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!

Speaking Engagements – 2017 HNS and remaining 2016 dates

hns2017smallAs my speaking engagements finally wind down for the year, and I look longingly forward to a much-needed rest, I’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be speaking TWICE at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Denver, June 22-24!

I’m on a panel about Victorian society with several really cool authors, including my friend Stephanie Carroll, whom I met at the 2015 HNS conference. We’ll talk about everything from fashion to mourning customs, and spiritualism to suffragists. It’s such a rich time period and we’re blessed to have authors representing both Victorian England and America.

I’m also conducting a Koffee Klatch – an informal session where people sit around and ask me questions – about being an indie author. This really is an ask-me-anything session. I’ll be candid about the good and the bad, talk money and marketing, and what really goes into being an indie (hint: a lot of hard work). So if you’re going to be there, come prepared with your questions!

 

Remember, you still have five chances to see me this year, as soon as tomorrow!

St. Louis Writers’ Guild
Nicole will be presenting on writing historical fiction
October 1
10 a.m. – noon
Kirkwood Community Center
St. Louis, Missouri

self-e_indieauthorday_logo_tshirt-01-e1462823856596Indie Author Day
Nicole will be speaking and signing books at two events
October 8

  • St. Louis County Library, Thornhill Branch (12863 Willowyck Dr., 63146)
    • 12:30 p.m. – Networking and light refreshments
    • 1 p.m. – National Digital Gathering
    • 2 p.m. – Local Panel
  • St. Louis Public Library, downtown location (1301 Olive St.)
    4 – 6 p.m.
    Q&A and book selling/signing

Missouri Romance Writers Association (MORWA)
Nicole will be speaking on working with a publicity company
October 15 (rescheduled date)
9:30 a.m.
St. Louis, Missouri

St. Louis County Library – Oak Bend Branch
November 12
11 a.m.
Nicole will be presenting on Victoria Woodhull

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And after that, I am crawling under a pile of blankets and resting for a few months! But you know me, my idea of resting is reading and learning. But more on that in another blog post…

 

 

A Discovery of Witches Tour of Oxford

I didn’t intend my trip to Oxford, England, to be a personal Discovery of Witches tour. As a HUGE fan of the trilogy written by my mentor, Deborah Harkness, I knew I had to see All Souls, New College and the Bodleian, but that was all I had in mind; I was there to see the rest of the city (including places where Inspector Lewis was filmed) and attend the Historical Novel Society conference.

But the literary gods had other plans in store for me.

The Old Parsonage Hotel. My fav place to stay in Oxford!

The Old Parsonage Hotel. My fav place to stay in Oxford!

After a hellacious trip over to England that included a full day’s delay due to mechanical and weather issues, lost luggage (thanks, American Airlines) and having to re-buy everything (makeup, toiletries, clothing, shoes, etc), my arrival at The Old Parsonage hotel was like coming home. The staff couldn’t have been nicer, and pointed my stinking, travel-weary self toward the shopping district and arranged for the hotel to launder the only clothes I had (the ones on my back) for free as soon as I procured others.

Interior of the Covered Market. It is so cool!

Interior of the Covered Market. It is so cool!

While I was looking for clothes, I stumbled across the Covered Market where Diana buys the ingredients for her dinner for Matthew. If I lived there, this would be part of my daily life and I really could eat the European way, with fresh food daily. There are over 60 independent shops within the market, including two that sell fresh fruit, veg, and flowers, a butcher, a bakery and a small fish market, in addition to shops selling clothes, leather goods and pretty much anything else you can think of. I was certainly charmed. And yes, I did find clothes, though just outside the Market on Cornmarket Street.

I had no idea the hotel was even a part of A Discovery of Witches until I ran across the guide produced by the Tenth Knot on the day I was due to change over to St. Anne’s College for the remainder of my stay. I chose to stay at The Old Parsonage because it is one of the best hotels in Oxford and has its own library – I mean, what writer can resist that? I will tell you it is very expensive (but I was only there for two nights, including the one I missed due to delays, grrrr…) but it is worth every penny, er, pence. The food is to die for (no wonder Matthew chose to get his meal for Diana from there) and they really do work hard to ensure you have the best experience possible. (Word of warning, those bathtubs are slippery and the staircases twist and turn like a castle tower.) I will certainly stay there again when I return to Oxford, which I have no doubt I will do.

Afternoon Tea at The Old Parsonage. I really want an authentic British scone right now...

Afternoon Tea at The Old Parsonage. I really want an authentic British scone right now…

I also ended up heading back to the Old Parsonage for afternoon tea with the Historical Novel Society and dinner with friends one night, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed, so even if you can’t afford to stay there or don’t have time, you can still experience the magic.

A shot from within the Oxford Botantical Gardens

A shot from within the Oxford Botantical Gardens

I decided to do the places the farthest from my lodgings and walk my way back on my first day. Little did I know they also had DoW connections. My first stop was the Oxford Botanical Gardens. I had to see them mainly because a) I love flowers and b) it was the setting for the episode of Inspector Lewis that gave me my original physical inspiration for Annabeth in Been Searching for You. The gardens are beautiful, but much smaller than I imagined. If you go, don’t skip the hothouses as they have some amazing plants.

