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Final Thoughts on the HNS Conference

By Linda Ulleseit
July 2, 2021

The Historical Novel Society Conference was a busy, thrilling week. The Paper Lantern Writers would like to share with you a few of the sessions we attended.

Rebecca D’Harlingue attended a fascinating session by authors Nicole Galland, Jennifer Steil, Aimee Liu, and Janet Benton titled, “Creating Characters Who Belong Where You Put Them.” The first question centered around the issue of creating strong and active female characters set in times in which there were many more restrictions for women. 

All agreed that it’s imperative for the female characters to have agency, and portraying her as an outsider in some way can enable her to circumvent some of the conventions of the time. Some of the authors also thought that women actually were much more active than the stereotypes would have us believe. There might also have been some areas in which women were freer to act, for example in the arts. In addition to all of this, Liu added that you can “throw a bomb” at your character, creating a dire situation in which she must act to avoid tragedy.

Each author also shared some ways in which she had researched her protagonist. Some had read memoirs, or books that the characters would have read. These can help with finding the correct voice. Some of the authors visited the location and living museums, or spoke to historical interpreters. Some used portraits of the time. For her book, Godiva, Nicole Galland even rode naked on a large white horse to experience how that might have felt.

The more specificity you can provide for your character, the more you can come to understand how she would have reacted to given situations. Her thoughts might arrive at some conclusion that might seem modern, but the route that her thoughts took to get there would have been different. 

Edie Cay attended a ton of wonderful panels last week at the Historical Novel Society North American conference. One presentation I really enjoyed was “Portrayal of Lesbian and Gay Characters Before Stonewall” by John Musgrove. He delved into the overview of the political and social milieu that people faced in the decades leading up to Stonewall in the United States. He also touched on some famous people, notably Oscar Wilde, as well as discussing the origin of the term “homosexual.” His slides featured gorgeous historical photos of same sex couples, and he included resources that he himself has used in his research.

 Last week also had a ton of opportunities for chats. I ended up in a chatroom for battles and fights which was lively and hilarious. So many people had written fight scenes or large-scale battle scenes which made for a fascinating discussion! Discussion ranged from favorite fight/battle scenes in movies and books to how there are similarities to writing fight/battle scenes with love scenes. 

C.V. Lee chose to attend a session called “Symbolism Shake Up.” Author Autumn Bardot discussed the deeper meanings that can be conveyed through architecture, blood, fire, water and topography. I enjoyed her discussion of how these elements can be used to convey very different meanings. For example, in one story, a character staring out the window might be symbolic of the world passing them by, while in another story, or for another character, staring out the window might symbolize a world of possibilities She provided us with great ideas of how to use these elements to amplify conflict, theme, emotion and character. I’m always interested in new ways to add power to the words on the page, adding another layer of intrigue and/or irony to the story.

Linda Ulleseit had houseguests all week and will follow up with taped sessions later. She says, “One event I did participate in was the Conversation Room on Indigenous People. After an initial introduction, we were broken into rooms based on the geography of the people we were writing about. I met someone who not only is an expert on the Dakota, featured in my WIP, but also lives near the site I’m writing about. A valuable connection, and that’s what conferences are about!”

Lynn Downey says, “It always pays to stay at a conference through the final day! On Sunday, June 27, I attended the session “Real Women, Real History, and Wrestling with Agency Amidst the Patriarchy of the Past.” The speakers were Carrie Hayes, Libbie Hawker, Tonya Mitchell, and Pamela K. Johnson, and I thought this was one of the best sessions of the conference. All of the authors wrote about women who were either unknown to them, or whose lives had untapped stories. It was fascinating to hear how each author found subjects that spoke to them personally. Tonya Mitchell reminded us to always challenge assumptions when it comes to women’s history, and to keep digging. And all the speakers said that learning about women of the past, and the struggles they overcame, can help empower us today.”

Kathryn Pritchett attended Conversation Groups that provided new friends and many additions to her TBR list. She says, “I loved learning about the Gilded Age from other novelists who are writing or have written about that time period. I also picked up some great resources for fashion of the era from the conversation on Historical Fashion. Other writers who have characters set in a religious framework shared useful tips and challenges in the Inspirational conversation, even though I don’t consider my book “inspirational.” And I had fun hearing how other writers use Tarot cards as writing prompts in the Cozy Chat with Kris Waldherr who is both a writer and a creator of Tarot decks.”

Pitching to an agent at a conference is always nerve-wracking but add in the vagaries of Zoom and it becomes even worse. That said, the conference planners did an excellent job of preparing pitchers for what was to come. Kathryn says, “The responses to my pitch ran the gamut of “Not my cup of tea” to “I’d love to see a big chunk” to “Send me the Full!” Feels like a story in the making—hopefully with a happy ending!”

The featured speaker at this year’s conference was Lisa See. Not only did she give a keynote address, but she also participated in multiple panels and hosted three book club discussions about her novels. Her generosity was remarkable. With each session, See provided new insights about her research and writing process. Kathryn says, “I’ve only read Snowflower and the Secret Fan, but now I can’t wait to read more of See’s work.”

Linda Ulleseit
Written by Linda Ulleseit

Linda Ulleseit writes award-winning heritage fiction set in the United States. She is a member of Historical Novel Society, Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and Women Writing the West as well as a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. Get in touch with her on Instagram (lulleseit) and Facebook (Linda Ulleseit or SHINE with Paper Lantern Writers).

View Linda’s PLW Profile

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