Help!
2013: I’m speaking on panels this time around; cue the nerves. Having spent a week agonizing over my presentations and changing my mind yet again about which scene I would be trotting out for the Saturday Night Sex Scene Read-Aloud, I’m packing literally the last minute before my dawn airport shuttle arrives, flinging things into my suitcase with such random logic that my first thought on unpacking is always something along the lines of “Why did I pack a set of wind-chimes and an abacus, but no pants?”
2015: I’ve been to three conferences by now; why do I not have a nicer set of luggage?! My suitcase is missing a wheel, and my carry-on is a battered black backpack in which I could comfortably pack Dwayne Johnson complete with his helicopter from “San Andreas.”
2011: I take a deep breath and head down for the introductory cocktail hour. I don’t get two feet before Margaret George (!!!) recognizes me. She’s tiny, about up to my chin, and probably wouldn’t outweigh a stack of her own books. We talk shop about Emperor Nero, and I manage not to faint.
2013: I run around shrieking greetings to people I haven’t seen, in some cases, since the 2011 conference in San Diego. I wear my red patent-leather stilettos; the 4-inch ones that turn my toes numb, but give me a Joan-from-“Mad-Men” strut. They’re my good luck charm from the last conference, which I attended as a tongue-tied fan-girl–they were by far the most memorable thing about me. Even more than my name-tag, people at the reception glance at my feet and exclaim, “I remember you!”
2015: My people, there you are! Donna Russo Morin in her spike-heels and Sophia Loren zest for life, Gillian Bagwell and Kris Waldherr, my “Day of Fire” mates Sophie Perinot and Vicky Alvear Shecter, Leslie Carroll and Anne Easter Smith . . . these are my tribe, and it’s delicious to be among them again. C.W. Gortner arrives and the party dials up to an 11.
CONFERENCE KEYNOTE SPEECHES
2011: Keynote speech by power literary agent Jennifer Weltz. Not only does she give a great speech on what exactly an agent does all day and what they’re looking for, she has fabulous black lace stockings.
2013: Anne Perry is our guest speaker, and she’s got the voice of a born story-teller: low, lulling, spooky; absolute mistress of the dramatic pause. She paints such a vivid picture of Robespierre in his tumbril on the way to the guillotine, I can practically smell the blood between the cobblestones of the Place de la Greve.
2015: Diana Gabaldon is guest speaker, and she wisely gives us exactly what we want: ALL the dirt on the new Outlander show, the television process, and of course Sam Heughan.
BEST PIECE OF ADVICE HEARD AT CONFERENCE
2011: I catch a morning bagel with Michelle Moran, who has about three feet of glossy dark hair, and would look sensational in one of those narrow Egyptian sheaths her heroines are always wearing. “What are you writing about after Rome?” she asks me. “You don’t want to keep doing the same historical era over and over in your books, do you?” It’s a light-bulb moment.
2013: C.W. Gortner during his lunchtime speech, saying “Historical fiction is often the punching bag of the industry, second only to romances . . . but remember–we celebrate a genre that is time-honored.”
2015: David Blixt during his sword workshop, complete with actual blades: “The groove down the middle of the blade is called a fuller, and it’s there strictly to lighten the blade. DO NOT EVER CALL IT A BLOOD CHANNEL.” We have all been warned.
FAVORITE CONFERENCE PANEL
2011: Four editors, talking about the selling and marketing of historical fiction. One admits she never wants to read another Pride and Prejudice spin-off; another says he’ll howl if he gets another manuscript about Anne Boleyn. I’m right there with him.
2013: “Depicting Religion in Historical Fiction.” Mary Sharratt calls Hildegard von Bingen a power frau, Kamran Pasha skewers fundamentalists of all religions with a pithy “Fundamentalism stems from insecurity,” and Stephanie Dray brings down the house when asked when it is appropriate to critique religion: “Always, but that doesn’t mean it’s wise.”
