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Historical Novel Society Conference 2017, Portland, Oregon

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IMG_1286No question: I’m exhausted. I’ve spent the last three days at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Portland, Oregon. I’ve been encouraged and discouraged; invigorated and inebriated; enthused and confused; and bolstered by a wealth of like-minded, amazing human beings. At every turn, this band of normally introverted writers and readers broke from their shells to share. Not much small talk, thank goodness, aside from “Where are you from?” (which included Australia, New York, Shanghai, and Hawaii). We got “write” to the point.

My self-assigned task, to distil everything I’ve learned into a post or maybe two, has proved too daunting. So, I’ve decided to hit the highlights with a series of quotes.

Thursday, June 22nd: A Day with Kate Forsyth

“I’ve never written a book without throwing up my hands and say ‘What made you think you could write a book?’”

“Characters travel on a journey of transformation but so does the writer.”

Then there is my distillation of her big don’ts.

  1. Don’t say panster (as in seat-of-the-pants writer) or plotter (as in hyper outliner) rather say analytic or intuitive. And know you are a little of both
  2. Don’t say show don’t tell. “Think ‘When do I show and when do I tell?’ and tell well.”
  3. Don’t be obvious or prescriptive with narrative. “If everyone writes like everyone else, there is no surprise. I hate the three act structure. I don’t teach The Heroes Journey, even though I love it. Any system that narrows the creative process is a poor choice.”

There was so much more in her session, from the nitty-gritty stuff writers need to be reminded of (check out her old-school whiteboard) to the inspirational like:

“When we get blocked it’s usually because of fear of failure or ridicule. But it isn’t about you, it’s about the story. So tell the story you are being asked to tell.”

Check her out here.

Friday, June 23rd: A Dose of Reality and Distilled Liquor

Session 1: Breaking In, Breaking Out, and Staying On Top with agent Irene Goodman and editor, Lucia Macro

“Don’t get too emotionally attached.” “Most people want encouragement and support, but sometimes it’s an A- book.”

Session 2: Things that Go “Bang!” in the Night with Gordon Frye

 “Where they fire, there’s smoke.”

Here’s his blog.

Session 3: Buttons and Points and Pins, Oh My with Isobel Carr

Again, you’ve got to get those details right, and before buttons and zippers, they used a LOT of pins. She is authoritative. Find her here.

Lunch with Geraldine Brooks (I love, love, love her.)

I was mesmerized. Did I take a single note? No! But this I remember: She quoted one of my favorite Leonard Cohen poems.

“There is a crack in everything. That is how the light gets in.”

Session 4: Modern Tools to Tell Historical Fiction with Stephanie Dray

My big take away? While I’m still on the fence about Scribner (any thoughts anyone?), I am purchasing Aeon Timeline ASAP. A link here.

Then I did a pitch of my most recent book, The Forging of Frost, and went to a cold read—Debbie Downer. At the pitch I got

“It’s just not grabbing me, Where’s your female protagonist?”

At the cold read, while they didn’t read my two-page offering, the authors who were read were informed, quite tersely, “I didn’t know where or when the story is taking place or where it is going.” For those out there who heard those words, I heard some good writing. (See day three for support.)

Luckily, or unluckily, I went to the infamous “Hooch” event. Isobel Carr moderated—hilarious—while participants partook of six (yep, six) different examples of alcohol through the ages. While my head complained on the day following, the lubrication did create some great bonding. We commiserated over the death of the male protagonist, shared our triumphs and our emails.

Fast Forward to Saturday, June 24th: The Final Day

Session 1: State of the State of Historical Fiction: with a panel of agents and editors

They provided the same dire prognosis as the previous day, i.e. it’s a woman audience, 1850 forward with a woman protagonist sells better, the novel biography is dead, and

“Dusty, dark, grey clothes just aren’t that sexy.”

But the light snuck in through the cracks,

“All that said, in the end, we are looking for an extremely compelling story that is well-written.”


Session 2: New Sources for Researching the Historical Novel with Mary Malloy

Great information for one new to the research world. My background in genealogy prepared me well. She agrees—maps, maps, maps and writing from the period.

Session 3: Two for One: Weaving the Twin-Stranded Storyline with Susanna Kearsley

Her presentation was professional, elegant, useful. I want to read her. Could it be that she writes twin-stranded stories just like me? Do check her out here.

Lunch with David Ebershoff (author of The Danish Girl, a wonderful book. I consider his 19th Wife a work of genius, but it’s a tome so be prepared.)

He was eloquent, and I again did not take notes, but he left me and many others with tear-rimmed eyes and all of us with his wisdom. To paraphrase:

“All any one of us wants is to be seen, as an individual, for who we really are.”

Lifted by his words, I decided to go to my next pitch. (I’d been vacillating.) I got:

“Send me a chapter and a synopsis.”

Then at the cold read? Some positive comments and some good suggestions. They were kind, supportive.

“I’m not that fond of Cold Reads. We don’t have any background on the story. That said, thank you for being so courageous.”

Did I say I was exhausted? I took refuge in a corner, waiting for the finally—the big banquet—and again found a comrade in the world of words.

Because, in the end, all we really want is to be seen for who we really are. It’s how the light gets in.

About croywright

The author, a writer of history and historical fiction, always yearned to go back in time.

12 responses »

  1. Charlotte Gordon

    WOW, Donna. What an experience you had. I want to check out some of the books mentioned.

    Much love, Charlotte

    On Mon, Jun 26, 2017 at 7:52 AM, Donna Croy Wright Writing Family History wrote:

    > croywright posted: “No question: I’m exhausted. I’ve spent the last three > days at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Portland, Oregon. I’ve > been encouraged and discouraged; invigorated and inebriated; enthused and > confused; and bolstered by a wealth of like-minded, a” >

  2. Wonderful recap. And yeah, I didn’t take any notes during either lunch session. Sometimes it’s better to just *listen*…

  3. Donna this is wonderful and I’m sharing! I wish we’d connected amidst all 435 of us! Unfortunately I didn’t get in until Thursday so missed Kate’s presentation…and I missed Susanna’s presentation on the double strand story which is what I write…as I was pitching but that had a positive outcome so all not lost…and yes…exhausted…I slept 9 hours when I got home to Chicago!

  4. Donna this is wonderful…I wish we’d connected amidst the 435 of us…I unfortunately didn’t get in until Thursday but love your notes re: Kate Forsyth! and(grrr) I missed the session on the two stranded story as this is what I write…but I was pitching…which had a positive outcome so all not lost!…Yes exhausted…I slept for 9 hours when I got home to Chicago! Thanks again for this wonderful post…sharing….

    • Thank you for the great comment. I wrote this on a laptop using coffee shop wifi. Not my favorite thing. Did a fix or two. Maybe next time we can connect…in TWO years? Nice to know you digitally at least.

  5. margaretpinard

    Lovely recap! And I am only now recovering, so brava for compiling such a coherent summation so soon! 🙂

  6. I was there and loved it too. I wrote copious notes but this is excellent.

  7. Thank you for sharing…anxious to have you back to share more!
    Wow, Geraldine Brooks, how fun.


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