Read part one of my Historical Novel Society Conference recap here.
Despite averaging 4.5 hours of sleep over the past two nights, I was awake by 6:30 the following morning. After all, Saturday was the “big” day of HNS: panels, evening banquet, costume parade, and much more.
After breakfast, I attended Teralyn Pilgrim’s wonderful panel on depicting religion in historical fiction—I thought she did an amazing job moderating. I especially liked her observations on how a character’s religious beliefs can enrich a novel. Next up was the panel I moderated with Christy English, Mary Sharratt, Mitchell James Kaplan, and Michelle Cameron. It was entitled “Is ‘Genre’ a Dirty Word? Literary versus Commercial Historical Fiction.”
I did my best as moderator to encourage a lively back-and-forth with the audience. I think it worked: many expressed very strong opinions about what entails literary fiction (character- or description-driven, lush language, doesn’t sell well, boring, pretentious) versus commercial historical fiction (plot-driven, life without the boring parts, all-queens-all-the-time, salacious romances, even—gasp!—trashy). However, one of the points of our panel was to explore the many exceptions to these preconceptions: there are character-driven commercial novels just as much as there are plot-driven and salacious literary novels. The sub-genres of historical romances—Regency, Victorian steampunk, “bodice-rippers”—are ever-expanding in sales and influence; romance novels generated approximately three times as much money sales-wise as literary novels for publishing houses in 2012. Yet so-called “literary historicals”, such as Sarah Gruen’s WATER FOR ELEPHANTS and Hilary Mantel’s BRING UP THE BODIES, grace bestseller lists and best-of lists, churning millions of dollars into the industry. In other words, there’s room for all at the table.
The bottom line: what makes a historical novel literary or commercial often comes down to plain marketing, or how the publisher thinks the book will best sell. For example, the cover of Mitchell James Kaplan’s award-winning BY FIRE, BY WATER featured a beautiful painting of Isabella of Castille, despite the novel’s male protagonist. This was to make the book more appealing to female readers, who buy upward of 70% of fiction. Finally, I ended the panel with a visual presentation on the semiotics of historical book covers, which I’ll share here next week—everything from Philippa Gregory to Sarah Waters.*
I was so relieved our panel went well that the rest of the day seemed anticlimactic, though no less wonderful. I thoroughly enjoyed C. W. Gortner‘s keynote speech during lunch, which reminded authors to persevere and love what we do. In the afternoon, my hardest decision was which panel to attend. I often ended up compromising by sitting in on the first half of one, then the second half of another. I volunteered an hour critiquing manuscripts at the Blue Pencil Cafe before heading over to the book signing, where I scored autographed novels from Mary Sharratt, Erika Mailman, and Stephanie Lehmann. I also autographed a few DOOMED QUEENS myself.
And then it was finally time for the evening banquet and costume parade. Teralyn Pilgrim and I helped each other with our costumes—she had a tricky Vestal Virgin headdress, and I had tricky Victorian tea gown fastenings. Here we are, about to leave for the banquet.
And then we were off to the banquet! Here’s author Stephanie Lehmann (ASTOR PLACE VINTAGE) dressed in appropriately vintage clothing, Mary Sharratt, and author-queen Margaret George adorned for the Titanic.
The very glamorous Leslie Carroll (CONFESSIONS OF MARIE ANTOINETTE, ROYAL ROMANCES) in Versace. She served as one of the judges for the costume parade.
Stephanie Renee Dos Santos as Frida Kahlo, sporting cigarillo and attitude. (“What do my friends say about me?” Long pause. “Friends? I don’t have friends.”) She deservedly won for best depiction of a historical personage.
Finally, Teralyn brought down the house as a deep-in-denial pregnant Vestal Virgin. (“How dare you say I’m with child! I just have to lose some weight.”) She won for most historically accurate costume.
As for myself, I carried a goblet of faux absinthe—green food coloring mixed with water and milk—and swooned about in my best Pre-Raphaelite/Jane Morris manner in my hand-sewn Aesthetic Reform tea gown. Fun! (Photograph courtesy of Christopher Cevasco.)
The evening ended with a lively under-the-full-moon cocktail party at Deann Smith’s hotel suite, which featured an expansive outdoor terrace overlooking the sea and sky. As I chatted and celebrated with my fellow authors, I swore to myself I’d remember how happy I was at that moment, and that I’d return to the next Historical Novel Society conference come what may.
