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?
Confession time: every writer knows EXACTLY who should play their book characters in the fantasy movie cast, and if they say they have never given this any thought, they are lying. Because Googling pictures of Tom Hardy or Cate Blanchett and calling it “work” is a time-honored way to pass an hour when the words aren’t flowing.
Now, before I start get any excited readers hoping, the answer is no–so far Benioff & Weiss have not phoned with an offer to make “The Alice Network” into a star-studded HBO mini-series, nor has anyone else, so this movie cast is strictly fantasy. But it’s nice to dream, isn’t it? Here you go: my dream line-up for TAN if I had ultimate casting control…
For my 19 year old pregnant college girl heroine with her sharp chin and sharper tongue, I cast Ksenia Solo of “Turn” (Peggy Shippen) and “Lost Girl” (the adorable punk-haired Kenzie). She’s all elbows and attitude, and she’d play Charlie to a T. Also suggested: Emma Watson, Mila Kunis.
My secondary heroine Eve appears as both a girl of 22 (in the WWI timeline) and a woman of 53 (in the post-WWII timeline) so she’d probably have to be played by two different actresses. Younger Eve, who becomes an extremely effective spy in part by taking advantage of her looks (she appears younger than she is, and her doe-eyed face and hesitant stammer hide her steel-trap mind and equally steely nerves) would be wonderfully played by Mia Wasikowska, whose Jane Eyre had the same combination of iron resolve under surface shyness. Also suggested: Sarah Gadon (after I saw her in “Alias Grace,” I think she’d be spectacular!)
This one made me ponder for quite a while–an actress in her 50s who could play a razor-tongued pistol-wielding ex-spy with a whisky habit, and not make her too cutely inspirational or sweetly motherly? But then a reader came up with the wonderfully tart and beautiful Emma Thompson, and now I can’t envision anyone else. Also suggested: Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Frances McDormand.
LILI/LOUISE DE BETTIGNIES
A French actress would be great for the indomitable, courageous, outrageous Lili/Louise who was the head of the real Alice Network. Look no further than a blond Eva Green—she proved in “Penny Dreadful” that she could be funny, fragile, indomitable, and so charismatic you can’t rip your eyes off her. Perfect for a woman nicknamed “The Queen of Spies.” Also suggested: Reese Witherspoon.
Charlie’s French cousin has a small but heart-breaking part. Elle Fanning would be terrific. Also suggested: Clemence Poesy, Dianna Agron.
For Lili’s tough-as-nails spectacle-wearing right-hand woman and lieutenant in the spy network, let’s have the wonderful Kate Winslet. Because she automatically makes any movie 75% better. Also suggested: Oona Chaplin, Joanne Froggett.
Curiously, this role seems to be the one most discussed at all the book clubs I’ve attended. All I can say is that when I wrote Eve’s taciturn Scottish driver with his war-scarred past and his skill with cars (and broken hearts), I was envisioning Michiel Huisman of “Game of Thrones” and “Age of Adaline.” Also suggested: Richard Madden, Chris Hemsworth.
Eve’s handler and recruiter into the intelligence business, and a classic English gentleman in tweed. Tobias Menzies from “Outlander,” but in his Frank Randall mode and not his Black Jack Randall mode, please. Also suggested: Colin Firth, Matthew Good.
Eve’s nemesis across two wars, a smooth, elegant French restauranteur and collaborator who would sell his own mother to the enemy to get ahead. Very smart, very slick, and very scary…what about Mads Mikkelsen in one of his Hannibal Lecter suits, without the bloody eye from “Casino Royal”? Also suggested: Christoph Waltz, Jean Reno.
Looking back into my research files today to bring you the story behind one of the pivotal events in The Alice Network. (Don’t worry–no spoilers here if you haven’t read TAN yet.)
In central France, a few miles from Limoges, lies a ghost town called Oradour-sur-Glane. At first glance it looks simply abandoned—empty houses, tram lines waiting for trams no longer running, a rusting car abandoned at an empty fairground—but signs of tragedy are soon evident at a second look. Roadside walls are pocked with bullet holes, stone houses are scorched by fire marks, the church roof is gone from some massive explosion. An abandoned clock lies fire-melted in the street, forever frozen at four in the afternoon. No one has inhabited Oradour-sur-Glane since June 10, 1944.
Wrecked hardware–bicycles, a sewing machine, etc.–in Oradour-sur Glane. Public domain image courtesy of Dennis Nilsson
On that day—not long after the invasion of Normandy, as German forces rushed to meet the Allied advance—a regiment of the 2nd SS-Panzer Division Das Reich surrounded the village of Oradour-sur-Glane. The men of the village were quickly rounded up, then herded into a variety of surrounding barns and garages as the women and children were confined to the local church.
At four in the afternoon, the killing began.
