Sunday, June 03, 2012

The Historical Novel Society comes to Australia!

Today I am pleased to welcome James Vella-Bardon to my blog to talk about the new Historical Novel Society Sydney! As a big historical fiction fan, I am really excited that there is now a chapter of the society in Australia! I have often watched all the historical fiction fans I know get excited about going to the conferences in the UK and US and have even had conversations with fellow fans about the possibility of one day going to one of those overseas events! Maybe it is more realistic to aim for a Sydney event! I hope my fellow Australian historical fiction fans will be as excited as I am at this news.

I asked James a few questions about the goals of the Historical Novel Society Sydney chapter and what we can expect to see in the future.

Welcome James!

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The Historical Novel Society is an internationally recognised and respected advocate for all things historical fiction. What has prompted the creation of the Sydney Chapter now and are there plans for chapters in other cities or do you see this one as being an Australia wide chapter in reality.

In 2009 I was conceiving of my first historical novel after having moved to Sydney from Europe in early 2007. It was then that I stumbled across the Historical Novel Society (HNS) online, which is the way most Australians have discovered the HNS. Although I really enjoy HNS publications, like most readers I was dismayed to discover that although the society is very active in the US and the UK, it has no local presence. Therefore before we got started with HNS Sydney there was no one carrying the can for fans of the genre except for the New South Wales Writers Centre (NSWWC), which offers the odd day course on writing historical fiction.

I attended a few of these brilliant courses delivered by novelists of the ilk of Tom Gilling and Diane Armstrong, amongst others. Yet these classes make for little lasting interaction beyond the course, and they do not cater to fans of the genre. Therefore the idea of forming a local chapter had already started to form in my head back then, but I was uncertain how to proceed until I noticed a call for BETA readers on the NSWWC e-newsletter by historical novelist Nick Bleszynski. After putting my hand up to read his work in progress (WIP), I chatted to him about forming a chapter of the HNS in Australia and he seemed to think it was a very good idea. With the blessing and help of HNS founder Richard Lee in the UK, Nick and I got in touch with other Sydney based HNS members: Elisabeth Storrs and Rachelle Blackledge who are also founding members of our society. The four of us met one evening in February at ‘The Fortune of War’ in the Rocks (quite apt, since it’s Sydney’s oldest pub), and we got the ball rolling. I should add that I’m very fortunate to have these guys on board, since they’ve been very forthcoming with their time and ideas.

So I guess you could say that it was self-interest that prompted the start of this society but in truth it has been set up in the interest of all fans of historical fiction or ‘historical fictionistas’. Originally we did brand ourselves as ‘Historical Novel Society Australia’ (HNSA) but after talking to different Sydneysiders involved in the literary scene like Irina Dunn and people at the NSWWC, we decided to start building up the society in Sydney first, hence ‘HNSS’ i.e. the Historical Novel Society (Sydney).

Although it’s early days yet, it would be great if other HNS chapters appeared in Melbourne, Brisbane and other Australian capitals, which could eventually lead to the creation of a nationwide HNS. On our part we’re open to all Antipodeans (from both Australia and NZ), and will readily share the experience we have gained so far with ‘historical fictionistas’ who are willing to start up their own HNS Chapters outside Sydney.


James Vella-Bardon hard at work
What are the goals both short and long term for the chapter?

Our immediate goal is to grow our society, to create a platform for local ‘historical fictionistas’: a meeting place where readers and writers can exchange ideas, work and experiences. Off the top of my head, I know that in the past prominent novelists like Balzac and Lancelyn Green formed part of these societies in Paris and Oxford respectively, and we see no reason why there cannot exist a similar thriving community in Sydney.

Of course the ever growing virtual world presents us with some other more immediate avenues of communication, and we already have a presence via social media of Facebook and Twitter. We’ve also flown out of the blocks and created a blog: www.hnssydney.blogspot.com.au – and in the short term we hope that this becomes a bubbling stewpot of ideas. Members will be able to use it to conduct a ‘blog hop’ or attach ‘guest posts’ consisting of an excerpt from a WIP (work in progress) or an unpublished novel, and also book reviews or recommendations.

Other posts will include ‘historical interest’ posts on a period of history that a particular HNSS member might be researching to complete their novel. HNSS members can also signal their intent to be BETA readers via our blog, as this would be of indispensable help to published and unpublished authors out there.

Other short-term priorities include boosting the attendance of our monthly chapter meetings where members may gain the benefit of feedback on WIP, discuss research topics and our favourite novels. And be it the short or the long term, we would like to have guest speakers attend these meetings from time to time.

We are currently also seeking to ‘put ourselves out there’, that is to reach out to new members by not relying solely on the virtual world. To this end we are presently identifying other collaborators, be they novelists, libraries and bookshops, amongst others, who we shall seek to contact in the coming month. I would like to imagine that with the growing dominance of ebooks, that forging links with a niche community like ours would be of particular attraction to those bookshops out there who are scratching their heads as to how to maintain their relevance to local readers and writers.

