HNSNA 2021 – What a Conference!

Almost two years ago, I had the honour of joining the Board for the HNS North America 2021 conference. It’s a totally volunteer board charged with the responsibility of putting on a conference for historical fiction enthusiasts – primarily writers – every other year. HNS conferences alternate between those located in the UK, North America, and Australia and I’d attended four (London, Denver, Portland, and Maryland) and been a volunteer and/or presenter at three prior to joining this board.

With a stellar cast of experienced volunteers and former board members, we set about planning for 2021. One of our first board meetings involved a “big picture” discussion where each of us tabled ideas for something new and different along with broad objectives for the North American conference like enlarging our attendance to 500 people. We even tabled the idea of looking for a conference app to enhance the attendee experience! Little did we know what was lurking around the corner.

During the winter months of 2020, something called a coronavirus hit. In late May, the UK cancelled its 2020 conference due to pandemic lockdown conditions. “But the North American conference will be fine,” we told ourselves. “It’s more than a year away!” Just to be cautious, a subset of the board, including yours truly, began to investigate the topic of virtual conferences.

In November 2020 the board made the very difficult decision to shift the conference to virtual. For a few weeks, it felt like we were turning a massive cargo ship in the Suez canal as each member of the board revamped their areas of responsibility. What would the program look like if virtual? How would registration be affected? Would agents and editors be willing to take pitches via Zoom? What were the financial implications? Was the hotel willing to negotiate? How could we market a virtual conference? What about our guest of honour? Could we put the right technology in place quickly enough?

Under the leadership of board chair, Jenny Quinlan, we worked hard and applied a lot of creativity during the next few months. The ship turned. We opened registration in February and were delighted – absolutely delighted – as we watched attendance numbers surge. By June 21, 630 people had registered to attend.

All of the board except me gathered in San Antonio to manage the conference. They were joined by two authors who live in Texas and had volunteered to be on site. Because of Canadian cross-border restrictions, I remained at my laptop in Toronto running conversation rooms, moderating panels, keeping an eye on chat streams, and responding to registration-related matters.

It was an amazing week! Attendees praised the experience, the program, the conversation rooms. They loved ‘hanging out’ with their tribe of historical fiction enthusiasts.

As I said at the beginning, it was an honour to be on the board and to work with this terrific team. And guess what? Planning for 2023 has already begun!


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

Spotlight on Sarah Woodbury

Another author featured during the HNS North America conference was Sarah Woodbury, whose success as an indie author is amazing. Sarah spent five years seeking a publisher for her first novel and during that time of continuing to write further novels in what has now become a series. She ultimately decided to ‘go indie’ and hasn’t looked back.

During her talk, Sarah spoke of traditional publishing and the layers inserted between author and reader: specifically, the agent, the editor, the editorial board and marketing department, the publicists and production people, the bookstores, and finally the bookshelves. Sarah believes that going indie allows an author to remove all of those layers and connect directly with readers.

Sarah also laid out her view of the key differences between traditional and independent publishing.

When Sarah ultimately made the decision to become her own publisher, she gave away her first book – The Last Pendragon – for free. In fact, she gave away 10,000 copies in three months. But she had five other books ready and soon published them so that her readers could continue with the series and the characters they’d enjoyed. Her strategy has paid off. She publishes across all retailers, not just Amazon, and has established a YouTube channel focused on medieval Wales where her novels are set. She now has 40 published novels and several series. Over the last five years, she’s sold 2.5 million books and now earns a six-figure income from her writing. And she writes 1000 words a day.

Sarah believes that getting rejected was the best thing that happened to her and left the audience with her view of the keys to success in the indie world.

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to be doing a lot of thinking over the next few months.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

The State of Historical Fiction #HNS2019

Elizabeth Mahon author of Scandalous Women moderated a lively discussion with this year’s agents and editors panel on the state of historical fiction in the marketplace. The conference was wonderful!! I wrote furiously to capture their insights and advice.

Photo courtesy of Janna G. Noelle historical fiction author

On the topic of whether this is a golden age for historical fiction (see this NYTimes article for reference), one panel member reflected on readers’ desires to look back at earlier times to gain an understanding of today’s cultural and political difficulties. Others spoke of growing interest in hearing from voices across the spectrum, seeking to appreciate experiences of previously marginalized groups, and of a desire to read about extraordinary women in extraordinary times, particularly in light of the #metoo movement.

Diversity in historical fiction was another topic. Agents and editors spoke of their desire to discover stories reflecting the trauma, accomplishments, and joys of different groups and countries. With publishing still being “monolithically white”, there is a feeling that the industry—agents, publishers, retailers, and readers—needs to be more proactive about finding these stories and fighting the view that such stories serve niche markets.

On manuscript wish lists, #MSWL, the advice for authors is that it’s hard to pivot based on today’s wish lists because it takes so long to complete a novel. While authors should be aware of market interests and successes, authors should still be guided by their passions. One editor commented that she “doesn’t know what she wants” until she sees it. Another said that themes are important and often transcend specific wish lists.

On the topic of book club fiction, panel members said that personal transformation is an important ingredient and that sisterhood—both narrow and broad definitions of sisterhood—is a topic of interest. Book club selections need to be thought provoking and capable of generating discussion and of attracting as wide an audience as possible.

What are the biggest mistakes new historical fiction authors make?

  • Providing an info-dump of all the wonderful historical research at the beginning of a novel.
  • Building characters with modern sensibilities, instead of the sensibilities of their time, immediately signals a problem.

Elizabeth asked each panel member to provide a recent novel that stood out. My TBR pile will soon reach the ceiling if I add all these to it!

  • Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  • The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
  • The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati
  • Lady Sherlock books by Sherry Thomas
  • Summer Country by Lauren Willig
  • Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly
  • A Memory of Violets by Hazel Gaynor
  • The Alienist by Caleb Carr
  • A Fire Sparkling by Julianne MacLean
  • Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  • Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Elizabeth Mahon opened the session up to questions:

How has the changed bookstore landscape affected business? Discoverability has changed as a result. Social media plays a much more prominent role and publishers are targeting influencers on various platforms. The new landscape expands the “democracy of readership” and changes the word-of-mouth dynamic.

When will the interest in WWII end? The opinion of one panel member was that it will never end, especially the unique stories, fresh perspectives, and unique characters of WWII. For example, stories of the Pacific front have not been well explored. The panel reassured authors that they continue to look at other periods as well.

What periods are a hard sell? One panel member said that ancient history is difficult to sell, another added that stories beyond 500 years ago are difficult. A third said that the Tudor period is saturated. And a fourth said that in the early 2000s, there was an interest in biographical fiction, but that today the interest is more about extraordinary people in extraordinary times.

What about male protagonists? Panel members reflected that readership of historical fiction skews female and that women’s stories are more revelatory given today’s world (by which I think she was referring to issues dominating the media like #metoo, abortion and others). Editors are always open to great stories with male characters.

I hope these highlights are useful!


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website