A gas bomb was placed in the church and ignited. When the resulting fire and smoke failed to suffocate the women and children inside, the SS mowed them down with machine guns. The men were systematically shot in their barns and rabbit hutches, the wounded and dying locked inside as the buildings were set alight. Only a handful survived: five men managed to struggle free of a burning barn and escape into the fields, a family of children survived by hiding in an empty hotel, and a boy of eight played dead until he could crawl to safety. There was only one survivor from the church, a middle-aged woman whose daughters and granddaughter died in the inferno, yet who managed to climb out a high altar window and hide in a nearby garden, despite being shot five times.
The church in Oradour-sur-Glane where the women and children died.
Public domain image courtesy of Dennis Nilsson
That night, champagne corks popped in the ruined town. Soon after, the Germans moved north. The town remained empty, combed over by stunned neighbors and survivors. After the war it was decreed that the town of Oradour-sur-Glane be rebuilt nearby, but that the original site stand as a memorial to the massacred dead . . . and ever since, it has attracted horrified visitors and horrified questions. Chief among them, as with any seemingly senseless massacre: why?
The Germans were certainly no strangers to atrocities, but why was tiny, remote Oradour-sur-Glane exterminated with such sweeping finality? The Sturmbannfuhrer who commanded the division so thoroughly exceeded his orders in massacring the villagers that even his own superiors were taken aback; he might have been court-martialed had he not died in action a few weeks after the massacre. So the question remains: why?
French Resistance activity was suspected in the area. The day before the massacre, reports filtered in from the Milice (French informers) that a German officer had been kidnapped by Resistance members, possibly taken to Oradour-sur-Glane, and executed. The division’s Sturmbannfuhrer seems to have assumed the murdered officer was a missing friend of his, and requested permission to mount a pursuit, take hostages, and force the Resistance to release the man or his body. But he made no attempt at recovery or at hostage-taking, simply unleashing an orgy of revenge for his murdered friend.
That’s one possibility, but others abound. It’s possible that the reprisal was intended for nearby Oradour-sur-Vayres, a larger town where rebellious activity was more plausibly located. It’s possible that Oradour-sur-Glane was chosen for extermination simply as a sweeping example to quiet an uneasy region. And there are theories that the massacre was at least partially accidental; that the village church had been storing explosives for the Resistance, and the explosion resulted from machine gun fire igniting the hidden cache.
In the end we will probably never know the reasons why death descended on Oradour-sur-Glane on June 10, 1944. I have woven my own story around it in The Alice Network; the story of the still-abandoned ghost town outside Limoges has fascinated and haunted me from the moment I saw the photographs of its burned houses, melted clocks, and cars parked at curbs as if still waiting for drivers who never returned. Many lives were silenced that day in Oradour-sur-Glane, but their echoes speak loud and clear in the ghost town they once called home.
For more information about the Oradour-sur-Glane tragedy, including timeline, aftermath, and hundreds of photographs, I recommend this excellent website. I found it invaluable when writing the scene in The Alice Network which takes place on those haunted streets.
“She could well imagine people coming to wait at the adjoining cafe, nibbling biscuits with rose jam, drinking too much wine, crooning along to the radio. Edith Piaf was playing now.” — The Alice Network
I love great food in books–I love to read it and I love to write it–and I love cooking out of books. There’s plenty of delicious food in The Alice Network, considering that my characters embark on a road trip across the French countryside in 1947, but when I decided to cook something out of my own pages, it was the biscuits and rose jam from the Epilogue which positively begged to be made. And they came out DELICIOUS, warm and crumbly and rose-fragrant, beautifully paired with a glass of Provençal rosé.
For the biscuits:
1. Mix 4 cups flour, 1/4 cup sugar, 2 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp baking soda in a mixing bowl.
2. Cube two sticks of cold butter and add to the dry mixture. Cut in until mixture is crumbly.
3. Add 1 cup buttermilk and 2 eggs; mix together with fork till moistened.
4. Turn dough out on floured surface, knead 5-6 times till it’s a big scraggy lump. It will be messy, but only knead enough to pull the dough together; the less you handle it, the more tender the biscuits will be.
5. Pull off fist-sized chunks into rough rounds, and space apart on greased baking sheet
6. Bake at 375 till golden. (Baking ime will depend on how big you like your drop biscuits.) Serve warm.
Clotted cream can be found at stores like Wegman’s or Trader Joe’s. Rose jam can be ordered online, and it’s delicious–like eating perfume in solid form. A glass of rosé goes beautifully; just get a dry vintage rather than the sickly sweet stuff you might associate with pink wine. I picked this nice inexpensive French bottle frankly because it’s called “L’âme du Vin” which means “Soul of Wine” and comes from a Baudelaire poem of the same name. Baudelaire’s poetry runs through The Alice Network since my French villain is always quoting from the Fleurs du Mal–this seemed like a wine he would drink.
One night, the soul of wine was singing in the flask:
“O man, dear disinherited! to you I sing
This song full of light and of brotherhood
From my prison of glass with its scarlet wax seals…
So if you haven’t had a chance yet, pour a nice glass of wine to go with your plate of warm biscuits, and treat yourself to The Alice Network (available on Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo)! It’s the July pick for the Reese Witherspoon book club…and this Friday I’ll be doing a Facebook Live event from the studio in LA! So be sure to tune in here at noon Pacific Time (3pm eastern) this Friday and send in your questions if you have any!
