Reflections on the Historical Novel Society Conference

Before I begin, I just found a cache of 65 comments in the trash of my website. Thanks for that, web site. I’m so sorry to have missed them. So if didn’t respond, I wasn’t being rude; I just didn’t know they were there. I have responded to all of them now. 

Also, I completely missed my blogiversary. This little ol’ blog turned six on June 16.

And now, on to our main topic…

At the end of June, I had the pleasure of attending the Historical Novel Society conference in Portland Oregon. It was hands-down the best, most fun conference I’ve ever been to. From the second I stepped into the hotel, I saw people I knew or who knew me, and it felt like a homecoming. These truly are my people. It was humbling and immensely gratifying to have so many people approach me, saying they loved my books and/or had seen me speak somewhere and learned something. I have to say that for the first time I felt like, maybe not a celebrity, but a rising star. I was certainly encouraged to continue on my journey as a historical fiction author!

I have to say I was thrilled by the diversity in the program offerings. In addition to panels on craft and dedicated to certain time periods, there were panels on everything from gender fluidity in Shakespeare’s England and race/minority viewpoints in historical fiction to LBGT characters in history and including women’s stories in history. It was encouraging in an increasingly polarized culture to see that within the Society, authors are talking about all forms of inclusiveness. On a similar note, there were workshops and koffee klatches for both traditional and indie authors and both forms of publishing (as well as being a hybrid author) were talked about on panels. Here again, I took comfort from the open-mindedness I experienced.

Honestly, there were so many great choices, it was often hard to decide which workshop to attend. (Note to HNS: Please bring back the recording of sessions. I would buy every single one.) Of the ones I attended (that I wasn’t on), the one I enjoyed the most were Writing in Multiple Genres, which reaffirmed that you can and perhaps should write in multiple areas, especially if you can make your fiction and non-fiction relate (which mine do, whew!)

From Bustles to Suffragettes panel

I was on two panels and lead a packed koffee klatch. The first panel was “From Bustles to Suffragettes: Writing Victorian Era & Gilded Age Fiction” with Stephanie Carroll, Leanna Renee Hieber, Amanda McCabe (Laurel McKee) and moderator Susan McDuffie. I had corresponded with these ladies online but had never met most of them until the conference. Stephanie and I were roommates at the conference (we met at the 2015 conference in Denver) and Leanna quickly became my new favorite person. (When you share a love of Victoria Woodhull and outspoken Victorian women, I guess this is bound to happen!) We certainly shared a feministic vibe and were two of the more passionate panelists in our answers. We all worked really well together and I’m very glad to have met all these ladies.

Putting the Her in History panel. Photo by Jessica Knauss.

Next was “Putting the ‘Her’ in History” with Patricia Bracewell, Rebecca Kanner, Mary Sharratt, and moderator Stephanie Lehmann. I was somehow magically added to this one a few months ago and I’m so glad it happened. First of all, I love Patricia Bracewell and Mary Sharatt as authors. Okay, I love Patricia Bracewell in every respect. I like to think of her as one of my writing idols. Needless to say, I was humbled and thrilled to be on this panel. Again, we were a group of well-spoken, intelligent women with no shortage of opinions and more than enough moxie to voice them. As Patricia Bracewell wrote in her blog post reflecting on the conference,”I can only tell you that my fellow panelists were passionate and eloquent about the roles of women throughout history, about the definition of POWER, and the difficulties that historical novelists face in bringing all-but-forgotten women to life.” We must have gotten rather feministic without realizing it, because when the panel started, there were four or five men in the audience; by the time it was over, there were none left. Oops. Sorry guys. We really meant no disrespect. But our message was received. I’ve seen the panel called the best of the conference on several wrap-up blogs like this one and Jessica Knauss said she thought we “had possibly the best energy of any of the panels.”

My koffee klatch was an “ask me anything” style open forum on being an indie author. About 25 people showed up and it was a rapid-fire hour. I barely stopped talking to catch my breath the whole time. Luckily, there were a few other experienced indie authors in the room (hi Lars!) so when I didn’t know the answer (like on KDP select, for example) they were able to fill in for me. Several people told me they really enjoyed it and learned a lot, so I can’t ask for more than that!

Lookie! I got to meet Geraldine Brooks!

