As is now traditional: my recap of the 2019 Historical Novel Society Conference! With four HNS conferences under my belt before jetting off to Washington, D.C., I knew two things going in: 1) There would be much fun and very little sleep, and 2) What happens at the conference, stays at the conference.
Even with that last caveat, there was plenty of fun that’s printable. So here it is: HNS 2019…
I careen into Maryland early thanks to a Monday stop-off through northern California for a bookstore event with the lovely Pam Jenoff. We spend the previous night gabbing about THE HUNTRESS and THE LOST GIRLS OF PARIS respectively…
…and I skate directly cross-country after that. I am swaggering like Captain Marvel because I managed to pack for one week, one conference, three states, four panels, one Koffee Klatch, and an ALA appearance in a single carry-on suitcase–I may not have superpowers, but by God I know how to pack light. The secret is 1) Lots of mix-and-match separates, and 2) Having spent ten years watching your Navy sailor spouse pack for deployments. I’m not as good as the Overseas Gladiator–he could pack an 18th century robe a l’anglaise complete with panniers into a roll the size of a sleeve of dimes–but everything fit in one carry-on, I didn’t repeat a single outfit, and I got out of all checked bag fees. If you aren’t married to a Navy sailor who can give you the tutorial, I suggest picking one up in a bar and offering to buy him or her a six-pack if they’ll show you how to pack a sea-bag. As the OG says, the average Navy sailor will happily work for beer, and you will get a better packing story than if you look it up on Youtube.
I crash the night in the spare room of my beloved writing partner and historical fiction star Stephanie Dray, and since we have a day to kill before heading to the conference hotel, we enact a cherished tradition: head to the nearest Panera with our laptops and put in a day’s work. Future joint projects are discussed, iced coffee is swilled, word-counts are met, and problems thrashed out–Stephanie helps clarify some character decisions I’ve been mulling for my Bletchley Park codebreaker heroines in the upcoming THE ROSE CODE, and I help her debate ending arcs for her WWI heroine in the upcoming WOMEN OF CHAVANIAC. Man, I’ve missed this.
10pm: Thanks to a sudden downpour and a gas stop, it’s nearly 10 by the time we manage to check into the massive, beautiful Gaylord Hotel. I’m bunking with Steph since it’s another day till my room is ready, but we manage to rope in Stephanie Thornton from the lobby and get caught up in our PJs over cans of wine. (Cans. Of wine. This is a thing, apparently? Cabernet with nuances of nickel and overtones of aluminum?) The words are spoken: “Are we going anywhere?” “No. I’m not putting pants back on.” We discuss Stephanie T’s upcoming novel of Jackie Kennedy, AND THEY CALLED IT CAMELOT. I got a sneak peek at this in rough draft form, and I confidently predict that soon I will be pointing at the TV saying “See that gorgeous gal on The Today Show? I drank wine out of a can with her!”
12noon: I check into my room, and realize just how enormous this hotel is. It’s gorgeous…
…but my room is so geographically far from the nearest guest elevator, it’s practically located back in San Diego. Fortunately the service elevator is right across the hall, and I ride down with a basket of sheets for lunch with my Scarlet Sisters. We’ve written a book together–RIBBONS OF SCARLET, out October 1, available for pre-order!–but this is the first time we’ve all been together face to face! We toast our book baby with fizzy pink drinks, and before the opening cocktail reception in the evening, we all get gussied up in scarlet for photo ops. I won’t stop singing “The Scarlet Sister” to the tune of Hamilton‘s “The Schuyler Sisters.” Half me teammates smack me and half sing along.
6pm: opening cocktail reception and cocktail party! I manage to spot Libbie Hawker in Viking gear, Elizabeth Huhn in Civil War hoopskirts, David Ebershoff who was the delightful keynote speaker at a past HNS conference, my wonderful fellow Chesapeake Bay chapter members Matt Phillips and Chris Murray and Elizabeth Bell, my darling friend Anna Ferrell who is dolled up in Tudor garb and having a ball at her first HNS con…and best of all, the fabulous Margaret George who has come as Boudica, complete with red hair and woad!
8pm: Dinner down the street with my agent-sisters–the wonderful Kevan Lyon has probably 20 clients in one place at the same time, and with her in the lead (a string of racehorses following our trainer–she seriously needs to get racing silks for us) we take over an entire room at a local restaurant. I meet the terrific debut authors Bryn Turnbull, Kristin Beck, and Kaia Alderson, greet Renee Rosen for the first time IRL and not just online, and we all decide we should take the collective name “the Lyonesses.” Forget racing silks, we need a House sigil like in Game of Thrones. It’s thundering again, and we all find ourselves relying on Erika Robuck’s rain app to find a gap in the clouds. As far as innovations go, the rain app is much more successful than canned wine.