Christ Church Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral

Next, I hit Christ Church College/Cathedral, which is mentioned several times in the book. The grounds are beautiful, so if you go on a nice day, be sure to explore them. The cathedral itself is smaller than many in Europe, but the stones practically breathe history so it’s well worth the tour. The college is also home to the hall that inspired the one in Harry Potter, but I found it underwhelming.

While I was in the area, I also visited Merton College, which is where Alex teaches in Been Searching for You and is one of the many colleges Matthew has attended. Unfortunately, it was closed at the time I was there, so I couldn’t go inside, but it was cool to be able to see where one of my characters lived and worked, albeit four months after the book was published.

The famous sundial inside All Souls. I'm pretty sure it was designed by Christopher Wren.

The famous sundial inside All Souls. I’m pretty sure it was designed by Christopher Wren.

By my second full day in Oxford, it was time to get serious to make sure I saw the two sites no fan can miss: All Souls College and New College, homes of Matthew and Diana, respectively. All Souls is only open from 2-4 p.m. on certain days of the week, so I lucked out having free time while it was open. As soon as I walked in, I knew this was Matthew’s abode. Consciously or unconsciously, Deb did a fantastic job matching the energy of the colleges with the characters. There are only a few parts open to the public, but what you can see is more than enough to leave a lasting impression. All Souls is very majestic and imposing, so it doesn’t take the imagination of a writer to picture a vampire stalking its halls and quadrangles. The chapel is surprisingly light-feeling, especially for all the gothic finery on the inside, and is to me a reflection of the human Matthew, while the rest fits his vampire self. I did not get to see the famed library, but studying there, a privilege not granted to many,  is now on my bucket list.

The Bridge of Sighs aka Hertford Bridge

The Bridge of Sighs aka Hertford Bridge

Walking from All Souls to New College, I got giddy realizing I was taking the exact route Matthew would have walked when stalking Diana. To get there, you pass underneath the bridge connecting two parts of Hertford College (known as the Bridge of Sighs, but it looks nothing like the one in Venice – trust me, I’ve seen it) and walk down New College Lane. The bridge is pretty, and I’m sure appreciated by Hertford students, especially in bad weather, but it’s pretty much just a photo op.

Me inside the cloisters of New College. You can see behind me that parts of it are undergoing repair

Me inside the cloisters of New College. You can see behind me that parts of it are undergoing repair

I fell in love with New College. Not only is it much more accessible to the public, it’s energy is much lighter – it feels like Diana. I’m not kidding. There’s a bit of an air of mystery to the place, but a playfulness as well. The chapel feels surprisingly heavy; it’s not a place I’d want to spend a lot of time, but the rest of the grounds are great. You can see the cloister (which is in the book), the gardens (also in the book) and the outsides of several buildings. I kept looking at the

The mound in the stunning New College Gardens really got my imagination going!

The mound in the stunning New College Gardens really got my imagination going!

windows, wondering which room was Diana’s. There’s a bit of a mystery in the garden: a mound which is forbidden to the public. Of course, that got my writer’s mind going. The porter told me there is no story behind it – it’s purely ornamental – but feels more like an ancient temple to me. I may write a book with that idea someday.

Exterior of the Bodleian Library

Exterior of the Bodleian Library

On Sunday, there was the pinnacle of any writer’s trip to Oxford: the Bodleian Library. Hard to believe that two weeks ago today I was drinking in the magic of that grand place. I purposefully took the extended, extended tour so that I could see the reading rooms that aren’t on the other tours. We started in the Divinity School, which was used as the infirmary in the Harry Potter movies. I

This is right about where I saw the ghost in the Congregation Room

This is right about where I saw the ghost in the Congregation Room

have a thing for windows, so I was in love with that room. We moved on to the Congregation Room, which is supposedly the model for the House of Commons. I saw a ghost in there (swear to God – it wasn’t very clear but he was a young man, just hanging out on the other set of benches where no one from our tour was. That would be at least my third ghost on a trip to England; the other two were back in 1999).

Duke Humfrey's Library, via Wikimedia commons

Duke Humfrey’s Library, via Wikimedia commons

My favorite part was next. Duke Humphrey’s is second only to Trinity College’s Long Room in Dublin as my idea of heaven. Too bad you can’t take pictures. We started in the Arts End and saw way the books used to be chained up and shelved with their spines in. Then we moved through the part with the circulation desk and reading bays into The

My souvenir from the Selden End, taken with permission of our guide.

My souvenir from the Selden End, taken with permission of our guide.

Selden End. I thought I was going to faint. This area usually isn’t open to the public, but it was on this tour and we spent a good long while there, long enough that I could wander around and look up and the second floor, trying to picture exactly where Diana was when she used magic to call the book and which chair Matthew was sitting in. It is my goal to research there someday. I did convince the tour guide to let me take a blank call slip as a souvenir.