The guests of honor, Pulitzer Prize-winner Geraldine Brooks (March, People of the Book, Caleb’s Crossing, The Golden Chord, Year of Wonders) and David Ebershoff (The Danish Girl, The 19th Wife, Pasadena). I have been a huge fan of Geraldine Brooks’ writing for years, so it was a dream come true to get to hear her speak. I love that she said she “looks for the stories that are too crazy to be believed” as the basis for her fiction. Finding those is one of my favorite parts of research (Victoria’s family, anyone?) and even if readers don’t believe them, they are things that need to be told. A woman after my own heart, Geraldine gave my favorite quote from the whole event when reflecting on her time and experiences as a war correspondent in the Middle East: “In societies where women are publicly silenced, they find ways to wield private power.”

I had never heard of David before he spoke and I wasn’t expecting to be interested in, much less bowled over by, his speech. But I was captivated. He spoke so eloquently of the life of Lili Elbe, a pioneer in the transgender movement, who was the inspiration for his book The Danish Girl. His speech helped me understand transgender issues a little better and I actually teared up when he talked about Paramount quietly replacing the long-lost headstone on Lili’s grave.

Hooch Through History.

And what would a conference be without extra-circular activities? The first was Hooch Through History, a multi-flight alcohol tasting event that was accompanied by a well-researched presentation about what drinks were popular at different times in history and why. We had mead (which I’ve had before and find way too sweet), mulled wine (which I am very familiar with due to my German/Austrian heritage -YUM!), two kinds of gin (the first, which was an older type was kind of okay, but the second tasted like pine trees), absinthe (which tastes and smells like black licorice – all  kinds of wrong) and a bellini (which was my favorite drink of the night). I knew some of the history from my own research, but it was fun to learn more and taste with my friends. It was a unanimous opinion in the sold-out room that this should be an annual event.

Stephanie Carroll and I at the masked ball.

On the final night of the conference there was Hellfire at HNS, the first ever after party. It was so much much! It was a masquerade ball, and even though they gave out free domino masks, I bought a fancy bejeweled mask to wear, as did a few other people. You could choose from two activities: learning Regency dance or learning to play whist. I had major blisters on my feet from the stupid shoes I wore the night before, so dancing was out, but luckily I love playing cards. I can’t say I fully understand whist yet, but I think I have the basics down and my partner and I won, so there is that. I had a really, really good time and I hope they do something like this again in 2019.

My new discovery from this conference is author Kate Forsyth (Bitter Greens). I saw her on a panel on Myth, Magic, and Fairy Tales in Historical Fiction. She also spellbound the crowd with recitation of the fairy tale Tam Lin (click the link to watch my shaky video). I fell in love with her. She mentioned on the panel that she has a PhD in fairy tales (how awesome is that?) and that she’s written 40 books in 20 years. As soon as I heard that, I realized that is my new goal! (The books rewritten part; though the PhD would be cool too.)

Jenny Q. and I

Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, I met my lovely cover designer, Jenny Q., in person for the first time!

Next year the conference is in Scotland. I really wish I could go, but unless things change that isn’t going to happen. So I’m already looking forward to 2019. I’m considering being on the board, so we’ll see where that goes!

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Portraying Strong Women in Historical Fiction

She may not be a superhero, but there is more than one way for a woman to be strong. Image purchased from Adobe Stock.

I was interviewed last week for a podcast and one of the points that came up was the importance of historical accuracy when portraying women in history. Then a few days ago, I came across this interview with historical fiction author Hilary Mantel where she urges novelists to stop re-writing history to falsely empower women.

I could not agree more. It DRIVES ME CRAZY when I see so-called “costume drama” where women are in period dress but everything they do or say is modern feminist. It happens in all sub-genres of historical fiction, but I’ve seen it most often in historical romance (I’m not picking on that sub-genre; just expressing my experience). So many of those women would at the very least have had the snot beat out of them if they really acted that way in their time, if not be jailed or killed for it. It’s only been in the last 40-50 years or that a woman dared speak against her husband in public in the US; in some parts of the world, a woman still doesn’t dare contradict her father, husband, brother, etc. You have to think about the norms of the day when planning action and reaction in historical fiction.