We snap a pic (this one’s for my favorite book blogger Erin Davies, who isn’t here but made me promise to try to get as many authors as possible into one photo!) and then I’m back to the hotel room where I help my friend Anna practice for her pitch tomorrow. I send her back to her room with firm instructions to sleep and not panic–and the next day I learn she’s had not one but two requests for a look at her novel!
7 am: I’ve got three panels back to back in the morning, and 45 minutes to pull off “polished and professional.” “Vertical and caffeinated” is probably a more realistic goal. Battering my hair into submission with a flat-iron hot enough to forge swords, I observe that the red streaks newly touched up in my hair have bled over onto the blond, and I am looking somewhat…pink. “No time, Strawberry Shortcake,” I mutter, and realize there is no way I can zip up my dress on my own. I put out an emergency call to Heather Webb, and end up sprinting through the Gaylord’s endless halls in search of her, shoes in hand and dress flapping open, wondering if I can convince my panel audience that naked backs are the latest trend. Heather puts up road flares and I manage to locate her for a zip-up, riding the service elevator down with the buckets and mops to make my panel with three minutes to spare.
8am panel: First panel! “Silk Stocking Rebels–Writing STEAM-Powered Women” with Nicky Penttila, Mary Sharratt, and Margaret Porter. We’re up against the industry panel with all the agents and editors which is taking place down the hall, but we have fun with our discussion. Someone in the audience tweets my observation about women of the past usually having to choose between marriage and career, and the bitterness that must have caused considering historical men in the same fields usually managed to have both. I love Mary Sharratt’s observations on the fascinating Alma Mahler, and later someone fills me in on the industry panel: WWI and WWII eras remain popular even with the current market saturation, and so do dual-timeline narratives. This is good news for my future slate of planned projects.
9:15: ” You Mean It Didn’t Rain That Day? Perils and Pitfalls of Writing Modern History” with Stephanie Thornton, Chanel Cleeton, and Camille de Maio. I moderate this one; everyone’s coffee has hit and the group is dynamite. We all agree there’s a lot more to fact-check in the 20th century when so much more documentation survives, so cue the hair-tearing.
— 10:30 panel: I catch up with some lovely readers, then head for my third panel, “Writing The Historical Female in the #MeToo Era” with Laura Kamoie, Eliza Knight, and Heather Webb moderating. Heavy subjects here, all things we discussed nonstop as we wrote RIBBONS OF SCARLET. I talk about writing Manon Roland, a victim of childhood sexual abuse who wrote bluntly about her assault, and we discuss the importance of not taking a victim’s voice away when we so rarely have surviving accounts from historical women in their own words.
–11:30am: Lunchtime, and our first keynote speaker Dr. Dolen Perkins-Valdez. I have been a huge fan of Dolen’s since reading her heartbreaking novel WENCH, and she holds us all spellbound with her speech, which is wry, warm, funny, and inspiring. I lose my heart to this woman the minute she gives us all a humorous look and says “Ya’ll, feel free to make sh*t up.”
1:15 pm: Sit in on “Beyond Rosie the Riveter: WWII Heroines” with Jennifer Robson, Kerri Maher, Sherri Smith, and Kip Wilson, with Greer McCallister moderating. Sherri is hilarious and I mark her new book down immediately for my TBR. Greer gets a big laugh with “The past is not just now, but with hats.” Afterward I meet my former editor Amanda Bergeron for the very first time–we worked together on THE ALICE NETWORK at Morrow before she became executive editor over at Berkley, but have never met in person. We gab happily about books; more titles for the TBR.
3:45 pm: My last panel of the day, “Papal Daughters: women of the Italian Renaissance” with Donna Russo, Alyssa Palombo, and Laura Morelli. This turns into a geek-fest with three ladies whose love for the Renaissance is as great as mine. We debate the Lucrezia Borgia incest rumors and all come down in the “rumor and lies” camp.
6pm: Everyone is at loose ends for dinner tonight, but Berkley is hosting a cocktail party meet-and-greet for any Berkley authors present, and they have my backlist so I head off for canapes. Meet Lauren Willig for the first time–she’s as delightful as I expected–and catch up with the elusive, funny, and fabulous Deanna Raybourn. After that it’s a sushi dinner with my beloved Janie Chang and Jennifer Robson, with whom I first bonded on a book tour cursed with the travel jinx from hell. It’s heaven to see these ladies again, and we end up back in my hotel gossiping over a bag of Reeses Peanut Butter Cups.