Last week I had great fun recapping my recent excursion to the 2017 Historical Novel Society Conference in Portland. It was my fourth conference, without a doubt the biggest and best yet—three days of fascinating panel discussions, industry chatter, historical geekery, and all the catching up that happens when you run into much-loved writer friends who you only see once a year at conferences. HNS ends on a Sunday, and normally I’d be packing to head home, flinging all my new conference books into the massive suitcase known as the Red Monster (I invariably have to sit on it and bounce a bit before the zipper wants to close—that’s how many books I buy at conferences). This year is different: with a book recently released (“The Alice Network”), I’ve got three author events in Canada set up post-conference.
If it were just me I’d be a basket of nerves, but I’m joining forces post-HNS with the wonderful Janie Chang (“Dragon Springs Road”) and Jennifer Robson (“Goodnight From London”). Our shared publisher saw us all in the same city for the conference, all with recent releases, and said “Why not?” (Bless them!) Jen and I have done presentations before–we can gab for hours about women in the world wars–and Janie and I met for the first time in Portland, but hit it off immediately. Janie is the one who hash-tagged our little triple-author tour the #HystericalFictionTour, a suggestion greeted by Jen and me with unabashed glee.
Let the good times roll…
8am: Janie is in Canada already, but Jennifer Robson and I are still in Portland tying up loose ends at the conference. Clutching coffee, we converge in the lobby to check out, Jen bright-eyed and cheery, me sporting my usual sleep-deprived post-conference look which could best be described as “Crawled Out From Under A Collapsed Building.”
1:10pm: Heading for Seattle and then a connecting flight into Victoria, Canada, we are hit with the opening salvo of what will be known as the Great Travel Jinx of 2017: we miss our connecting flight and now have six hours to kill in the Seattle airport before the next one. Stick two authors together in an airport, however, and we WILL find a way to kill time: we scout for our books in every single Hudson shop (“Goodnight From London” is spotted!), and over a seafood lunch we tackle the plotting problem Jen’s been having for her next book idea. By the time the check arrives, plotting problem is more or less solved.
12am: Staggering in at midnight, Jen and I grab a late, late, late dinner at a pub down the street, and realize we have still not run out of things to say about women in the two world wars.
9:45am: I wander around Victoria in a blissy haze; this city is beautiful…
Bumping into two lovely Ontario tourists under a statue of Queen Victoria, I end up telling them all about why her eldest son took the name Edward VII instead of Albert, and they tell me all about how the architect of the Victoria legistlature building was apparently poisoned by his mistress. #Travelbonding
11:10am: Heading into Munro’s (one of the most beautiful indie bookshops in Victoria) I do stock signing for their supply of Alice Networks….
…buy a biography of Guy Burgess of the Cambridge Five (possible hist-fic idea there? Hmm…) and afterward run into Bruce the Moose.
I text a pic to the Overseas Gladiator who promptly texts back “HOW MUCH?!?!” He seems disappointed by my reluctance to tote an eight foot plush moose home in the overhead luggage compartment.
7pm: Janie joins Jen and me for tonight’s event at Bolen Books, and the #HystericalFictionTour has officially begun! Moderator Moira Dann asks us great questions, and we all grab dinner afterward and talk craft and marketing nonstop. Jen is on the Globe & Mail Bestseller List (Canada’s NYT list) for 10 straight weeks now, and we all cheer. Janie tells us about Chinese fox spirits, and I could listen forever.
10:10pm: After a solid week on the road, the laundry situation inside the Red Monster has become dire: a snarl of clothes that has grown as many arms as an octopus. It makes a serious attempt to drag me inside and eat me before I force the zipper shut on the last thrashing, questing sock-tentacle.
2pm: After a necessary gelato stop, we’re headed out of Victoria in Janie’s car, and off to Vancouver via the car ferry. I’ve been promised a lot of beautiful scenery, and it doesn’t disappoint—I’ve never in my life seen so many shades of blue. My travel companions grin at my wide-eyed stare across the water at the scattered islands dotting the bay.
Sadly we don’t see the resident pod of orca whales, but we do get good pics of each other rocking the wind-swept look while discussing the sincere desire we all share for a private island for writer retreats.
3:31pm: The Great Travel Jinx of 2017 strikes again with a double-whammy: an overturned truck just off the car ferry keeps us locked in place outside the Vancouver tunnel for nearly an hour and a half in the burning-hot sun…and the air conditioning in Janie’s car has stopped working. We watch the clock tick down toward our event and trade jokes about how glamorous book tour traveling really is, as the driver in the car ahead gets out to sit on his trunk and give us an hour-long display of plumber’s butt. (The back of my head is blocking your view of this. You’re welcome.)
6pm: No time for the hotel; we floor it to Janie’s house (she lives nearby, providentially) and perform a fast change in the spare room as her phlegmatic and charming New Zealander husband Geoff wisely pours all the exhausted writers wine. We gulp a half glass while still shucking out of yoga pants and into authorly clothes that will hopefully convince the audience that we are serious and responsible adults, pay homage to Janie’s cat, thank Geoff fervently, and sprint for our event.