Yes, it bothers me when I read a historical fiction novel where the men are being all “God created man first and he was perfect. You were just pulled from his side, and therefore are inferior” but that was one of the real justifications for men to behave how they wanted for a long stretch of history (at least in the Judaeo-Christian world). I’ve been known to mutter, “you bastard,” when I read such attitudes, but I also appreciate the writer’s faithfulness to the views of the time. The same goes for books that show women being physically, emotionally and sexually abused and then turning around and defending the perpetrator, but I understand why they would and did. For so long women were totally dependent on the men in their lives that even if society wouldn’t have shunned them for fighting back or speaking out (and that’s a BIG “if”), they had no jobs, no shelter, no money without their father/husband/king, so they were stuck. It is at times like this when seeing the mental and emotional fortitude of a woman is more powerful than all the swords or sharp words about independence she could wield.

One of the main responsibilities of a historical fiction writer (I would argue third only to 1. telling a good story and 2. doing their research) is to accurately portray the worldview of the time. If women were expected to cover their heads and be subservient, that is the way you must portray them. You might show the subtle ways in which women were known to fight back, but make sure they are documented. For example, in some time periods and societies, learning to read or write was an act of rebellion that would have been done in utmost secrecy and at great risk to both teacher and student. That woman would not get up the following Sunday and lector in a church, nor was she likely to read her child a bedtime story. She would have to be hyper-vigilant that she never even hinted at having the ability to read, lest she accidentally betray herself. This is when the quiet courage comes in, when we might see people doing extraordinary things in spite of the restrictions of society, but not necessarily in an overt manner.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, and telling those stories is great fun. In every time and place there are queens, noblewomen, leaders of religious orders, even everyday women who bucked the trend and spoke up for the myriad women in their societies who could not and their stories should be told. But it is important that the reader understand them for the anomalies that they were; I would argue that their uniqueness is part of the appeal of their stories. When you can find a historically strong woman, go for it – show her in all her outrageous glory! This is what I’ve been doing so far. Victoria Woodhull really was an outspoken, ankle-bearing, sometimes cross-dressing suffragist. There is another woman who was Victoria’s contemporary who demanded equality within her marriage and received it, even publicly (I may write about her in the future). Celtic women had the most rights of any culture in the ancient world, and so my Guinevere is very strong. However, if I was writing about a Roman or Greek woman, I would not have portrayed her in the same way, as those women were considered property of their nearest male relatives and had very little outward power.

Reaction to these outstanding women must be accurate. Just because it is en vogue now to be open about your views, that doesn’t mean it holds true in history. For example, not everyone liked it when Victoria gave her speeches. There was a fair amount of threat, protest and danger. She was lambasted in the papers and lost her reputation quickly, being called “Mrs. Satan,” among other colorful things. She certainly was not widely embraced, not by men or even other women in the suffrage movement. Think about the first women in medicine or science. Do you think men welcomed them into schools, hospitals and laboratories? Not so much. They were routinely harassed, abused, discredited and had their accomplishments usurped by men. It may be hard to read about but that doesn’t make it any less accurate.

As historical fiction writers we owe to everyone – the subjects of the past we’re writing about, our present readers, and future generations who may read us to learn – to portray history as it happened. As Mantel said, we shouldn’t rewrite history to make the victims the victors just because we want to write about strong women. But we can and should dig deep and find those untold stories where women dared to be different. For women constrained by their time/culture, we can peel back the layers and find the less obvious sources of mental, emotional and spiritual strength. I don’t know about you, but my grandmother had steel in her bones and ice in her veins when she needed to. That is the kind of strong woman who lived in every time period, no mater what her society dictated, and that is the woman whose story needs to be more often told.

What are your thoughts on how women are portrayed in historical fiction? What have you read that you’ve liked or disagreed with?

Victoria Woodhull – Spiritualist

My favorite picture of Victoria (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

My favorite picture of Victoria (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I promised I’d get back to the historical posts and today I’m making good on that. Spiritualism is something I hadn’t paid much attention to before I started researching Victoria’s life. I actually had no idea it dated back to before the Civil War; I associated it more with the seances and Ouija boards of the WWI time period. But, not for the first time, I was wrong.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, here’s a brief definition of Spiritualism from Encyclopedia Britannica. It’s “a movement based on the belief that departed souls can interact with the living. Spiritualists sought to make contact with the dead, usually through the assistance of a medium, a person believed to have the ability to contact spirits directly. Some mediums worked while in a trance-like state, and some claimed to be the catalyst for various paranormal physical phenomena (including the materializing or moving of objects) through which the spirits announced their presence.”

A Brief History of Spiritualism
Spiritualism was popular from about the 1840s – 1920s, peaking during times of crisis like the Civil War and WWI when widows and families left behind attempted to contact their departed relatives.