Ultimately these collaborations should help the HNSS with its members drive, and also help us connect with the existing and potential passion for historical fiction to which Sydney is home.

In the long term, it would be great if our efforts eventually lead to an annual event on the Sydney calendar that celebrates the historical novel, since these conferences / festivals already draw scores of ‘historical fictionistas’ to the UK and the US each year from all over the world. It would be fantastic if Sydney could be the first city to host the first of these conferences in the southern hemisphere. We would also like to be a first port of call for those Sydneysiders who have a novel that is pouring out of them, and who have no idea where to begin with converting it into text.


What benefits do you think that the chapter will be able to offer its membership?

I’m not sure where to begin with this question but I’ll try! Speaking personally, I’ve already gained so much insight into historical fiction through my membership to the HNS alone. In practical terms it has helped me to identify those literary agents who I can market my work to. This has led to me to correspond with a prominent literary agent in the UK who requested my whole manuscript and even offered praise and insights on how to further improve it. As you can imagine, this left me bouncing off the walls in ecstasy, particularly since the manuscript was only two years old. It was certainly better than trying to show it to a monosyllabic mate who just told you that he thought your work was ‘good’. So the stark fact of the matter is that without the HNS publications I wouldn’t even have known where to begin, and the agent’s feedback has been a huge shot in the vein for my prospective writing career. Membership of the Sydney chapter will also help to give members similar insights as to how to improve their work since there are many published authors among our number with experience of the literary industry who are very forthcoming with their advice.


But I have also already gained much else from my HNSS membership, namely attending monthly chapter meetings where I have been able to have many eye-opening discussions about the genre with published authors of the calibre of Lisa Storrs and I have also been able to trade views with someone in the same boat as myself like Rachelle Blackledge. It sounds simple enough, but until the HNSS was created, I did not know of a place in Sydney where stimulating discussion about e-publishing, research, new novels etc. could be had. Furthermore, the fact that our society is still in its early stages means that exposure to some incredible Australian talent is easily available. Nothing feels better than meeting fellow writers and discussing the trials and tribulations of writing a novel, it’s a bit like watching the ‘special features’ bit on the DVD of a movie you love, and readers will also find this process fascinating.

The sky is the limit for us in the virtual world, but nothing can replace real interaction by readers and writers and having debates – I think it’s ok to stay at home and bury yourself in a cave and write the perfect novel – but meeting others and talking about your work saves you heaps of time since you get to confront a target audience quicker and it separates the wheat from the chaff in your mind. In this respect, our society will is invaluable. It’s one thing to show your manuscript to your mom who tells you it’s great so as to prevent you having another creative meltdown, but it’s another meeting other writers who will give you their honest take in the spirit of constructive criticism. I know from previous experience that there is nothing better than receiving a compliment from a hard-nosed career author. So that I think the greatest value our society can offer is to be the catalyst for a more effective writing process. Which is not to mention the potential advantages that exist in posting excerpts of your work to our blog, because you never know who might be looking at it!

But in saying that, we must again emphasise great importance of readers of the genre to the HNSS. I don’t think there are many greater unadulterated joys than debating the merits of one’s favourite novels with other fictionistas, and BETA readers and novel reviewers are always welcome. Being part of the ‘great unpublished’ myself, I know first-hand how putting your hand up as a BETA reader can also help aspiring authors, since it can serve to hone your skills and sharpen your understanding of drafting fiction so that you are not only assisting the reader of the work you are writing but also growing your own learning curve.

Another advantage is the chance to be part of something bigger on the international stage. This might sound like pie in the sky, but I was recently entered a dialogue with Irish novelist Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan who forms part of the Irish HNS chapter, and obtained knowledge about a specific period of Irish history – Hugh is currently creating a fictional work set in 16th C. Ireland against the backdrop of the Desmond uprisings. In contacting him I am also aware of another novelist whose work I’d love to read. So in forming part of the HNS you’re putting yourself out there and you never know what surprises are waiting around the corner!


How do historical fiction authors and readers get involved in the HNS Sydney chapter and what kind of participation are you looking for?

Everyone is welcome to become a member and membership is free. The best way of going about this would be to express an interest in joining our society by sending a short email to: hnssydney@gmail.com

Readers and writers are also more than welcome to subscribe to our blog by email - there's a link in its side bar on the left which will allow you to do this. In this way you'll be notified of new blogposts.

Ultimately we are looking for people to just be themselves to share their likes and creations with us. This is not a chore or a job, and the day it becomes one is the day we should pack it in. We’re looking for readers to tell us what they love to read, and writers to share their work and experiences with us – we are ultimately looking to create a forum that is a meeting of minds.

It’s all too easy to overlook the great diversity of backgrounds that we have in Sydney, and the passion for literature that exists out there. I’ve met kids who have attempted movies on Elizabethan England, and guys in offices writing novels about family dynasties in 1930s USA or about the early Celtic civilisation. We want to centralise all of this, create a ‘talking shop’ if you will, but one which will be of great service to many people.