Me again, in front of the Radcliffe Camera

Me again, in front of the Radcliffe Camera

Then we moved on to the Radcliffe Camera, which is cool, but somehow I expected more. It’s a round study area with computers and bookshelves. But believe me, if I went to school there, I wouldn’t turn down the chance to study in it. (Sidebar: one of my friends was staying longer in Oxford so she got a reader’s card and was actually able to research in the Bodleian. I’m dying of jealousy! Another thing to add to the bucket list!)

Blackwell's Exterior

Blackwell’s Exterior

After the tour was over (I never wanted it to end!), I went across the street to Blackwell’s bookstore to see where Diana had her whispered conversation with the daemon Agatha. If you go, don’t confuse this location with the cafe by the same

The second floor cafe at Blackwell's where Diana met with Agatha

The second floor cafe at Blackwell’s where Diana met with Agatha

name in the Weston Library. Both are across the street from the Bodleian, so it’s easy to mix them up. I did.

Rowing bragging rights at New College. Diana would be proud!

Rowing bragging rights at New College. Diana would be proud!

I was hoping to make it down to the river to see the boathouses, the bridge where Matthew watches Diana row, and the Isis Tavern (really called the Isis Farmhouse), especially since I took up rowing because of this book, but my legs just wouldn’t carry me. But I need something to do next time I go back, right?

And for those wondering – the conference was good, though I prefer the way the US conference organizes things, and I had a great time reuniting with my friends.

The Divinity School at the Bodleian Library

The Divinity School at the Bodleian Library

I’m hoping to get all my pictures up on Flickr soon, but given my crazy schedule of conferences and speaking engagements, it may well be a month or more before I’m able to. I also still need to post research photos of Chicago from two years ago when I wrote Been Searching for You, so I’ll let you know when that is done. I hope you enjoyed touring Oxford with me!

A Few Quick Updates

A few quick updates for all of you this morning:

  1. My Historical Novel Society article about the roles available to women in Tudor England is up: City of Ladies by Sarah Kennedy Prompts Look at Women’s Roles in Tudor England. The story behind this article is that I was asked to read Sarah Kennedy’s City of Ladies (which I loved; waiting for Historical Honey to post my review and then will link to it) and then I was to write an article based on a theme in the book.
  2. I’ll be attending the Historical Novel Society conference in Denver June 26-28, 2015. Be sure to say hi if you’re there.
  3. I’m 15,000 words into the new book.

That’s all for now. Real blog post tomorrow.

Book Review: The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau (plus comments on The Chalice)

I’m proud to announce that I am now an ebook reviewer for the Historical Novel Society!  Since my other reviews on this site are longer and more impassioned (say it ain’t so!), I wrote this one within the HNS guidelines as a kind of “audition” for the role. Following that review are a few comments on the second book in the series.

The CrownThe Crown is not your average Tudor tale. Sure, all the usual players are there: King Henry VIII, Princess Mary, Thomas Cromwell, even Queen Katherine, but they are on the periphery. This is the story of Joanna Stafford, a noblewoman turned novice at the Dominican priory of Dartford around the time of the dissolution of the monasteries.

Nancy Bilyeau does a masterful job of illustrating a side of Tudor life you don’t often hear much about. What was it like to be Catholic during a time when Henry was growing increasingly antagonistic of the Church? What happened to those whose religious vocations were invalidated thanks to the king’s vendetta? Add in a murder and the search for a precious relic that may or may not save the day, and you’ve got the makings of a great read.

The strongest point of the book for me was the portrayal of daily life, secular, royal and religious. Bilyeau obviously did her research and it shows in the details that make the world come to life. Joanna is an engaging, sympathetic heroine, and those around her, Brothers Edmond and Richard, the Sisters and Geoffrey Scoville are unique, if flawed, characters.The who-done-it of the murder was also well done, and is concluded in a way I never would have guessed.

But it’s not a perfect book. Sometimes Joanna’s reactions seem forced, like we didn’t get enough insight into the way her mind works to understand why she reacted as strongly as she did. I liked the relic idea, but the search for it wasn’t fast paced or life-or-death enough for me to hold my breath about it. (There are some great examples of how to write atmosphere around this plot point, though.)

All in all, this book is highly recommended for fans of Tudor fiction. 4/5 stars.

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The ChaliceSince the time I originally wrote this review, I’ve also read the sequel, The Chalice. I liked it slightly more than The Crown, mainly due to the whirlwind of action in the last 1/4 of the book.  Most of the same comments apply, although we do finally get explanation for Joanna’s reactions, which was missing from the first book. They really helped me understand and sympathize with Joanna.

Joanna’s relationships with Edmund and Geoffrey, as well as the use of prophecy (although historically accurate) seemed a little melodramatic to me, and contributed to my wariness during the first half of the book. But once that is dispensed with and we finally get to the action that Joanna must perform, the book picks up speed and is hard to put down. Bilyeau also includes a masterful plot twist explaining Henry VIII’s bizarre reaction to Anne of Cleaves. 4.5/5 stars.

Have you read The Crown or The Chalice? If so, did you like either one? If not, are you interested in them? Why or why not?