2015: “What Really Happens During A Historical Romance Cover Shoot?” Kim Killion of the Killion Group walks us through it with the help of her amiable 6’8 cover model who has a set of eight-pack abs on which you could grate cheese. We giggle helplessly as Kim explains how the models start fully dressed for the Inspirational/Sweet Romance covers (the female model gets a dictionary shoved in her hand and is told “Here’s a Bible; think of Jesus”) and once the clothes start coming off, the Sexy/Erotica covers get shot. Male cover model strips down cheerfully to a kilt and boots, gets sprayed with Pam (grapeseed oil for the holistic-living models!), and is a very good sport about all the authors laughing hysterically as he smolders on cue.
BEST RANDOM HILARIOUS MOMENT AT CONFERENCE
2011: Diana Gabaldon toting a broadsword through the entire opening cocktail reception. “I promised I’d lend it for the costume show,” she explains, and later observes that any girl looking to pick up guys should just walk into a bar with a massive sword. She’s right: every man at the conference bounces up exclaiming “Oooh, can I touch it?”
2013: The costume pagaent, narrated by Gillian Bagwell/Joan, Lady Rivers. First prize is awarded to a hilarious Teralyn Pilgrim in a pristine Vestal Virgin outfit . . . worn serenely over her eight months pregnant belly. Her Vestal-in-denial routine has us all in stitches.
2015: The horror on the faces of 200+ writers as they walk into breakfast the first morning and see a wall of decaf machines. This is a writers conference; nobody drinks decaf! Decaf coffee is like a hooker that only wants to cuddle.
2011: I anticipated the great panels, the useful discussions, the industry tips. What I didn’t expect was the strange and wonderful zaniness of the people who write, represent, sell, and read the books in this world of historical fiction. As a writer, I work alone–I spend my days in yoga pants, curled up on the couch with a laptop in my lap, engaged in the solitary process of stringing one word after another. What fun to meet so many people who do the same thing; people who all give the same knowing nods when someone exclaims, “Don’t you just HATE it when the girl on your book cover has the top of her head chopped off?”
2013: HNS 2011 was my first conference, and it was an eye-opener: I’d been a professional author for less than two years, and I was going it entirely alone. It was in San Diego two years ago that I first found out what a wonderful community there is of writers, readers, and friends in this business. I don’t think I realized how lonely this job could be, when you don’t have that community. Two years later, and I couldn’t imagine being without it.
2015: The last few years have seen some sobering changes: the demise of brick-and-mortar stores; the Amazon-Hachette feud, and everything else that can have you convinced that writing is a tougher gig than ever. And it is–but what hasn’t changed is the weird and wonderful world of writers, readers, and friends in this business, nowhere more apparent than at the HNS Conference. This is a lonely job; my writer friends save my sanity on a regular basis. And as I unpack my red stilettos and my 16 new books, I already can’t wait for HNS 2017.
“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” One could say the same for the Historical Novel Society conference: a jam-packed two days in sunny San Diego where writers, editors, agents, and fans came together to learn, listen, and of course gossip. My very first conference, and I learned things I wouldn’t dream of divulging. But there’s plenty that’s printable, and here it is:
4:15 I check into my hotel and spend an hour agonizing what to wear. I’ve brought approximately thirty outfits for two days, and nothing seems right. If I wear a suit, everyone is bound to be in jeans. If I wear jeans, I’ll be the rube in a power-suited bunch of professionals. I settle for a black dress that skims ten pounds off my hips, and a pair of sky-high red stilettos that give me a Joan-Holloway-from-Mad-Men strut. I cannot possibly be anything but confident in those stilettos.
5:43 I take a deep breath and head down for the introductory cocktail hour. I don’t get two feet before Margaret George (!!!) recognizes me. She’s tiny, about up to my chin, and probably wouldn’t outweigh a stack of her own books. I’ve owed her a drink since two years ago, when she wrote my first book Mistress of Rome a wonderful blurb. I manage to stammer out a thank-you and we talk shop. Shop talk among two writers of the ancient world being what it is, we end up gabbing about Emperor Nero. Margaret finds him interesting; me not so much. We speculate whether he really stabbed his mother and then said “Free at last!”
6:12 Is that Diana Gabaldon??? Why, yes it is. I’m far too chicken to approach her.
6:33 Cash bar, which is smart. Offer unlimited free alcohol to 300 writers and San Diego would be burning like Rome.
