01 July 2013

Unusual Historicals at HNS 2013: Historical Fiction Off the Beaten Path

Last weekend I attended the Historical Novel Society Conference in St. Petersburg, FL. (omg, was it really over a week ago?) It was wonderful to meet Lisa Yarde in person — let me tell you, she is just as sweet and friendly as you would imagine. I also got a chance to hang out with fellow U.H.-ers Kim Rendfeld and Stephanie Dray, though unfortunately I didn't cross paths with J.S. Dunn. It really was a fantastic weekend — I met so many writers, readers, and bloggers, and the vast majority of them shared my interest in the kind of historical fiction we promote here at Unusual Historicals.

your intrepid panelists (l-r):
Julie, moi, Andrea, Audra
Along with author Julie K. Rose, blogger Audra Friend of Unabridged Chick, and reviewer Andrea Connell of Queen’s Quill Review, I participated in a panel called "Historical Fiction Off the Beaten Path". We took a look at some novels published within the last few years that veer away from current trends in ways such as:

  • less-explored locations or time periods
  • unusual protagonists or points of view
  • no famous historical figures as characters
  • LGBT or POC (person of color) protagonists
  • stories that mix genres or sub-genres

To get the conversation going, Julie did an analysis of all books reviewed for the HNS in the first quarter of 2013, which includes large press, small press, and self-published titles. Out of over 200 books reviewed:

  • 69% took place in the 19th & 20th centuries
  • 63% were set in England or the United States
  • Only 16% were set outside Europe & North America
  • Fewer than 10% featured POC protagonists
  • Only two books featured LGBT protagonists

Though this might seem like an overwhelming tilt, there are areas of variety, and the balance is slowly growing. In that same sample:

  • 25% of self-published titles were set before the 5th century (more than any other publishing method)
  • 29% of small presses titles were set between the 5th-17th centuries (more than any other method)
  • The Big 6 focused on the 18th-20th centuries (73%) but took chances on several unusual titles

We had a great discussion with our audience about what makes a novel unusual, and what readers would like to see more of in historical fiction. There's a strong desire for less-visited locations and lesser-heard points of view, and audience members were eager to share recommendations and learn where to find more. (Goodreads was the #1 recommended resource, along with blogs like U.H.) Especially requested were stories featuring POC and LGBT protagonists, particularly when the character's sexuality or race is not a source of conflict, and the everyday lives of other non-famous people whose story is often overlooked.

I'm not ashamed to say it was extremely satisfying to reinforce my belief that every story has an audience. There might only be room on the promo shelf for the most popular topics, but readers are hungry for variety; they just need a little help finding it. Even the most well-explored settings can be viewed from new angles. That's the great thing about historical fiction — there's room for everyone here.