I’m still feeling slightly stunned (in a good way) over my experience at the Historical Novel Society conference, held two weekends ago at the stunning Renaissance Vinoy resort in St. Petersburg. Was it the rush of being surrounded by so many intensely talented and passionate authors, many whom I now consider dear friends? The excitement of exchanging thoughts and theories about the ever-evolving form of historical fiction? The fun of sharing industry gossip? Confiding updates about our new novels-in-progress?
It was all that. And more.
What follows are some random-yet-sequential thoughts, in an attempt to make sense of it all.
~ The festivities got underway before I departed the Tampa airport: Stephanie Dray (SONG OF THE NILE), Kate Quinn (THE SERPENT AND THE PEARL), Sophie Perinot (THE SISTER QUEENS) were on the shuttle to the Vinoy, along with several other authors. Much hilarity ensues over a discussion regarding hippos in the ancient world. (Consensus: yes, hippos are dangerous.)
~ As soon as I arrived at the Vinoy Friday morning, I discover Deann Smith, author of the upcoming SANCTUARY PRINCESS, heatedly debating the marketability of present tense voice in historical novels with several other writers. (Past tense voice—for example, “I said”—is more traditionally used; present tense voice—”I say”—is trickier to pull off but can create narrative immediacy.) Pro: Michelle Moran and Sarah Dunant used present tense voice in recent books, and did so brilliantly. Con: it was also used in THE HUNGER GAMES—does this make present tense more appropriate for YA fiction? As I listen and weigh in—I chose to use present tense voice in one section of THE LILY MAID—I think, Only at HNS would I be having this conversation.
~ Meet up with my lovely cousin Vicky Alvear Shecter, author of the award-winning novel CLEOPATRA’S MOON, and critique partner Teralyn Rose Pilgrim, who’s sharing a room with me at the hotel. Teralyn is hugely pregnant and adorable as ever; Vicky is as wonderful as ever and full of family news. We have lunch with Suzy Witten (THE AFFLICTED GIRLS) in the Vinoy’s main restaurant, which has painted decorations that remind me of the exterior of a Florentine palazzo. Or Pompey, if you prefer the ancient world over the Renaissance.
~ Here, things begin to get uber-busy. I head back to my and Teralyn’s room to organize notes and graphics for the “literary versus genre historical fiction” panel I’m moderating. I also get ready for the cocktail party—have a plum-colored corset dress sporting an Alexander McQueen-style plaid fabric along the hem. Before the party, I confab to discuss panel with my co-panelists Mary Sharratt (ILLUMINATIONS), Michelle Cameron (THE FRUIT OF HER HANDS), Christy English (LOVE ON A MIDSUMMER NIGHT), and Mitchell James Kaplan (BY FIRE, BY WATER). Not only are we productive, we share many hugs and much laughter. Already I’m getting that HNS love fest buzz.
~ And then it’s onto the cocktail party and dinner. I wander around looking for friends old and new; my friend Diane Saarinen of the Saima Agency has asked me to look out for two colleagues who are first time HNS attendees, author Victoria Wilcox and literary agent Natalia Aponte. Plus there’s a Tweet Up supposedly happening. I never find them or the Tweet Up, but I chat with many others. There’s the amazing Margaret George, who’s as warm and charming as ever, Christopher Gortner looking incredibly stylish (fabulous shoes!), and other friends from HNS London and San Diego. I share a table with several NYC-based hist fic authors: Stephanie Cowell, Nancy Bilyeau, and more. Everything starts to blur together, and it’s not just because of the glass of white wine I’d imbibed. I also discover that my corset dress chaffs if I slump even the slightest bit. But it looks fabulous.
~ During dinner, Anne Perry gives an inspiring speech about the power of story to get us through our darkest moments. After dinner, I head to the lobby with Mary Sharratt and her husband Jos to catch up about life and work. Afterward, I’m tempted to go look for my buddy Heather Webb (BECOMING JOSEPHINE), who was hosting the Tweet Up and probably still going strong. Alas, by now it’s 11 pm; I’ve been up since 4:30 am and am wilting.
And this was just day one of the Historical Novel Society Conference. More here, including photographs of the infamous costume parade!
*Or, as author Stephanie Cowell writes, what happens when 300 historical novelists get in a room.