6:37 I meet C.W. Gortner, and we hit it off right away. I’m blurbing his book on Isabella of Castile, and he’s a fan of my last book Daughters of Rome. Christopher adores my red stilettos, and complains that his next book heroine will for the love of God have some good sex, unlike the previous three. He is hard on his heroines: Juana the Mad, Catherine de Medici . . .
7pm Dinner and speeches. Harry Turtledove talks about alternate history, and he’s the one to do it–this is a man who spun a bestseller out of a single random image of Robert E. Lee firing off an Uzi.
7:31 I meet Heather and Allie, bloggers respectively of The Maiden’s Court and Hist-Fic Chick, both of whom have given me great reviews in the past. They’re both wonderful in person, girls with whom I would go out for martinis any night of the week to dish gossip.
8:10 I hear the rumor that a certain notorious internet troll is in attendance at the conference, possibly under an assumed name. Wise, because after all the authors she’s torn down here, we’d probably back her into a corner and pelt her with tomatoes if we found out who she was.
9pm Friday Night Fight Scene readings! Six authors get up to the mic and read aloud a fight scene from their books. Hands down my favorite is C.C. Humphries, reading off a ripping good battle scene from his book about Vlad the Impaler. People are impaled in thrilling fashion, and C.C. has one of those beautifully stage-trained British voices that make anything sound profound. I’d listen to him read the phone book. He wraps everything up by giving the St. Crispin’s Day speech, flourishing a huge sword borrowed from Diana Gabaldon. Sword, you say? It’s a room full of historical novelists; of course someone had a sword.
10:16 I stumble up to bed after far too much wine and excitement. The red stilettos are killing my feet, but I don’t care. I’m too wired to sleep, so I watch an episode of “True Blood” to wind down. Damn, but Alexander Skarsgaard is hot.
7:15 Agonize over clothes again. Sleek grey pinstriped pants and a red button-down. Head downstairs for coffee, injected directly into the vein if possible.
8:27 Eat a bagel with Michelle Moran (!!!) She has about three feet of glossy dark hair, and would look sensational in one of those narrow Egyptian sheaths her heroines are always wearing. She gives me some terrific career and marketing advice. Is it dorky that I took notes?
9:02 Christy English, Sandra Worth, Anne Easter Smith . . . they’ve all read my books??? Frankly, I feel like a high school science teacher suddenly invited to hang with Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Hawking. We talk covers, bitching about the recent trend to chop the girl’s head off at the top edge.
9:10 A panel on how to keep a series fresh, followed by a panel on writing gay characters. Diana Gabaldon reads a gay sex scene from her latest Lord John book, and brings down the house. She’s got a fabulous whiskey voice, raspy with a vein of perpetual amusement running through it. I manage to speak to her without stammering or passing out. She wrote Mistress of Rome a blurb, too–I made my hero a virgin as a tip of the hat to her Jamie Fraser.
1pm Lunch, with a keynote speech by Christopher’s agent Jennifer. Not only does she give a great speech on what exactly a literary agent does all day, she has fabulous black lace stockings.
2:31 A panel of four editors, talking about the selling and marketing of historical fiction. One admits she never wants to read another Pride and Prejudice spin-off; another says he’ll howl if he gets another manuscript about Anne Boleyn. I’m right there with him.
3:58 Elizabeth Loupas! I drop everything to gush about how much I adored her book The Second Duchess. Easily the best new writer I read all year. Her extremely-non-PC hero is sex on a stick.
4:15 Book signings! I’ve dropped way too much money on books already; an excellent reason to drop more. First hour I run around getting signatures; second hour I sign Mistress of Rome for other people. The red stilettos are back on. Who cares if my toes curl up and fall off? I love being tall.
6:20 Michelle Moran, Christopher Gortner and I grab our first glasses of wine and dish. Christopher knows the dirt on literally everything. I learn all about my literary hero the late Judith Merkle Riley, apparently an angel in person, and a certain other writer who is apparently NOT an angel in person. More like a bitch on wheels. No, I’m not naming names.
6:48 People in costume start appearing, ready for the historical fashion parade after dinner. I see a Tudor lady in a French hood, a Victorian gent in top hat and tails, and a Roman woman in a stola. There’s also a guy dressed up like a Union cavalry officer from the Civil War, but he’s been dressed up like that for two days straight. Don’t ask me why.
