Writing novels is often a lonely occupation, but it can also be a route to meeting people from all over the world. After my debut historical novel, ‘Heart of Cruelty’, was published by Poolbeg in 2020, I joined the Historical Novel Society.
The first tangible benefit was a lovely review of my novel by Katherine Mezzacappa in the HNS magazine: https://bit.ly/3B86Bjq . The magazine, released quarterly in print, captures new historical fiction, both trad and indie published, organised by time period.
Even better was becoming a member of the Historical Novel Society Irish Chapter. When I first joined, under Covid lockdown, we met via Zoom, but in summer 2022 we had an in-person meeting in Dublin. I ‘found my tribe’: other writers who were passionate about the craft of researching and re-imagining the past.
There are about thirty writers in the Irish chapter, including Dianne Ascroft, Rose Cullen, June Considine (Laura Elliot), Eimear Daly, Laurence Ellsworth, Anne Frehill, Therese Hicks, Catherine Kullmann, Susan Lanigan, Pam Lecky, Sharon Maas, Audrey MacCready, Anne M. McLoughlin, Katherine Mezzacappa (Katie Hutton), Derville Murphy, Carmel O’Reilly, Patricia O’Reilly and Madeline Stringer. I haven’t yet got to know everyone, but some of these talented people are already personal friends. They’ve supported me and calmed my anxieties as I completed my second novel ‘The Piano Player’ https://bit.ly/MWallisTPP , made a small appearance at a literary festival, and attempted to navigate social media and book marketing.
In September 2022 I attended my first HNS conference in Durham, England. The HNS is an international society meeting alternate years in the UK and the USA, and it was particularly interesting to meet and hear from American writers. The sessions offered were a good balance between inspirational keynote addresses and workshops about aspects of craft, book promotion, or historical research. In the opening session Emma Darwin described the ‘bubble of hope’ that leads us to create a novel – so easily burst, but then we inflate it anew every time. Julie Cohen spoke inspiringly about her break-up with her publisher when after sixteen novels they disliked an ending. She found the courage to stick to her artistic vision, repay her advance and start afresh, while coming to terms with her own sexuality. We all cheered her eventual success with ‘Together’. Afterwards I asked her to sign a copy of her historical novel ‘Spirited’ for me and she wrote : KEEP THE FAITH. Andy Charman, author of ‘Crow Court’ spoke about 19th century Dorset dialect and names and also about his positive experiences of working with a book coach and publishing with Unbound, a crowdfunded publishing model. Graeme Macrae Burnet, skilfully interviewed by Katherine Mezzacappa for the final session of the conference, spoke about ‘His Bloody Project’, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, a novel constructed of unreliable witness statements relating to a 19th century murder, from which the reader must decipher the murderer’s motivation. Listening to him I had the sudden vision that my fourth novel would be in the voice of an unreliable narrator.
Often I dread going to conferences, whether in the writing world or in the medical sphere (I’m also a doctor). I hate it when I don’t know anyone and everyone else is in groups chatting. But the HNS is an incredibly friendly bunch of people. It helped that some of the Irish chapter members whom I already knew were there, but I also found it easy to strike up conversations with new people. Everyone was happy to chat about writing or about their period of interest or to hear about mine. I swapped bookmarks with lots of people and came away with a pile of amazing books. I even chatted to Graeme Macrae Burnet before I realised that he was a Booker nominee. He was completely down-to-earth and unpretentious. When I expressed my awe, he simply said: ‘I was just like you once, then I got lucky.’
I’d recommend the HNS to anyone with an interest in historical fiction. You don’t have to be published to become a member. https://historicalnovelsociety.org/about-us/
(c) Maybelle Wallis 2022
My latest historical novel, The Piano Player is out now.
In Dublin 1849, wealth contrasts savagely with squalid poverty, the bitter injustices of the Great Famine create a generation of the dispossessed, and hospitals are overwhelmed with pandemic disease. Deaths haunt every street, but some are not due to natural causes: patients who should have recovered are dying, and a violent gang murders in plain sight.
Jane, a theatrical pianist, has married Edmond Verity, a celebrated actor. When they perform in Dublin, her former lover, Dr William Doughty, knows he ought to keep his distance. When Edmond, a gambler struggling with his demons, becomes ill, he finds a physician whose first passion is his racing stable. As Jane’s fortunes reverse, she must find a way to survive.
Exploring a pivotal epoch in Irish history, this is an intricate novel of music and medicine, of trust and trickery, of destructive secrets and lost love: compelling, intriguing and poignant.