11 am: I have coffee in a pool of sunshine with the lovely Beatriz Williams–together with Lauren Willig and Karen White (whom I also have a chance to meet at this con) she helps form the Team W triangle behind my recent fave read THE GLASS OCEAN–and then chat in the lunch line with Rachel Kahan. We talk the #ownvoices movement in histfic; she has a wishlist of things she’d love to see come across her desk. If you aren’t already doing it, follow major editors and agents on Twitter/Instagram/social media–they post their wishlists, and you just might find your WIP on it! I know at least one debut author who got a contract this way.
1:15 pm: After lunch, it’s time for “Double Trouble: Crafting the Dual Narrative Historical Novel” with Beatriz Williams! I’m absolutely tickled to see the room is full-to-overspilling, and veer off to beg the hotel staff if they can pull back the divider and open up to the room next door. They do, and we fill both rooms to capacity (yes!) No one’s quieting down anytime soon, so I pick up the mic and sing a ringing F sharp until everyone spins around–first time I’ve had the opportunity to use my opera-singer training at a writer’s con. After that, Beatriz and I are off and running, and we have a blast, passing the conversation back and forth as we discuss types of dual narratives, the sales pros and cons, and the creative pitfalls of crafting dual and triple timelines. If you missed our session and are looking for the breakdown, here it is.
Afterward, I get a chance to catch up with the lovely Greer McCallister–conferences are all about the sideways wiggle through the crowd as you grab an elbow exclaiming There you are!–and we chat deadline woes. I laugh way too hard when she deadpans “I can write fast when I’m writing badly.”
3:45: Bookstore signing! The alphabet is kind to me; I’m sitting with Margaret Porter, Alix Rickloff, Jen Robson, and Aimie Runyan. A group photo together…
…and then it’s time for a Sestra Selfie as two authors who both wrote books about Night Witches. (Have you read DAUGHTERS OF THE NIGHT SKY? It’s amazing!)
5:45 pm: Cocktail hour–I’m on my way to meet up with my Chesapeake Bay chapter when I run into my stellar editor Tessa Woodward, and before I know it, we’re gabbing away as the Scarlet Sisters get roped in one by one, and we share tales from the trenches of writing a collaborative novel. Tessa, whom I’ve only ever seen in her book-stacked office at Morrow, is absolutely hilarious in a group chat text session. Also wedged into our table are lovely Brits Hazel Gaynor and Gill Paul–finally meeting these ladies in person!
6:30 pm: Evening Banquet. Leslie Carroll leads the entertainment with a series of historic play excerpts by notable historical women (Mae West was a playwright?!) and afterward I’m up waaaay too late in the lobby, watching silent disco, drinking prosecco, and trading gossip with fellow Chessie member Allison Thurman in cutting-edge white menswear, Zenobia Neil in Greek finery (I can’t wait for her book with the Spartan heroine!), and Donna Russo and Sophie Perinot who put us all to fashion shame in cutting edge jumpsuits.
Sartorially I can’t match them, except in the shoe department. I left my red conference stilettos at home, but I’ve got triple-strapped pumps that I like to think Peggy Carter would wear out dancing when she wasn’t chasing bad guys for SHIELD.
8 am: I crawl out of bed looking like I’ve spent the night under a bridge. Spackle on concealer, catch a brief nap in a basket of clean sheets as I ride down the service elevator one last time, and head for ALA with Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie. I see Robin Hoklotubbe who I’ve met many times before in California at library events, and she asks if she can add me last-minute to a book club panel. “I can panel at five minutes’ notice,” I assure her, and they wedge me in between Steph and Laura to talk about book clubs and how to promote them. I share my favorite book club story, a call-in to a group of nonagenerians who started the conversation off with a brisk “Let’s discuss the sex…” as they expertly flipped their copies of THE ALICE NETWORK open to all the bedroom bits.
1pm: Signing copies of RIBBONS OF SCARLET, THE HUNTRESS, and THE ALICE NETWORK at the ALA HarperCollins booth. After this I’m done, cooked, stick a fork in me, and my lovely colleagues are in the same boat, all of us so tired we’d eat frog spawn if someone would just give us permission to climb into PJs and stare at a wall. I’m crashing in Steph’s spare room again, so we drive back to the Baltimore area singing along with Act I of Hamilton–nothing like barreling down the 295 howling “I’m looking for a mind at WORK, WORK!” with your bestie. That evening is nothing but pajamas, an obscene amount of takeout Chinese, and binge-watching the entire first season of “Fleabag” (excellent!) But we also talk about the conference, which is glowing gently in the memory already. It was a great con: I didn’t have a chance to hit very many panels this time around because I had so many to speak on, but the keynote speeches were inspiring, the chance to meet readers was thrilling (Kerri Kerce, I’m so glad you made it!), and reconnecting with colleagues and friends I only see every other year–and some I’ve only known online up until now–was marvelously rejuvenating. HNS 2019 is over, and already I can’t wait for HNS 2021!
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?