7:05pm: Fortunately it’s a great one! The Book Warehouse is packed, we answer some fabulous questions, chat to all kinds of awesome readers afterward, and somehow end up doing a triple Wonder Woman shot for the camera. Janie and I look fierce (possibly both still feeding off the frustration of the traffic jam and the plumber’s butt) but Jen cracks up hopelessly.
10pm: Heading back to the hotel, which is ultra-modern, chic, and….Vancouver, is this really A Thing?!
9am: Janie heads off to get the car’s AC fixed–she has a steely glint in her eye that makes me lay long odds against the mechanics, who actually asked her the question: “Well, did you turn it on?” Jen and I are more happily engaged in getting a quick look around the Granville Island craft center. I end up buying a morally-questionable hat with a broad brim and a devastating oversized rose; my Queen of Spies in “The Alice Network” with her penchant for outrageous toppers would be proud.
12pm: The Great Travel Jinx of 2017 strikes again—the car air conditioning is STILL not fixed by the time to leave. We roll down windows and head out of town for Whistler, but the gorgeous scenery makes grumpiness impossible. It’s a winding mountain road ending in a lovely little ski village, and I resolve to bring the Overseas Gladiator here at once. This is a landscape chock full of dangerous things an adrenaline junkie can climb, jump off, go too fast on, or sink to the bottom of. He’ll love it.
4:37pm: Fantastic news—Janie’s “Dragon Springs Road” is a Costco pick! We all cheer, and Jen predicts she will make the Canada Globe & Mail list. (One week later, Jen is proved right: Janie and DSR hit the #4 slot!)
5:15pm: Dinner at a nice outside cafe. Spot the non-Canadian (me) who is eyeing with trepidation the signs warning to look out for bears. We are joined by the lovely Roberta Rich (her latest novel “A Trial In Venice”) for a joint panel at the absolutely jaw-dropping Squamish and Lil’wat Cultural Centre. The art and artifacts are just beautiful…
…and the panel goes well as the four of us do brief readings and then toss questions back and forth. I read a bit from “The Alice Network” where my young 1915 heroine is recruited as a spy for British Intelligence, and am heartened by the chuckles from the audience.
8:40pm: Surreal—the three of us end up being eye-witnesses to a marriage proposal! Wandering back to the hotel via the Olympic Rings, a gorgeous young guy asks Janie if she will snap him and his girlfriend with his phone—and he proceeds to drop to one knee before the Olympic rings and propose. Janie clicks away madly as girl says yes, and we all offer our congratulations and admire the ring (Gorgeous Young Man has great taste in diamonds.) We all agree this would make a great scene for a book; practically have said book outlined by the time we get back to the hotel….
8:57pm: ….and then we see a black bear sauntering casually across the path in front of us. “That’s a bear,” I remark, somewhat inanely but I think quite calmly, and the three of us perform a rapid detour through a nearby parking lot. The bear looked skinny and young, not having picked up his winter insulation yet, and he wasn’t quite as big as my writing buddy Eliza Knight‘s Newfoundland pup Ladybelle.
1:30am: Last night of #HystericalFictionTour! The three of us stay up way too late planning to take the literary world by storm and laughing far too much. This is the part that stays in the cone of silence.
8:17am: #HystericalFictionTour may be over, but not the Great Travel Jinx of 2017. I walk out of the hotel, hauling the Red Monster and a vat-sized coffee, only to see Janie’s car up on a crank and a tire sitting on the ground. My response is 100% unprintable, but thank goodness for Stuart the Wonder Valet who cheerfully swaps the flat for the spare in 15 minutes. We’re off to the airport, where Janie has kindly agreed to drop off Jen and me to catch our flights. If asteroids don’t strike the planes, which at this point I would not at all discount.
10:50am: Goodbyes to Janie and Jen—how am I going to live without these ladies? Best travel companions ever; we traveled together for three days without so much as a single snappish word passing between us. Head for my flight, where I listen horror-stricken to TSA telling me that the Red Monster must be emptied by three pounds to meet weight limits. I do battle with the laundry octopus inside, wresting three pounds of books from its maw, stuffing them into my carry-on, then cramming all the sock tentacles back in before it can become the Laundry That Ate Vancouver. TSA seems unappreciative of the narrow escape they have just had.
11:25am: Oh my God. “The Alice Network” just got the nomination as one of three possibilities for Reese Witherspoon’s online book club! Voting is today only, and I have exactly four minutes to fling this up on Facebook and Twitter so readers know to vote, before getting on my plane and being without Wi-Fi for the next six hours. Manage with about fifteen seconds to spare; the cabin doors don’t QUITE close on my fingertips.
10:50pm: The Great Travel Jinx of 2017 isn’t done with me yet. My connecting flight to Baltimore is delayed. Four times.