The Fox sisters

The Fox sisters (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Although it has connections to the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg and Franz Mesmer, most Spiritualists date the founding of their movement (at least in America) to March 1848 when two of the Fox sisters from Upstate New York claimed they made contact with a spirit through a series of raps or knocks. They became famous almost immediately and many people sought to emulate their fame, including Buck Claflin. (The Fox sisters later admitted to the whole thing being a hoax affected by cracking their toes.)

Mediums used a variety of techniques to contact the spirits including going into trances, conducting seances, channeling automatic writing, using planchettes (but not Ouija boards until 1890), table turning/vibrating/levitating, and more.

It is interesting to note that during the 19th century, women were discouraged from speaking in public forums. Doing so was thought to bring shame upon their father/husband and family. However, women were taken seriously when they acted as mediums, for it was not them speaking, but the spirits through them. It’s possible that many female Spiritualists, Victoria included, used their “gifts” as a way of being able to subvert the gender expectations of their time.

Spiritualism is still practiced today, largely through Spiritualist Churches and as part of the New Age movement.

350px-Spirit_rappings_coverpage_to_sheet_music_1853

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Victoria Woodhull, Spiritualist from Childhood
Victoria’s mother, Annie Claflin, was a Spiritualist who passed her beliefs on to her daughters, especially Victoria and Tennie. From a young age, they both showed signs of clairvoyance. (For the sake of argument, let’s pretend the gifts were real; I think she believed they were and no one knows if they were real or were just imagination or a coping method for two abused girls.) Victoria mentions in her biography (dictated to Theodore Tilton) that from the time she was five, she could commune with two of her sisters who died as babies (Odessa and Delia) and her childhood caretaker, Rachel Scribner. (There are stranger tales of the spirits in her biography, but we’ll let those go for now.)

Victoria believed her personal spirit guide was the Greek orator Demosthenes, whom she saw and conversed with from an early age. But she was 30 before he revealed his name to her. According to Victoria, he prophesied that she would rise to greatness in a city filled with ships, speak before large crowds, and become ruler of her people.

Victoria’s father, Buck, took advantage of his daughters’ gifts and put them to work as clairvoyants and magnetic healers (another gift passed down from Annie) when they were young teenagers. He worked them for 13 hours a day, charging $1 per person.

It is said Victoria followed the advice of the spirits as she moved around the country with her first husband and children, letting them direct where they went. Later on, Demosthenes directed her to St. Louis, where she met her second husband Col. James Blood (who happened to be President of the St. Louis Society of Spiritualists) and they were”betrothed by the powers of the air.” Demosthenes later directed her to New York, where she, Tennie and their family would find success in the stock market and in politics.

I haven’t been able to find a solid account of how exactly Victoria contacted the spirits (I chose the most common methods, seance and trance, for my novel). But we know she continued practicing throughout her career and likely throughout her life. She said that the spirits directed her speeches (they were the ones who inspired her to reveal what she knew about Henry Ward Beecher and his affair with Lib Tilton). Cornelius Vanderbilt employed Victoria as a medium. When asked how he became so rich in the stock market,  reportedly said, “do as I do, consult the spirits.” (It’s much more likely Victoria got her stock tips through human connections than from the spirit world.) According to Tilton, “every night, around 11 p.m. or midnight, two or three times a week, [Victoria and James] held court with the spirits. When she entered into a trance, her husband dictated what she said and saw. When she woke, she often had no memory of what transpired.” Victoria was so prominent in the Spiritualist community that she served as President of the American Association of Spiritualists.

Recommended Sources
If you want to read a great book on Spiritualism during Victoria’s lifetime, check out Barbara Goldsmith’s Other Powers, The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. It’s a long book, but the most in-depth on the subject I’ve found.

Most biographies of Victoria mention her Spiritualism. I also recommend the following articles:

Spiritualism in Encyclopedia Britannica http://www.britannica.com/topic/spiritualism-religion

Hix, Lisa. “Ghosts in the Machines: The Devices and Daring Mediums That Spoke for the Dead.” Collector’s Weekly. http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/ghosts-in-the-machines-the-devices-and-defiant-mediums-that-spoke-for-the-spirits/

“The annual convention of the American Association of Spiritualists in Boston, Massachusetts, 1872.”  The Banner of Light, The Boston Investigator, The New-York Times, The Brooklyn Eaglehttp://spirithistory.iapsop.com/1872_american_association_of_spiritualists.html

What had you heard about Spiritualism before this post? Did you know Victoria practiced? What do more would you like to know about it?

