The Agonising

As far as I’m aware, there’s no collective noun for a gathering of historical novelists; but if there was, it would probably be ‘an agonising’.

This was demonstrated in spades last week, at the 2018 conference of the Historical Novel Society. What do historical novelists agonise about? Pretty much everything, really…but more of that anon. First, the venue. This was something of an oddity: recent UK conferences have been held in such obvious locations as London and Oxford, but this one was held in a vast, modern golf hotel on the outskirts of that renowned historical destination…umm, Cumbernauld. (And when I say vast, I mean vast. My room was literally the furthest one from reception; as a result, I’ve now qualified for the British 20K walking team at the 2020 Olympics.) I guess that for obvious reasons, venues in Edinburgh would have been far too expensive, not to mention booked up long ago, but it seems slightly odd that the society didn’t find anywhere in Glasgow, which has history galore…on the other hand, the hotel in question had the not inconsiderable claim to fame of having the Antonine Wall literally next door. Even so, the relatively few golfers who had the misfortune to be staying there at the same time must have wondered what on earth had hit them, as they and historical novelists are hardly a natural combination (although, perhaps, a perfect one as the basis for a murder mystery: ‘aha, Inspector Rebusmorse Clouseau, you mean zis writer of late Roman fiction has been killed by un golfer with ze handicap of less than eight?’).

So back to my original premise, namely that when a large crowd of historical novelists get together, they agonise. And these, in no particular order, are some of the things that they agonise about, one or more of which formed the basis of many conversations held in the bar, at the breakfast or dinner tables, and in the Q&A sessions.

  • WIPs. The few stray golfers were probably confused and alarmed by what they might have taken to be endless references to whips, and perhaps wondered whether they’d stumbled into a convention of sado-masochists. To a novelist, however, the WIP is the current Work In Progress, and hardly any conversation at the conference that I was involved in or overheard didn’t have, at some point, the obligatory outpouring of angst about the state of one’s WIP. (Too long! Too short! Too boring! Too many plotlines! Too few plotlines! Too many characters! Too few characters! Too much dialogue! Too little dialogue!…and so on ad infinitum)
  • Agents. The getting of same (by those without); grumbles about same (by those with).
  • Publishers. Ditto.
  • Self-publishing. Should I? Shouldn’t I?
  • Research. How much is too much? Conversely, is a vague recollection of a 1968 article in Look and Learn an adequate amount of research?
  • Authenticity and accuracy. Should I inflict on myself dysentery, plague, and stab wounds from a rusty sword, to get the full authentic ‘feel’ of the Middle Ages? (Note: the correct answer is ‘no’.)

And so on. However, historical novelists don’t just agonise; they also bitch. And oh boy, when they bitch, they bitch for England, Wales, Scotland, the USA, or whatever their country of origin might be. These bitching sessions become more and more bitter as the evening wears on, but they always tend to follow a similar pattern: ‘so-and-so might have sold shedloads of books, but s/he can’t construct a grammatically correct sentence to save his or her life’, or ‘I mean, just how inaccurate is his (or her) description of the Defenestration of Prague?’, or ‘my copy editor is an absolute ****’.

Anyway, from the tone of this blog thus far, you may be wondering why on earth I go to such events. The answer, of course, is a very simple one – what the Irish would call the craic. Writing is, by definition, a pretty solitary occupation, so the very rare opportunities to get together with one’s fellow practitioners are usually to be jumped at. The HNS conference always means meeting up with old chums one hasn’t seen since the last one, and is particularly special because a substantial American contingent always comes over for it (the conference takes place in the States in odd numbered years, although I haven’t yet managed to get across the pond for one of those). There’s also an opportunity to meet fellow authors one hasn’t encountered before, and I was particularly pleased to meet K M Ashman, a fellow countryman (and fellow rugby fan!) who’s followed terrific success via self-publishing by getting snapped up by ‘mainstream’ publishers. I can’t wait to get started on Kevin’s medieval Welsh history series!