Midnight: I was supposed to be landing in Baltimore right now. Still in Newark, haven’t eaten all day, all airport restaurant spots and food stands are closed, and there’s no wi-fi. ****, ****, ****.
3:30am: Plane takes off three hours late. And then the Great Travel Jinx of 2017 gives me a parting salute—the Red Monster has been lost. Maybe the laundry octopus got out in the cargo hold and made its escape somewhere over New Jersey. I stagger home resolving to see if anything tentacled hits Newark on the morning news.
4:42am: Too wired to sleep, I greet my rapturous sleepy dogs and watch “Logan” until the sun rises and then finally crawl off to bed. Damn, but Hugh Jackman has aged well. And is this trip really over?
There you have it: the #HystericalFictionTour recap (and Janie wrote one too, it’s hilarious!) All jokes and travel jinxes aside, it was a wonderful time. Confabbing at the conference with so many hist-fic writers leaves me awed and inspired every time, and it was such a wonderful privilege to hit the road afterward and meet readers in both Canada and the Pacific Northwest—huge thanks to HarperCollins and HarperCollins Canada for teaming up and making it happen. I can’t wait for HNS Conference 2019, and I’m already planning when I can see my travel mates Jen and Janie again—hopefully this time without a travel jinx.
I still have no idea what happened to the laundry octopus, thought. Watch out for sock-tentacles, Newark.
As is now traditional: my recap of the 2017 Historical Novel Society Conference! With three HNS conferences under my belt before jetting off to Portland, 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 2017…
This year’s travel plan is infinitely more complex than any of my previous HNS road trips. I have a recent book release complicating matters (“The Alice Network,” available on Amazon, iTunes, and B&N!) and a number of launch events both pre and post conference—the trip isn’t just a weekend this time, but a full 10 days long. And since the Overseas Gladiator came home from the Middle East at the start of June and departed cross-country for his new posting the day before I was set to head conference-ward, I didn’t start packing until 6pm the evening before. Normally this would be a cause for screaming, stressing, and otherwise lighting my hair on fire, but I end up blithely jamming things into the mammoth scarlet suitcase known as the Red Monster, sitting on it to get it closed and thinking, “Who knows what’s in there, but I guess I’ll find out when I hit the west coast.”
3:12pm: But before Portland and the conference, there’s Seattle. I’m teaming up there with Jennifer Robson (loved her recent release “Goodnight From London” so much) and the two of us are set for a joint author event at nearby Mill Creek. Good time to give our upcoming HNS scheduled Koffee Klatch “Battle Tested: Women In The World Wars” a practice run. Our plan for this presentation is pretty much “We both revere this subject, we’ve got over a combined decade of research on it under our belts, and our enthusiasm will undoubtedly run away with us. We’ve got this!”
4pm: Seattle hotel is lovely, but why do our beds have throw pillows with Ricky Gervais in full dress uniform?! Jen and I trade perturbed phone calls, avoiding Ricky’s embroidered stare. She saw a portrait downstairs of Frazier/Kelsey Grammer in Napoleonic kit. This is somewhat disturbing.
6pm: Two Ubers and two cabs fail to respond to our calls before we finally land a driver to Mill Creek, so we’re eyeing the clock and wondering if there will be any chance to put something in our rumbling bellies before the event. How fast can two hungry authors eat two sliders apiece at a sports bar counter next to a bookstore? Four minutes flat.
7pm: University Bookstore in Mill Creek! It’s a nice lively crowd with lots of questions and lots of smiles, and they quickly find out two things about Jen Robson and me: 1) That we can gab all night long about women in the world wars, and 2) No really, ALL night long. We close down the store.
8:42pm: Ugh, ugh, ugh. Uber driver treats us on the way home to his unsolicited opinion that strip clubs are overrated because it’s all look-don’t-touch and a guy really should be able to get more bang for his buck. Jen and I adopt identical frosty expressions that Maggie Smith/the Dowager Countess of Grantham/Professor McGonagall would be proud of, and Mr. Skeevy decides silence is wisest. Ugh, ugh, ugh, I need to shower. In bleach.
10:37pm: We grab a glass of wine and a heap of truffle fries at the hotel restaurant and embark on the kind of catching-up gab-fest all writers do when they only see each other once a year at conferences: new book ideas, current writing headaches, secret plans for future books, industry trends, and maybe, if we get through all that, spouses and kids.
10am: Bright-eyed and clutching our third cup of coffee apiece, Jen and I abandon Ricky Gervais with a certain relief and head for our rental car, carrying on the conversation of last night at a more or less unbroken clip for the next three hours, sometimes at 65 miles per hour (when Jen is driving) and sometimes at 85 miles per hours (when I’m driving). Jen has a plot headache for a future book that is giving her problems. We’re gonna have this solved by Portland.