6:51 Diana Gabaldon is toting her broadsword again. “I promised I’d lend it for the costume show,” she explains, and later observes that any girl looking to pick up guys should just walk into a bar with a massive sword. She’s right: every man at the conference bounces up exclaiming “Oooh, can I touch it?”
7pm Dinner, sitting with Michelle, the two bloggers Heather and Allie, and Elizabeth Loupas who I’ve dragged along so I can grill her some more about her hunky Renaissance hero.
8:06 Fashion parade begins. I should have brought my wench costume from my Renaissance Faire days. That corset gave me great posture and even greater cleavage.
10pm What we’ve all been waiting for: Saturday Night Sex Scene Reading! Last night it was fights, this time sex. Diana Gabaldon acts as MC, kicking things off with a steamy scene starring her ever-hunky Jamie Fraser. Thank goodness it’s dark in this big banquet room, because a good many people are blushing and giggling.
10:18 I sit with Christopher, and he’s just the person to keep you in stitches while listening to someone read about masturbation. “Your shoes are as sexy as anything we’ve heard yet,” he decides. He speaks too soon, because at the end . . .
11:01 The climax, a word I use with a certain scientific precision: a scene from Gillian Bagwell’s Darling Strumpet. She enlists Diana and C.C. Humphries, reading Nell Gwyn’s lines as Diana narrates and C.C. takes the part of the Earl of Rochester. “I love this scene,” he tells us. “When I blurbed this book, the first line I sent them was `Best blow-job scene in fiction.’ Strangely they didn’t put that on the cover.” One would need truly steely British resolve to keep a straight face during the reading that follows, but thankfully C.C. has it. Afterward I tell him I meant to congratulate him on his Crispin’s Day speech of the night before, but now that seems a trifle (pardon the pun) anti-climactic.
11:15 Until 2:30 in the morning, I sit in the lobby with Michelle Moran, Sophie Perinot, and four new best friends as we dish on books, writing, life, ex-husbands, current husbands, and book covers. This is the part that very definitely stays in Vegas.
7:30 Wake up after only four hours of sleep. Look in the mirror; shriek at the sight of my bloodshot eyes. I slap on foundation until I look less like sodden roadkill, then stagger down to the breakfast room. Meet four of my new best friends from the previous night, also bloodshot, and we proceed to mainline coffee like crack addicts.
9:05 Two more great panels. Are marquee names really necessary–i.e., do you really have to write about Anne Boleyn to get published? And a panel on just how much one can afford to fudge historical fact for the story. Everybody agrees that an author’s note covers a multitude of sins. I drool upon learning that Donna Woolfolk Cross got to meet hunky actor David Wenham (Faramir from “Lord of the Rings”) when he starred in the movie of her book Pope Joan. Can this please happen to me?
11:17 Elizabeth Loupas confesses she was up too late as well, reading the first chapter of Mistress of Rome. Considering what’s in the first chapter of Mistress of Rome, I sincerely hope I didn’t give her nightmares.
Noon Is the conference really over? I pack and head downstairs, exchanging email addresses and vows of friendship with everyone I meet. The house seems strangely empty when I get home.
There you have it, in a nutshell: the Historical Novel Society Conference. I anticipated the great panels, the useful discussions, the industry tips. What I didn’t expect was the strange and wonderful zaniness of the people who write, represent, sell, and read the books in this world of historical fiction. As a writer, I work alone–I spend my days in yoga pants, curled up on the couch with a laptop in my lap, engaged in the solitary process of stringing one word after another. What fun to meet so many people who do the same thing; people who all give the same knowing nods when someone exclaims, “Don’t you just HATE it when the girl on your book cover has the top of her head chopped off?” It was a strange and wonderful weekend, never to be forgotten: Diana Gabaldon toting that huge sword around; the hatted-and-bustled Victorian lady lifting her lacy hem to sport a pair of sneakers; speculating with Christopher about whether Lucrezia Borgia really slept with her brother or not (he’s pro, I’m con).
What a wonderful two days. I’m soaking my stiletto-mutilated feet in a tub of ice water, and I already can’t wait for the next conference.