Top 5 Lessons Learned from #HNS2019 #amwriting #histfic #historical #fiction #history

I’m a life learner. I can’t imagine going through a single day without learning something new. In fact, that was advice my dad used to give me. He’d jokingly say that once I learned something new at school each day, my day was complete and I could come home. Which, of course, he didn’t really mean. Little did he realize, that I soak up new information like a dry sponge!

As a professional author, it’s important to me to continue to hone my skills, my writing technique, and to explore new subject matter. One way to do a bit of all of this is to attend writers’ conferences, like the Historical Novel Society conference last week in Maryland (my home state). Through a combination of workshops, panel discussions, and networking, I gleaned a lot of information during the several days of the conference.

Exposure to the wealth of knowledge and experience represented by the attendees and the keynote speakers alone proved an education. Jeff Shaara gave a wonderful talk about how he came to write Gods and Generals, for example. I came home with a long, long list of historical fiction titles I want/need to read! My hubby has requested I use my library card more often as a result… <grin>

Here’s my top five lessons:

Lesson #5: Book club fiction needs lots of themes and issues to discuss. In order for a great discussion over pizza and wine, for example, you need a story that has personal transformation at its heart, or personal growth to confront an obstacle. Think about what makes for thought provoking entertainment. This tells me I may want to dig a bit deeper into some universal themes to highlight more in my stories. I believe they exist in the story, but maybe not with enough clarity.

Panel discussion about the State of the State of Historical Fiction on opening day of the conference.

Lesson #4: Discoverability remains one of the most important and yet difficult aspects to selling books. Publishers are focusing their marketing efforts on social media presence. So I guess my efforts on that front may eventually pay off. I probably need to look more closely at devising a strategy of some kind, but at least I have a social media presence.

Lesson #3: I studied the supernatural stories of Edgar Allen Poe and Henry James years ago, but I attended a session about Neo-gothic Novels since I’m currently working on a supernatural historical series, Fury Falls Inn. What are neo-gothic novels, you may be asking. (I know I did!) Well, neo-gothic novels focus on the power of the heroine instead of her being a victim or passive in the story. James and Poe often included females who were the “other” or the seemingly “uncanny” element in the story. Neo-gothics also feature subtle fears, are less overtly political, include either a reliable or non-reliable narrator, and have an explained or unexplained paranormal element. I came away thinking my series falls within these parameters nicely!

Interesting and authentic portrayal of George Washington. Wish I’d gotten a picture with him!

Lesson #2: Author Mary Sharratt wrote an intriguing book, Ecstasy, which I’ve ordered to enjoy and to study some ways of approaching how to include music in a historical fiction novel. I’m working on a WWII novel set in Baltimore that includes music in several ways so I felt her talk might prove helpful. She shared several concepts about music and fiction I jotted down to remember as I revise my story. Music is relevant to all historical fiction, providing a sense of time and culture. Sound and music are powerful for the senses. Music evokes a mood. She said that “the relationship between music and words is alchemical,” which is a fascinating comment. (I’m a huge fan of alchemist stories, by the way.) She gave examples of how lyrical poetry and prose can use musical allusion and terminology to create the mood and sense of a time and place. She also talked about how music imagery can be used visually and even somewhat orally in the text, like a “crescendo” of action and dialogue that peaks into the “silence of the end of a chapter.” My interpretation of her statement is that both visually and orally, the action and dialogue of the story ends/silences at the chapter break with white “noise” or space signifying silence of sound. The reverse, I’m thinking, is also true where the action of the chapter becomes darker and more sinister until the chapter break provides a kind of “silent death” to the story action. Or am I getting a bit carried away in my analogies?

And the #1 most important lesson:

I struggle with including enough conflict in my stories, since I tend to avoid conflict in my real life. So I attended a session on sustaining conflict presented by Alma Katsu, author of the NPR Best Horror Novel The Hunger, which was really helpful. In particular the concept of weaving conflict into every page of the story to provide not only tension but also a page-turning read. Most important to me was the definition of four kinds of conflict. This is a brand new concept for me, by the way. So let me dive a bit deeper here for clarity. Here are the four kinds of conflict and how they are applied to writing. As you read, you may find yourself spotting them in the stories your enjoy, too.

  1. Central conflict is the major conflict of the story that must be resolved. This is all about the character’s growth and makes for a better story. It’s very important to not harp on this one conflict too often, though, or the reader gets bored. Cue rolling eyes…
  2. Underlying/chronic conflict is an external conflict that is thrust upon the main character(s). One example is a chronic illness that interferes with the character’s progress of the central conflict resolution. The underlying conflict may or may not be resolved in the story.
  3. Internal character conflict is the flaw or mindset that complicates how the character interacts with other characters and events. This is a driving force for the action and reaction within the story. Focus is on internal issues only the character knows, whether consciously or subconsciously.
  4. Transient conflict is a temporary, brief hurdle that is not related to something the character has caused. For example, a snow storm or elevator out of service.

The idea of layering these four types of conflict so that there is something on every page to challenge the main character(s), provide hurdles they must face and overcome, is eye-opening for me. I really hope to use this going forward in my writing.

At the end of the conference was the Historical Fiction Readers Festival in the Atrium of the Gaylord Resort Hotel in National Harbor, MD. A crowd of fans of historical fiction flowed through the many tables of authors eager and ready to meet with fans. I even found a new mascot, Henry, named in honor of that fiery American Revolution orator Patrick Henry, to keep me company during the signing. I think he’ll be a happy companion as I travel around to different book events.

Other lessons learned came from networking, with lots of discussions about book reviews and their subjectivity despite their use to determine whether a reader might enjoy a book. Research methods when searching for information outside of the United States or if you don’t know exactly where to start (hint: footnoted sources). I’m sure there were many other far subtler lessons I absorbed without taking notes!

All in all, it was an educational, interesting, and worthwhile trip to the Historical Novel Society conference. I look forward to the next one in the USA in 2021!


P.S. If you haven’t already, please consider signing up for my newsletter, which I send out most every month, including news like new covers, new releases, and upcoming appearances where I love to meet my readers, along with recipes and writing progress. Thanks and happy reading!

Visit for more on my books and upcoming events.

Coming October 1, 2019!

Innkeeper’s daughter Cassie Fairhope longs for only one thing: to escape her mother’s tyranny. But in northern Alabama in 1821 marriage is her only escape. Even so, she has a plan: Seduce the young man acting as innkeeper while her father is away and marry him. He’s handsome and available. Even though he has no feelings for her, it is still a better option than enduring her mother.

But Flint Hamilton has his own plans and they don’t include marriage, even to the pretty temptress. Securing his reputation in the hostelry business and earning his father’s respect are far more important. He did not count on having to deal with horse thieves and rogues in addition to his guests.

When tragedy strikes, Cassie and Flint must do whatever it takes to rid the inn of its newly arrived specter—who has no intention of leaving…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.