12:10pm: HNS Conference! Oh, how I’ve missed my people here. Craning my neck through the hotel lobby, I get seen first by a reader who loved my last book, and we chat happily in the check-in line (I’m hoping reader doesn’t notice how awkward and garbled I sometimes get at these moments!) Barely up to my room in time to notice it is unhabited by Ricky Gervais (with or without Napoleonic uniform), I ditch the Red Monster, take a moment to wonder why on earth I packed a set of shower curtain rings, and skid downstairs for my first event. Which is…
1:30pm: Gordan Frye’s “Make Ready!” workshop on historical firearms. Three hours fly by as he gives a fantastic demonstration on the history, model, and loading procedure of everything from a matchlock rifle to a WWII Luger. I don’t quite get my chance to load a Napoleonic-era flintlock, but I still feel very Richard Sharpe as I scribble notes.
6:10pm: I strap on my red conference stilettos…..
….and head down for a fast meeting with my fabulous literary agent Kevan Lyon at the hotel lobby. We talk the recent launch for “The Alice Network,” for which we are both crossing fingers. Then I run into Janie Chang, and we fall on each other happily though we have never met before: Janie is due to join Jennifer and me on a couple of joint author events in Canada post-conference (our shared publisher saw us all in the same city with recent release dates, and said “Why not?” Bless them!) Janie and I have only chatted by email, but she won my heart sight unseen with her suggestion that we privately hashtag our triple-author events with #HystericalFictionTour, a suggestion greeted by Jen and me with unabashed glee. Janie and I are going to get along very well, I can tell. And having just finished her latest book “Dragon Springs Road,” I’m in awe of how well she writes. (Buy this book immediately.)
7pm: Opening reception! Libbie Hawker stalks through in Viking gear, carrying a drinking horn…Stephanie Thornton drops in with Alaska breezes still ruffling her hair, whispering the latest bit of Roosevelt-related humor she’s had to google for research (her forthcoming book is on Alice Roosevelt)…C.W. Gortner greets me with a hug, wittiest man alive and perennial conference favorite…Meghan Masterson is visibly walking on air, her debut centered around Marie Antoinette coming out this August…Leslie Carroll who as Program Chair has a faint mad gleam in her eye (a gleam familiar to those who have ever felt the frenzied pressure of planning a large important event) but she looks red-carpet-worthy as always in gold sequins. Costume contest happens tonight, and there are some stellar get-ups here: Margaret Porter‘s teal satin 18th century gown with panniers, a Victorian lady, and a Greek muse.
9pm: Dinner is all individual parties tonight, so I head out to eat with Heather Webb, Judith Starkston, Kris Waldherr, and everyone else we can round up. We eat at a deeply artisanal restaurant across the street, eyeing the beef-heart tartar and honey-drizzled grilled cheeses with a certain caution.
11pm: Back to the hotel bar to circulate! Sophie Perinot staggers in hollow-eyed after the flight from hell where she was practically booted out of the cargo hold and strapped on a wing; I order her a Cosmo the size of a bucket. She and Anne Easter Smith and I talk recent historical TV series—even if you’re no fan of “Vikings” or “The White Princess,” isn’t it good to see historic series being produced? And I meet the absolutely fabulous Kate Forsyth, with her enchanting Aussie lilt and her twinkling eyes and her stupendous literary talent (have you read “Bitter Greens”?! And her next is on the Pre-Raphaelites!) Kate and Christopher and I gossip happily.
8am: Who needs sleep? There are panels to go to and people to see. First up, star editor Lucia Macro from HarperCollins and star agent Irene Goodman with “Breaking In, Breaking Out, and Staying On top.” They have great points and harsh truths here, and for 8am they are also wryly funny.
9:16am: “Imagining the American Revolutionary Era” with Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie, Lars Hedbor and fellow Chesapeake Bay HNS Chapter member Matt Phillips. Matt has a great line about Tories, Loyalists, and native Americans: “They were Americans too; Revolutionary stories are also their stories.”
Afterwards I corral some of my favorite hist-fic ladies before I can lose them in the shuffle—conferences are all about the crowd-wriggle, the elbow grab, and the exclaimed “THERE you are…!”
10:30am: “Innovative Promotion: Big Book Campaign on a Not So Big Budget,” with the stellar Kristina McMorris. This should be required listening for any novelist who wants to build a career, and we’re all taking notes (the room is huge; don’t be fooled by the empty seats–she got a great crowd). Wow, wow, wow—Kristina is a revelation. And where does she get all that energy?!
12:36pm: Lunchtime speaker Geraldine Brooks is mesmerising. She talks about the “swordfish-silicone implant moment” that answers the age old question “how do you get your ideas?” I am at once filled with endless sorrow that I do not have a swordfish-silicone implant story. #lifegoals
1:14pm: My one event of the day: Koffee Klatch with Jen Robson on women of the two world wars. After the Mill Creek event and the subsequent hours of car-ride gabbing, we’ve got this. Our circle of attendees is packed, and there’s fabulous give-and-take as everybody chips in with their own research stories. We could have talked for hours.
2:38pm: Gab for a while with a lovely reader named Taylor about early monotheism and polytheism in ancient Rome, then finally have a chance to catch up with Lis from our local Chesapeake Bay chapter. Lis has me sign one copy of “The Alice Network” for her, and one for the friend house-sitting her cats, who has refused to return them unless a book is forthcoming. I sign the book to her with a plea of “Please release the cats!”
