Conference Insider: Historical Novel Society of North America Conference

This three-day conference will inform and energize authors looking to blend historical fact with fiction.

National Harbor
National Harbor

If you’re looking for workshops on swordplay and historical dances and cocktails across the ages along with presentations and panels on fiction writing, the Historical Novel Society of North America Conference may just be a perfect fit for you.

Held in National Harbor, minutes from Washington, D.C., in June 2019, the three-day event offers writers interested in historical fiction a wealth of information on everything from how to incorporate racial and gender diversity in your novels to how to handle a Civil War-era rifle and then write about the experience authentically.

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A variety of panels, presentations, and workshops allow readers to learn and interact with professional historical novelists and practice elements of craft themselves. Participants can focus specifically on genre blends, including historical mystery, crime, and romance. A Reader’s Festival offers author-led programs designed specifically for readers of historical fiction, while hour-long “Koffee Klatches” allow small groups of participants to meet with particular authors and discuss a specific theme or historical era.

“The focus in these Koffee KIatches may be on anything from talking about Irish legends to how to portray your work in a spoken performance to how different cultures through time used horses in their daily lives and in their battles,” says Conference Chair Vanitha Sankaran.

What you’ll learn

The theme of the 2019 conference is Revolution. “That can mean anything,” says Sankaran. “It doesn’t necessarily have to mean revolution in terms of government. It can refer to a personal revolution, the civil rights moment, or revolutions across the world.”

Participants may find themselves learning about American, French, and Russian revolutions, along with social and gender revolutions, and rebellions surrounding art and fashion and alcohol. A workshop titled “Hooch through History” will address the latter topic. “We’ll focus on tasting the cocktails that people were drinking at the time of these different revolutions, along with a history of these revolutions,” Sankaran explains.

The board is committed to showcasing diverse voices in historical fiction; this goal encompasses writers from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as male voices. “Historically, in the realm of historical fiction, people who typically attend the conference are women,” Sankaran says. “We’re encouraging more male voices to join us.”

The event also focuses on a diversity of publishing opportunities. “We don’t want to be the kind of conference that says you only have to be published by one of the major publishing houses,” she explains. “The industry is changing, and we want to make sure all voices get heard to the best of our ability.” To that end, some presentations and panels will focus on independent publishing.

Featured presenters

Dolen Perkins-Valdez is one of two guests of honor in 2019. She’s the author of the New York Times best-seller Wench, which follows the lives of four slave women who navigate various challenges as mistresses of their masters. At the conference, she’ll discuss her novel, as well as slave experiences in the U.S.

The other guest of honor is New York Times best-selling novelist Jeff Shaara, who writes military historical fiction. His Civil War novels include Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure. Sankaran is eager to hear Perkins-Valdez and Shaara weigh in on early U.S. history from their various perspectives. “It will make for some interesting different sides of the same discussion,” she notes.

Advice for first-time attendees

Sankaran notes that the conference can feel overwhelming to first-timers; there’s a temptation to attend everything. “The thing to do is to pick out your top two or three activities, and make sure you’re mentally present for those,” she advises. “For the others, sit back and let the information come to you and take what you will from it. Once something catches your attention, you’ll have the start of what to go research on your own later.”

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With that advice in mind, presenters teach attendees how to find primary and secondary resources without having to travel to the places they’re writing about. They also help people new to the conference to network with one another; there’s a “meet and greet” reception and conference badges indicate the particular era that each participant focuses on in fiction. “People can look at each other’s badges and say, ‘You write about the same era I do. Let’s chat!’” Sankaran explains.

There’s plenty of entertainment to balance out the learning. After the Saturday night banquet at which guests read and perform historical fiction, organizers facilitate historical games such as whist and teach a period dance. Those interested can get out and explore the monuments and museums of Washington, D.C., take a trolley tour of the district, or enjoy a riverboat ride along the Potomac.

“If people have the chance to take a couple of extra days on either end, they can take a lovely trip right from the hotel to Mount Vernon,” Sankaran says, “and sample George Washington’s favorite cocktail, Fish House Punch. There are so many opportunities to get out there and learn about our nation’s history.”

 

Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of the middle-grade novel Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016) and Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019). Web: melissahart.com