NATIONAL HARBOR — The Historical Novel Society North America (HNSNA) held its annual Historical Fiction Readers Festival, drawing aspiring authors and readers of historical fiction, at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center on June 22.
The Historical Novel Society is an international organization comprised of writers and readers of historical fiction, said Marketing Chair Rosanne Spears. There are up to 3,000 members, and a conference is held every other year in either North America or the U.K.
“We tend to have about, I would say, the last couple of years it’s been 400 to 435 regular attendees to the conference, and they are mostly authors,” Spears said. “Many of them are published; many of them are still aspiring writers.”
It is put on entirely by volunteers consisting of a seven-member board and 75 to 100 guest volunteers, Spears said, calling it a “monumental” volunteer effort.
The conference lasted two and a half days with the last day being open for readers of historical fiction that gave them a chance to meet their favorite novelists at the book signing which took place during the last couple hours of the festival.
Meghan Masterson and Tara Nieuwesteeg, both members of HNSNA, said they came to the festival looking to make connections with other members and historical fiction enthusiasts.
“I like it (historical fiction) because of the parallels between the past and now,” Masterson said. “The issues are relevant. Even though things have changed, people are still people.”
The conference began with eight different breakout sessions hosted by authors and historians on several historical topics.
There was a panel discussion on writing 20th-century non-European historical fiction hosted by authors Eliza Knight, Vanessa Riley and Denny Bryce. It centered on why the default in fiction has been Western European history and how writers could away from the norm.
They talked about the importance of dynamic storytelling, including characters, settings and cultures from places other than Western Europe.
Another session discussed songs and soldiers of the Civil War where Curt Locklear, performer and author of two Civil War novels, talked about what the people of that time ate, what they wore and how they lived. He also performed songs of the time period on the banjo and guitar for the fans to enjoy.
An interactive workshop hosted by Jillian Bagwell and Bruce Herbold taught the basic steps of Scottish country dancing.
Following the breakout sessions, everyone gathered for a discussion and Q&A with authors Jeff Shaara and Dolen Perkins-Valdez.
Shaara is a New York Times bestselling author and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania native whose novels center around wars such as the Civil War, World War II and the Korean War. His works include “Gods and Generals” and “To the Last Man.”
Perkins-Valdez, a member of the American University (Masters o f Fine Arts) MFA Program faculty, is the author of “Wench,” which chronicled the lives of four slave women who are their master’s mistresses, and “Balm.” Her work has been praised by O, The Oprah Magazine, NPR and USA Today.
Guests were served coffee and tea while host Bethanne Patrick, author, journalist and literary critic, spoke with Shaara and Perkins-Valdez about what defines historical fiction. They also discussed their research methods and writing process and their interpretations of the Civil War era in their work.
Both Shaara and Perkins-Valdez talked about the importance of research when formulating their novels.
“You can’t play games with history or fabricate who someone was,” Shaara said.
One of the challenges that come along with it, Perkins-Valdez said, is when there are not many primary first-hand accounts and diaries written by the subject of the story. However, “if you want to write stories about people without a record, there are ways around it,” she said as she described one experience of using medical records to get a better idea of how people lived.
Author and speaker Glen Craney came to the festival as a way to meet fellow authors in person. Having been interested in history since he was a child, it was only natural for him to have become an author of historical fiction himself. Being at the festival was a chance to “get together and catch up” with people who share his interests.
Meanwhile, Chris Campbell said she is hoping to become a writer of historical fiction shortly. She came to the festival from Buffalo, New York, and although a lawyer by trade, she enjoys historical fiction because it is a chance to give people an understanding of history.
“I think it’s a great way to teach a lesson,” said Campbell, whose goal is to share the early history of Buffalo with people. “If you try to give someone a book that’s very dry and boring, they’re not going to read it, but if you turn our history into a story you get lost in the story, and yet you’re learning history at the same time.”
Ann Shortell first came to the festival when she published her first novel. She said it was a great place to learn and market her book, meet authors and agents, and to get together with like-minded people.
“The depth of knowledge at this conference is staggering,” Shortell said. “So many people are historians, and that informs their work. The depth of knowledge and the openness, accessibility and the willingness to share make this a conference I will go to again no matter where it’s held.”