I’m still glowing and mulling over my wonderful time at the last weekend’s Historical Novel Society Conference. (Full recap to come Monday complete with pregnant Vestal Virgin, chaffing corset, and full moon wine-drinking with my favorite authors. And more.) In the meantime, here’s good news if you live in New York City: author Ania Szado will be appearing in Brooklyn at Book Court on Saturday, June 29th at 7pm. She’ll be reading and signing her new novel, STUDIO SAINT-EX, which explores the complex interrelationships between creativity, inspiration, and desire that led to the writing of the classic children’s book THE LITTLE PRINCE.
More about STUDIO SAINT-EX:
An irresistible novel that brings to life the mythic Saint-Exupéry (author of THE LITTLE PRINCE) and the glittering life of wartime New York. With Paris under occupation by Hitler’s troops, New York’s Mayor La Guardia has vowed to turn his city into the new fashion capital of the world. A handful of American designers are set to become the industry’s first names, and Mignonne Lachapelle is determined to be among them. Her ambition and ethics are clear and uncomplicated, until she falls for the celebrated adventurer Captain Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who, six months after the surrender of France, has fled Europe’s ashen skies for New York after flying near-suicidal reconnaissance missions for the French Air Force. Nothing about Mig’s relationship with Saint-Ex is simple: not his turmoil about being in New York and grounded from wartime skies; nor Mig’s tempestuous sexual encounter with Antoine and the blurring boundaries of their artistic pursuits; or Saint-Exupéry’s wife, Consuelo, who insidiously entangles Mig in her schemes to reclaim her husband. Yet the greatest complication of Mig’s bond with Saint-Exupéry comes in the form of a deceptively simple manuscript: Antoine’s work in progress about a little boy, a prince who’s fallen to earth on a journey across the planets.
STUDIO SAINT-EX is already a bestseller in Canada and has garnered some serious critical love. Cathy Marie Buchanan, author of THE PAINTED GIRLS, called the novel, “a deft examination of love, desire and ambition.” Sandra Gulland (THE JOSEPHINE B. TRILOGY and MISTRESS OF THE SUN) writes that STUDIO SAINT-EX “vividly evokes the world of fashion design and the French ex-pat community in New York during WWII. In a word: magnifique!”
As for myself, I’m fortunate to have received a review copy of STUDIO SAINT-EX from the publisher. Right now, I’m one-third of the way through, and thoroughly enjoying Szado’s luscious prose. I plan to post a full review when finished.
Here’s an excerpt I especially responded to. It occurs immediately after Mig has persuaded a potentially important patron to visit her dressmaking studio for the first time. She frets over the elusive nature of creative inspiration:
I replayed the events of the last hour: how she had been captivated, even captured, by the simplest of garments, an unadorned wrap…. I emerged from the park and set off down the sidewalk. People were standing in open doorways, sitting on stoops, anything to try to catch a fresh breeze. I was walking past a shoe store when a few buildings ahread something white tumbled down from the sky. It landed on the sidewalk with a muffled thump.
A pillow. I looked up. Three stories up, two young boys were peering in from the rooftop, guffawing. At street level, a door flew open. A boy in bare feet and pajama bottoms scrambled out. He grabbed the pillow and held it at arms’ length as he stood catching his breath.
“We’re going to sleep on the roof,” he said.
“Isn’t it wet up there?”
What was stopping me from pouring out ideas? How had I done it before? Week after week, as a student, I had produced and produced. Where had all those concepts come from?
I needed a trigger, something strong and distinctive. Did I expect something to fall like a pillow from the sky?
Excerpt © Ania Szado from STUDIO SAINT-EX, published by Knopf Books. Used by permission.
This week I’m deep in preparation for the Historical Novel Society Conference, which takes place June 21-23 in St. Petersburg, Florida. Besides preparing for the panel I’m moderating on literary versus genre historical fiction, I’ve a Victorian tea gown to alter for the costume pageant (I’ve lost weight since I last wore it), novels to finish beta reading/reviewing for author friends, and even an amber necklace to restring. So, a busy time! Yet, I’ve managed to keep moving forward on the Next Novel, even if it’s only 500 words a day with an hour here and there.
So far, I’ve clocked in nearly 30,000 words of a rough first draft, along with another 20,000 words of character and plot notes. Below is my novel bible so far. As you can see, it’s already quite overstuffed.