You might be wondering by now what actually happened at the conference, apart from the agonising, and the bitching, and the socialising. Well, those were far and away the most important ingredients (and in that, of course, there are considerable similarities with academic conferences, which I’ve blogged about before). But there were also such delights as playing Bestselling Author Bingo (‘Alison Weir!’ ‘Ben Kane!’ ‘J D Davies!’ – OK, yes, I made that up), the Random Re-enactors, and, above all, the conference gala dinner – which, as this was in Scotland, culminated in a ceilidh. However, as most of the participants were non-Scots and, generally speaking, not people who need worry about being challenged over their age in an off-licence, the results were pretty calamitous. (Solution: adjourn to bar, resume bitching.) This time, though, and sadly, some time-honoured traditions of the HNS conference went by the wayside, for reasons unknown to your humble blogger – no more late night readings of sex scenes after the gala dinner (I kid you not), no historical costume parade, and, sadly, no Robin Ellis, aka the original Poldark, who was meant to be the star turn but who’d had to have an operation instead (he’s fine, which is excellent news).

Oh yes, I almost forgot, there were serious sessions with talks! From experience, I know that few things are more boring than reciting all the talks one’s attended at a conference, so I’ll just mention my personal favourite – which none of you will be surprised to hear was the one on the do’s and don’ts of nautical fiction. The panel consisted of three colleagues whom I’ve got to know well in recent years, especially as a result of the Weymouth Leviathan festival in 2016 (sadly a one-off, with plans to make it annual or biennial having fallen by the wayside): Linda Collison, all the way from Denver, Colorado, who’s had a varied career, including fitting in lots of sea time, and who writes nautical fiction with, unusually, a female central character; Alaric Bond, all the way from, umm, Sussex, who’s just brought out his thirteenth book in a very different kind of Napoleonic Wars naval series (rather than having one central character who rises to glory through the series, a la C S Forester, Patrick O’Brian and Julian Stockwin, he makes the entire crew his ‘hero’); and Antoine Vanner, who writes the excellent ‘Dawlish Chronicles’ series of Victorian naval fiction. Antoine is a great guy with a wealth of life experience, having lived or worked in getting on for two dozen countries, but there’s a part of me that would like to stick pins in a voodoo doll of him…in addition to bringing out full length books about once a year, he blogs on little known but fascinating aspects of naval history twice a week (and pretty much without fail), sends out a monthly newsletter to his fans, and writes additional short stories with the same central characters just for the people on his mailing list! As well as putting my own workrate to shame, he’s also a terrific public speaker, and as Linda and Alaric are no slouches in that regard either, the panel really fizzed, with lots of questions from a really engaged audience. I’d been primed to put my hand up if nobody else did, but in the end, I wasn’t needed. The questions, and indeed the talks themselves, focused on themes that have appeared many times in this blog, such as the level of technical nautical language to deploy, the pleasures and perils of research, and getting the balance right between action set at sea and on land.

So all in all, it was a terrific event, and well worth the long haul to Cumbernauld!

Anyway, if it’s Sunday, it must be Scotland – and if it’s next Friday, it must be France, for reasons I’ll blog about in due course.



  1. Grant says:

    I found myself oddly envious on reading this post. Maybe you will take some consolation that some of us would gladly swap our professional agonisings for yours. I would love to be flagellating myself on how much time I would need to spend in the Venetian archives before I could write an award winning (or self published and ignored, delete as applicable) series of novels on a renaissance Venetian policeman, rather than the economics of storage tank sizing for asphalt export. Mind you, having attended, largely by accident , a Steampunk convention (as a bemused if delighted observer, rather than participant) this weekend at Lincoln Castle I think I may be at a point in my life where I am susceptible to yearning for such things.


    • J D Davies says:

      Points taken! When it comes to venues, though, I think I’d definitely take Lincoln Castle over a golf hotel in Cumbernauld…


  2. David Pilgrim says:

    A flagellation of historical novelists ?


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