The truth is that we’re a fledgling organisation, so anyone who wants to put their hand up is more than welcome. Even simple things like helping out with contacting collaborators and doing a bit of work on our virtual presence would be of great help. That being said, we don’t want to scare people away by making them think that they’ll be forced to do anything once joining the group – after all we’re flexible and informal, since this is a voluntary society.

At the end of the day it’s meant to be fun. Enjoying oneself whilst discussing, sharing and being transported to exotic worlds where you learn heaps. After all, that’s what historical fiction is all about isn’t it? It’s such a powerful tool to learn whilst enjoying oneself and one that is still so rarely employed by our educators - even though the likes of Desiderius Erasmus have been suggesting that teaching be made enjoyable since the 1500s!


I have often been jealous as I watched my fellow hist fic fans heading off to the annual conferences in the US and UK. Is a HNS Australia conference something that you are working towards?

Tell me about it! So many times have I met Aussies and Kiwis who tell me ‘oh, why do the Brits and the Yanks have all the fun?’ And I completely agree. I repeat, I’m off the boat in Sydney, and moved in here in 2007 – I was amazed to find that there’s no annual historical fiction event on the calendar. But the beauty of it is that the process leading to a conference being established is in our own hands, and we’ve got to work towards it, just like the Yanks and the Brits did. But before proceeding to conference / festival stage, we need to identify and reach out to all those Sydneysiders (and other Aussies / Kiwis) who are passionate about the genre.

After all many people have assured me that the passion for historical fiction is alive and well in Sydney, and my experience so far leaves me in little doubt of this. So although it may at the moment be a little bit further on down the line, we just need to get cracking with a local society and I’m sure many other doors will eventually open, leading to the organisation of the first Australian HNS Conference. And when that day comes, I’ll hope to see you there!

28 comments:

  1. Thanks for publicizing that, Marg - very interesting.

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    1. Glad you found it interesting Bibliolathas

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  2. So glad a chapter has started out here. Now to get the word out. Great.

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    1. I was very excited when I first heard!

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  3. It's great to see a chapter in Australia finally! If you ever hold a conference, I'll strongly consider coming over for it.

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    1. Sarah it would be fantastic if (a) there was a conference and (b) you were able to come!

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  4. Congratulations on getting your own chapter! Have fun getting it up and running.

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    1. It's a very exciting development.

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  5. Will this chapter be open to Historical Romance writers as well? I'm asking because the Historical range covered in the Romance writer community is large (Roman times up to WW11)and their knowledge base is massive. Also the backing of the RWAustralia would greatly benefit this fledgling chapter.

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    1. Hi Cassandra, I see no reason why any writers of historical fiction (be it romance novels, children's books etc.) should be excluded. Thanks, James VB

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    2. Cassandra, as a fan of both historical fiction and historical romance I am glad to see that there will be no exclusion

      Thanks James for answering this question.

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  7. Congratulations on this initiative. As someone whose work was reviewed (reasonably) kindly in 2010 at :-

    http://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/the-hadrian-enigma-a-forbidden-history/

    I am interested to hear of HNS(Sydney).

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    1. I hope you find the new chapter useful George.

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  8. Wow, looks great! Going to look at the blog now. Definitely interested as a reader.

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    1. Sam, I have joined as a blogger and reader. I am so glad that it isn't just restricted to authors!

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  9. As a Sydney-based author of numerous historical novels for children and YA (both Oz history and also set in medieval England) I'm delighted to hear about this. My next steps are to join, and to publicise this among my numerous historical fiction-writing friends and acquaintances.

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    1. Hi Felicity, so glad that you found the post and that you will be sharing the information with others.

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    2. That's great Felicity! Thanks so much for your support and so glad to have you on board

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  10. How great! I'm off to poke around the site!

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    1. It's fantastic news isn't it Shelleyrae

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  11. I love historical fiction - its my favourite genre to read and quite a few of my own books are historically based, as well. So I'm very excited to hear about HNSS ! I was dying to get to the UK for the next HNS conference but couldn't manage to pull it off. It'll be great to have something local :)
    And Sarah, it'd be so wonderful for you to coem and visit us - please do!

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    1. I would still love to get to a US or UK conference but that isn't going to happen yet!

      Thanks for stopping by Kate!

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    2. I really would like to! I should start saving up now just in case!

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  12. Marg this is so interesting! I recently joined HNS as a reviewer:) And after reading this...maybe it's also time for Canada..hmmm
    Thanks for posting this!

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    1. Yes definitely the more the merrier - one of the distinct advantages of the HNS is that it's got so many members around the world. It's great to be able to trade ideas and help one another out with research!

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  13. Thanks for the very informative rundown from James. I found you from a link on Facebook.
    I'm in Tassie, but will follow up the HNSS.
    Margaret Muir

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    1. Hey Margaret - why don't you become a member of our page on Facebook? Just search 'Historical Novel Society - Sydney' - also get in touch with us by email through hnssydney@gmail.com

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