The Historical Novel Society’s Irish Chapter celebrates its second anniversary this month. Is this another Irish writers’ organisation? No, it’s a literary society.
Does that sound rather highbrow? It’s not really. A literary society is a group of people who, not surprisingly, are interested in literature, often a particular genre or writer.
Founded in 1997, the HNS (www.historicalnovelsociety.org) is devoted to promoting the enjoyment of historical fiction.
I asked Richard Lee, the HNS founder, to tell me about the society: “The HNS is a group of historical fiction enthusiasts, and our two aims are to promote historical fiction, and to please our membership (usually compatible, but not always!) When we started out historical fiction was perceived to be at a low ebb, and we had something of a campaigning outlook. We wanted the genre to be covered more favourably in the press, and to be treated with more confidence by publishers and booksellers.
One tool to achieve this was to publish the Historical Novels Review – to show just how many, various and accomplished historical novels there are. Eventually we have developed as our membership has wished. We have become international: we always had American members, but they now outnumber UK members 2 to 1. We have come to run large conferences (London 2012, Florida 2013). A web presence has become important – with the attendant social media. We are also now dipping a toe in the waters of electronic publishing – with an anthology of short stories this spring, and the first winner of the HNS International Award in the autumn.”
The first time I met other HNS members was at the Manchester conference in 2010. I thoroughly enjoyed the conference so when Richard emailed us afterwards to say that many delegates had expressed an interest in forming local groups I was delighted.
I asked Richard to tell me about the founding of local chapters. He explained: “Local chapters came about as a direct result of our conferences. For example, some members who had met at our San Diego conference in 2011 didn’t want to wait 2 years till the next US conference. They formed the Nor Cal group informally at first – but with our revamped website we could offer some promotion from the ‘mothership’ (as they call us) and that’s our biggest chapter so far (73 are signed up to the FB page). The London Chapter grew out of a reading group run by one of our members, and has a strongly reader-bias (rather than writer-bias). Chapters are what people want them to be. Members of chapters do not need to be members of the society. It’s just about like-minded people meeting up and talking about the genre they love.”
Armed with the knowledge that HNS members in other places were doing the same as me, I contacted the HNS members on this island to ask whether they were interested in forming an Irish chapter. Now this wasn’t a huge undertaking: there were only nine of us. Five of us met at the Europa Hotel in Belfast in February 2011 to discuss the idea.
At this meeting we decided that such a small group does not need a formal structure, a committee or membership fees. Even our agendas are informal. Between meetings we communicate by email and a summary of important points that arise at our meetings is sent to members. We meet quarterly and, since we are spread out from Galway, to Ballycastle, to Belfast and Dublin and inland to the midlands, we alternate our meetings between Belfast and Dublin so that they are accessible for as many as possible. Members often travel long distances to attend meetings so we try to keep costs down; we hold meetings in a hotel lounge rather than renting a conference room.
Finding a quiet corner in a lounge on a Saturday afternoon in Belfast has been a challenge though. We’ve done battle with a lounge pianist, a folk band and television sports broadcasts. But we’re not beat yet and hope that our new venue, Jury’s Inn, will prove better suited to our needs. From the outset our Dublin venue, the Gresham Hotel, seemed to have been made for us: we meet in comfortable, quiet surroundings in the aptly named Writer’s Lounge.
At our first meeting we tossed around ideas for the format of future meetings:
– hire speakers to present topics of interest
– visit places of interest to HF writers and readers
– discuss relevant topics among ourselves
Because we are dotted around nearly every corner of the island many of us don’t often have the opportunity to meet others who share our passion for HF. So we decided that what we really wanted, and could afford, was to socialise and share ideas and information.
We have a core of five or six members who regularly attend meetings and we have had to hunt for more chairs at recent meetings after an influx of new members. Our total membership now numbers seventeen. We try not to neglect readers but we do have a writer-bias so our experiences in the Irish publishing and marketing world and writing tips and advice often dominate the conversation. Members also update us about the progress of their current WIPs. Experienced writers encourage new writers and offer useful pointers. Our members have diverse backgrounds, including journalists, non-fiction writers, teachers, IT professionals, booksellers and retired librarians, so we bring a wide range of skills and knowledge to the group. I enjoy meeting Irish writers and discovering their writing, and I always leave meetings with new titles to add to my to-be-read pile. And through HNS I’ve also found a critique partner who understands the genre.
Our chapter is still very small and young but we’re enthusiastic. As our membership grows the group will likely evolve and change. But that’s okay as our format is fluid enough to adapt to meet our needs.
If you share our love of historical fiction you are welcome to join us. Our next meeting is in Jury’s Hotel, Belfast, on 23rd February, 2.30pm. Or email me at: dianne_ascroft AT yahoo.co.uk for more information.