4pm: Weina Dai Randel—I’m a bit in awe because I loved loved loved her recent duology on a young Empress Wu. Chinese history is so fascinating, and we badly need more HF about it; “Moon In The Palace” and “Empress of the Bright Moon” are smashing reads. Weina is as wonderful as her writing.
5:48pm: I’m not signed up for Hooch For History, but apparently nobody who went liked the absinthe. Boo. How can anyone dislike a drink nicknamed the Green Fairy that requires a special silver-grated antique spoon to prepare?
6:12pm: Kevan Lyon of Marsal-Lyon Literary Agency takes all her clients out to dinner—and there are 8 or 9 of us here, so it’s a big fun-fest of historical geekery all at one table. I meet the lovely Chanel Cleeton whose Cuba-set novel comes out soon, and we bond over cherry crumble and weird reviews.
11:45pm: Another “let’s close down the lobby” night, this time with Stephanie Thornton. We talk her next project after Alice Roosevelt—VERY exciting. Trail up to bed with heels in hand, facing six hours of slumber before it all begins again.
9:11am: I sleep through the 8am round of panels despite my best intentions—there’s just enough time to apply the flat-iron I christened Excalibur to my hair, before sprinting off to the first of my morning panels: “Let’s Do The Time Warp: Controlling The Chaos When Writing Different Eras” with C.W. Gortner, Steph Thornton, and Heather Webb. This turns out to be a fun one as we all debate the various reasons we jumped time periods and Christopher brings down the house with his line about liking to dip into many eras “I’ve always been promiscuous!”
10:32am: No time to waste; next panel runs back to back as I run up to the table barely in time to join Libbie Hawker, Judith Starkston, Amalia Carosella, and the fabulous Margaret George in “Mythic Tradition & Legend vs. the Historical Record.” This one gets lively as Amalia and I have a mock-squareoff about whether the Iliad’s Paris was a coward (I’m pro, she’s con) and then we all debate the necessity of including the gods in modern narratives. Questions from the audience are great, and someone snaps a terrific pic where we all look deeply skeptical. Or maybe just Muppet-like.
11:48am: Lunch! David Ebershoff is our keynote speaker this time—I didn’t think anyone would be able to match Geraldine Brooks, but he gives a wry and moving speech about being inspired by Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery, and how she became his heroine in “The Danish Girl.” David’s absolutely delightful and of course we all want to get pics and find out more about the recent film adaptation with Eddie Redmayne (!) and Alicia Vikander.
1:15pm: Sitting down to “Race: Writing About the World’s Most Provocative Topic” with Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, Chanel Cleeton, Weina Dai Randel, Vanitha Sankaran, and Teralyn Pilgrim. Great questions, and they don’t shy away from discussing the hard ones. The issue of more diverse stories and how to get them out to the reading public has been a hot topic, and the more discussions like this, the better.
2:34pm: A lovely Q&A with both our guests of honor, David and Geraldine, who are funny and self-deprecating as they’re being interviewed by Ed Goldberg. Such effortless stars; I can see pretty much the entire room trying not to fangirl.
I head to the book-signing afterward, catching up with some of my favorite book bloggers (yay, Erin Davies!)…
…and fellow authors (Pat Bracewell, I’m dying for that third Emma book)…
…and then it’s off to the big dinner and final evening! I’m back in tall heels and striding along at a nice height of 5’6, enjoying all the unaccustomed oxygen at this altitude.
7:22pm: The HNS Chesapeake Bay Chapter rallies for a commemorative photo around our Chapter Queen & HF book blogger extraordinaire Meg Wessell.
Queen Meg, First of her Name, long may she reign, sends us back to take our seats for what turns out to be one of the most magical events of the conference: the lovely Kate Forsyth takes the stage to tell us all the fairy-tale of Tam-Lin, and with nothing more than her voice and a few gestures has everyone completely under her spell. Hundreds of people sit silent, unmoving, not checking their phones, not even BREATHING, as Kate tells us of the icy Faerie Queen and her whip, of the tormented mortal knight in her thrall, and the brave girl who saves him.
10:56pm: A lovely tribute to Edgar Doctorow comes from Leslie Carroll, Christopher G, Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, and Gillian Bagwell—then it’s time for the Hellfire Masquerade! I get a pic with Susanna Kearsley whose sumptuous Austenesque ballgown positively begs you to ask for a turn about the room, and then proceed to dance a gavotte with Sophie Perinot as the dance-caller patiently (so very patiently) teaches us the steps. Whist is played on the fringes, and the gossip flows…how can this conference possibly be almost over? I trail off to bed long after midnight.
1pm: The conference exhaustion haze is starting to hit, and a deeply foodie lunch doesn’t help. Portland, I know you’re artisanal and hip, but sweet zucchini waffles with tartar sauce is NOT a good idea.