I know I’ve been deliberately withholding information about the Next Novel. The truth is it’s too early—too nascent—to share much without feeling intensely vulnerable. That written, I will reveal I do have a title for it, which I think rocks. I’ll also confess that the Next Novel is set four decades earlier than THE LILY MAID, during the mid-nineteenth century. Much of it is written from the point of view of my male protagonist—the first time I’ve done so. On top of this, he’s a photographer specializing in post-mortem portraits, a particularly perculiarly Victorian obsession.
So, mid-Victorian setting+ male point of view + death photography = new things to master.
Even with these new creative challenges, I’ve found my second time writing a novel a far less mysterious proposition than when I first set out to write THE LILY MAID way back when. Since then, I’ve grown much more patient with the process. I understand my first draft is only that—a draft to be shaped as needed as my book develops. I know it will take time for me to know my characters—that they’ll only reveal themselves through process and perseverance. I’ve also spent considerable hours—heck, years—attempting to master the craft of fiction writing. I’ve taken workshops, read books, studied, beta read, and beyond.
All of this makes my experience of writing the Next Novel far less fraught with fear than THE LILY MAID. However, my second time experience led me to wonder whether it was similiar for other authors: Were their second novels easier to write? Harder? Or just different?
To find out, I asked these questions to several authors I know via the Historical Novel Society. To my delight, they were generously forthcoming with their responses.
Donna Russo Morin, author of THE KING’S AGENT: “There is a change with the second, that mental shift between ‘I want to be an author, and I am an author.’ For me, it gave me the courage to take some risks, to take my plot places I may have watered down with the first. There was a confidence that gave my pen greater power.”
Susanne Dunlap, author of THE ACADEMIE: “My second novel ended up being much harder than my first. I think mostly because I was writing to a one-page proposal that my publisher accepted. I kept trying to make the premise work, and it simply wouldn’t. I knew it was crap. Then I finally decided I had to break free of what I told them I would write and just do what worked. I set the novel a year earlier, during the cholera epidemic in Paris, and everything just fell together. It was a lesson for me: write what gets you going, don’t try to write to a brief!”
Anne Easter Smith, author of ROYAL MISTRESS: My first novel was written in stolen moments while holding down three part-time jobs, moving three times to different states and having not a clue how to structure a book. I just wanted to tell Richard III’s real story, and if my husband and children ended up reading it, I would have been thrilled. It was 960 pages long when I came to its end and I was exhilarated that for once in my life I actually finished a project. So when astonishingly, someone wanted to publish it, I found myself facing a two-book deal that was not expected at all. I had no intention of ever writing another book once Richard was down on paper. So the second novel was a bit of a chore–for me the difference between writing your passion and writing as work. However, chore or not, my second protagonist, Margaret of York, ended up one of my favorites through this whole series. The difference between no deadline for the first (took me seven years), and an 18-month deadline for the second.”
Lynn Cullen, author of MRS. POE: “I have come to the conclusion that it never gets easier to start a novel, be it first or fourteenth. The blank page still holds its terror. I think the main difference is that while there is terror, there is not panic. You know that somehow, from some magical place, words will come. I find, too, that books are like your own children in that you love them all equally. It seems impossible when you have that first story/child that you could never love the second as much, but you do. You love each one for what makes them unique. The last thing I have to say is that I am no more organized about writing now than I was for the first novel. I like to tell myself my messiness is part of the creative process. I don’t completely buy that but it sounds good.”
And there you have it: four multi-published authors on their second time writing a novel. I’m so grateful to Donna, Anne, Susanne, and Lynn for sharing their experiences! Though I’ve listed only their latest novels here, I hope you’ll take a moment to learn about their previous ones—they’re all fabulous.
I know where I’m going to be the weekend of June 21st: at the 2013 Historical Novel Society conference in St. Petersburg, Florida. I also know what I’ll be doing there, beyond catching up with writer friends and meeting authors whose work I admire: I’ll be moderating a panel entitled “Is Genre a Dirty Word? Literary versus Genre Historical Fiction” with authors Mary Sharratt, Michelle Cameron, Christy English, and Mitchell James Kaplan. I’m excited to explore this fun and provocative subject which, to my mind, has as much to do with publishing constraints as it does marketing considerations.
As part of the ramp up to the HNS conference, novelist and book reviewer Judith Starkston has posted an interview with me on her site. In the interview, I disclose my favorite books and movies, what living or deceased writer I’d most like to meet, and a little about my Next Novel.
Read the full interview here.