Learning to Love History Through Historical Fiction

HistficI think Rudyard Kipling had it right: “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” When I came across this pin on Pinterest I realized it was something I wanted to explore more in-depth, because I’ll tell you one thing, I’ve learned more from the historical fiction I’ve read than I did in all my years of studying history in school.

For those prone to argue, yes, I know historical fiction is part fiction. I’m not saying we should base all of our knowledge on it, but that it can spark interest in a certain time period or person much easier than a dry history book can. For example, I just finished Labyrinth by Kate Mosse. Its backdrop of the Cathar Inquisition in thirteenth century France made me want to learn more about this little-known sect of medieval Christianity. I can promise you that if we covered that in school, I don’t remember a word of it.

Why does historical fiction stay with us? Well, for one, stories are the way the human brain processes information. We tell each other stories every day in the form of conversation without even noticing we’re doing it. Chances are good that when you’re telling your friend about that awesome party you went to, you’re going to tell her stories about the evening, not a chronological recounting of events (unless you are Sheldon Cooper, in which case you wouldn’t have gone to a party anyway). I think this is the fundamental flaw in many history textbooks; they focus on cramming as many dates and facts in as possible, and thus, lose the true story.

As author Heather Web recently said in a recent Huffington Post article, “What’s not to love about history? I think it gets a bad rap from our grade school and high school days where many teachers force-fed us timelines and names to memorize, as opposed to teaching us to explore movements and larger concepts–never mind all of those juicy stories. This is what history, and historical fiction, really is: juicy stories.”

That brings me to my second point about historical fiction. It breathes life into history in a way traditional textbooks don’t. This happens through the story and the characters, no matter if they are fictional paupers begging at the cathedral gates or real-life kings and queens. They represent the plight (or fortune) of people in a given time period, they show us history in action through a personal lens with all of its love, triumph, grief and pain. Whether we leave a historical fiction work thinking, “Oh my God am I glad I didn’t live in that time period,” or “Dude, where’s the time machine? It would have been so cool to live in that time,” we’ve personalized the story. History now matters to us.

And matter it should. Beyond the oft-repeated proverb “if we don’t remember history, we’re bound to repeat it,” history shows us what is right and wrong with humanity, emphasizes the good that we should seek to amplify and horrors that should never be permitted again. By living these things through the fictionalized lives of real or made up people, we become more compassionate and empathetic. I just finished a book called The Hammer of Witches by Begoña Echeverria, whose graphic portrayal of the Basque witch hunts made me realize what danger we place our entire community in when we fail to see the humanity of those around us and instead choose the bandwagon of bigoted hatred and fear.

Personally, I would love if history classes in high school (or at least college) incorporated historical fiction into their curriculum, especially as way of whetting the appetite for certain time periods or topics. (Come to think of it, that’s kind of what my high school Western Civ teacher did when she had us read 1984 before studying totalitarian societies. I’ve been hooked on dystopia ever since.) For example, I personally think Susanna Kearsely’s forthcoming A Desperate Fortune has the clearest explanation of the reason for the Jacobite rebellion/exile I’ve ever read. Historical fiction can even take you places the history books rarely do. Jo Baker’s Longbourn gives a glimpse into the lives of servants and soldiers in Regency England, while most history books stick to the sterile facts of monarchy and war.

And you wouldn’t even have to use books, or at least not books alone. There are so many period films and TV shows that they could be incorporated as well. Even if they are of questionable historical accuracy (*cough* Tudors *cough*) that can be used to spark discussion. “Spot the inaccuracy” could be part of a test. It could be employed interdepartmentally as well. The Paris Wife could be an intro to Hemingway or The Secret of All Things a prelude to biology. The possibilities are endless. (Man, now I wish I had my PhD. or even a master’s in history so I could create this class.)

I just hate the idea of history meaning less and less to future generations. But if mine is any starting place (I’m at the tail end of Gen X), things aren’t looking good. A recent report by the American Historical Association (I’m a member), showed that schools issuing history degrees are showing a downward trend, which isn’t too surprising given the recent economy. The more we can use historical fiction to spark interest, the better off we will all be. The day history becomes only dead guys and boring facts is the day we lose a valuable record of our humanity.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree? What historical fiction has made you care about history? What do you wish young people had to read in school? Do you think there is danger in mixing fiction in with our history?