4:22pm: HNS 2017 is officially over (boo!) and friends are departing in all directions. I’m back from the panel at the nearby Multnomah library where several fellow Morrow authors (Jennifer Robson, Stephanie Dray, Laura Kamoie, Heather Webb, Sofia Grant, and I) did a joint Q&A before we split in all different directions and left town. But I had possibly the biggest thrill ever walking into the hotel lobby and seeing a reader engrossed in her book in a lobby armchair. And it was “The Alice Network.” This has NEVER happened to me before.
8:17pm: I’m supposed to meet my agent for dinner later, but putting on yoga pants in the interim may have been a tactical error. Cannot…move…at…all…and I’ve got three author events post-conference to attend starting with tomorrow’s flight to Seattle…
10:10pm: Flinging all my new conference books into the Red Monster (I have to sit on it and bounce a bit before the zipper wants to close), I’m already missing all my friends who have departed. This is my fourth conference and I can without doubt say it’s the biggest and best so far. Interesting panels, great pre-conference workshops, and superb speeches from our guests of honor. Bravo to Jenny Toney Quinlan and Mary Tod for doing such a fantastic job coordinating the volunteers and to board members Vicky Oliver, Maryka Biaggio, Caren Wasserman, Vanitha Sankaran, Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, and Leslie Caroll–I hope they stagger home in a haze of exhaustion and sleep the sleep of the righteous.
Meanwhile, I’m off to meet Janie and Jennifer for our upcoming Canada events, where we are destined to run into a marriage proposal and then a black bear. But that’s another recap…
Reese Witherspoon and her online book club voted “The Alice Network” as their next read.
*faints dead away*
Thank you SO MUCH to everyone who cast their votes for TAN!
If you haven’t checked out THE ALICE NETWORK yet, pick it up for the 4th of July weekend and read along with Reese! It’s the tale of two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—brought together in a road trip like no other…
There’s a bit in “The Avengers” where Cobie Smulders/Agent Maria Hill asks Robert Downey Jr./Tony Stark “When did you become an expert in thermonuclear dynamics?” and he deadpans, “Last night.” That’s pretty much what it’s like to be a historical novelist: the sinking realization that you need to become an expert in some new historical period, epoch, or event—and this needs to happen immediately, or your next book/next chapter/next paragraph will never happen, either.
As I set about researching The Alice Network (diving into a new historical era means major, major, MAJOR research mode) I realized that there are four distinct research phases involved in writing a historical novel. Each has its own delights and hazards…
The Dog-Paddle comes first. You have a new book idea, probably something rather vague and unformed, and you’re reading everything you can get your hands on about Murano glass-blowers or the reign of Frederick the Great or Finnish lake mythology. This is the stage where you grossly over-use the One Click Buy feature on Amazon as you load up on used research texts to dog-ear and underline; you also make dire use of the “Customers who bought X also bought Y” feature. Your plot hasn’t firmed up yet, so right now everything is grist for the imagination, and blinding flashes of inspiration come from random footnotes. You have no idea what will be useful, so you read it all, dog-paddling in leisurely fashion through an ocean of sometimes only barely connected reading material, daisy chaining from a book about Polish airmen in World War II to the bombing of London to the building of St. Paul cathedral, and realizing that with a single brilliant plot twist you can tie it all together in one smash-hit novel. This is the fun stage.
Stage two is The Deep Dive. You have your book idea; the era and plot are chosen. Now you need to narrow your focus; understand EVERYTHING about the historical period and events you will be covering. This is where you read every account you can find on the Battle of Crecy or the early life of Machiavelli. You want the picture in your mind as complete as possible before you start playing on that historical stage. It’s easy to get lost in the research here, because no historical picture will ever be complete. There’s always more to know. At some point you have to stop researching and start writing.
Stage three is The Fast Patch. This is when you’re in the throes of writing, and hit a road-block. You cannot go any further in this chapter until you have accurately figured out the mechanical innards of a Pe-5, or figured out what boat will get your hero out of Dunkirk alive. So you repair to the books, the web, and the library for a quick research fix. You don’t need to dive deep here, find out every conflicting opinion out there on the building of a Pe-5 or every single kind of boat used at Dunkirk. You just need a fast, reliable bit of historical information that will bridge the gap to firmer, more well researched ground.
Stage four, and most dreaded of all, is The Rabbit Hole. This generally comes in the editing phase, the stage where you are tearing your manuscript apart in a haze of caffeine-fueled paranoia, fact-checking everything just to be sure you are catching every single historical error that could possibly have sneaked in there. This is when you stay up till 3am trying to figure out exactly when buttons replaced ties on women’s dresses. This is when you obsess over whether there were black bears or brown bears in Imperial Rome-governed Dacia. This is when you calculate centuries-old lunar cycles in an effort to see if your heroine really could have been looking at a full moon that night. This is the stage where you vow to take up a career as a clam-digger or a burger-flipper—anything but a historical novelist.
Until the book is off to your editor, and you start thinking about the next book, and a wonderful vague idea hits. Something about Shakespeare’s Dark Lady and the Grail myth . . . and then there you are, one-click buying on Amazon for all you’re worth, happily anticipating when your new research books will arrive, and thinking that you have the best job on earth.