Historical Novels Review Online: Q&A with Editor Andrea Connell

reviewToday as my guest, help me welcome Andrea Connell, Editor of Historical Novels Review Online. In this interview, Andrea reveals what she looks for when acquiring indie historicals for review.

U.S. residents may enter to win a copy of Destiny Kinal’s Burning Silk, which HNRO reviewed at http://www.historicalnovelsociety.org/hnr-online-feb-2011.htm.  Comment to this post and subscribe through FeedBurner before August 23 to be entered to win.

Andrea Connell is currently Managing Editor of Historical Novels Review Online (the sister publication to The Historical Novels Review print magazine) and works as a manuscript editor at the Marine Corps University Press in Quantico, VA. In any remaining free time (which isn’t much), she reviews historical fiction for Historical Novels Review and writes a reader’s blog at http://thequeensquillreview.wordpress.com.

Q. How did you come to your position as Editor at HNRO?

A. I had been reviewing for the print magazine since 2003, and when this position opened up, I jumped at the opportunity. I had wanted for some time to become more involved and make a professional editorial contribution to the Historical Novel Society; I had seen nothing like it before. I also craved a challenge, and evaluating subsidy- and self-published fiction is nothing if not that!

Q. What two things are the easiest & hardest parts of your job?

A. The easiest (and my favorite) part of the job as reviews editor has been the discussions with authors whose books have been successfully reviewed—it’s fulfilling to see a book make its way through the process and witness the author receive the accolade she or he deserves. Vetting content has been the most challenging, but most rewarding, aspect. A book’s appeal is rather subjective, and being able to figure out where to draw the line between personal preferences (in terms of subject matter or design that I personally find appealing, for instance) and easier-to-identify objective elements (a plot that makes sense, showing instead of telling the story, etc.) when I judge the quality of a novel is a difficult task. My responsibilities right now revolve more around administrative tasks than the novels themselves, and I will miss that part of the position.

Q. Which books are sure to be selected for review?

A. HNRO has recently revised our review submission standards, to include professional layout and cover design. The self- and subsidy-publishing field has expanded dramatically in the past two years, and we receive many more submissions than before. We felt that in order to help readers choose books that are worth spending their valuable money on (especially during these tough financial times) and to give authors’ works proper credit, we needed to reassess our acceptance standards. So, excellent content (historical context, of course; tight plot; appropriate character integrity; and sophisticated writing, for example) and professionally edited copy and appealing design will all be taken into consideration. No book is sure to be selected, but the more professional a book in all these ways, the more likely it will be.


Q. Which books are less likely to be reviewed and why?

A. Books that are sloppily presented and whose content is substandard (too much telling, not enough showing; meandering plot; shallow characterization, etc.). I also think the author’s presentation of him or herself in the initial query is important; if the query is unprofessionally handled or illustrates a lack of writing skills, we do take that into consideration.

Q. Last year’s NY Times # 1 Bestseller was Historical Fiction and now it’s a movie.  Do you think the genre will continue to sell well over the next decade? If so, why?

A. Yes, I believe so. Historical fiction is a dynamic genre; not only is it composed of numerous subgenres (for example, historical mysteries, adventures, romances, and fantasies to name a few), but also offers an immense range of topics within the scope of “history.” Combine these two elements and authors have nearly unlimited opportunities for creativity, and readers, options to choose from. A problem we run into, though, is remaining fixated on trendy topics—beating a dead horse, as it were (Henry VIII and his wives, for example, or Jane Austen sequels). We need to allow authors to wander off the beaten path or we risk the reading public’s boredom with the genre. My guess is this is partially why self- and subsidy-publishing has taking off lately—authors now have the opportunity to expand their reach beyond the trends of the traditional publishing houses and write what they are passionate about. And HNRO is here to find and publicize the best of this alternative route to publishing.

Q. Who are your own favorite historical authors?

A. My introduction to the genre started with Sharon Kay Penman’s Welsh trilogy. She was and remains one of my favorite authors. I also enjoy the historical romances of Anya Seton and the historical fantasies of Juliet Marillier. Dracula in Love by Karen Essex was one of the most enthralling books I’ve read in a long time. I also can’t recommend Paullina Simon’s heart-wrenching WWII saga highly enough. (The Bronze Horseman, Tatiana and Alexander, and The Summer Garden).

Q. Which era is selling best among historicals today?

A. To be honest, I can’t answer that question. When it comes to self- and subsidy-published books, “bestseller” as a term really doesn’t apply. Many of the submissions we receive are set in periods that are not currently popular (for example, novels based on Greek mythology or set during the American Civil War) or whose subjects are off the beaten path (homosexual romances set in ancient Rome, for example).

Q. How would you define the difference between nonfiction history and historical fiction?

A. I came across a definition that, for me at least, sums up a major difference between the two:

“Nonfiction history focuses on an event . . . historical fiction focuses on the character(s) involved in those events. . . . Historical fiction is a close relative of history, but not simply a retelling of the lectures we learned to dread in high school. We write historical fiction, and read it, not to learn about history so much as to live it. It is the closest we can get to experiencing the past without having been there.”

In an undergraduate European history course, I was assigned novels set during the same time periods as the history text, to be read and examined together. The history was necessary to understand the intellectual context and the novels were enlightening for an authentic “experience” of the time. This was the best course I ever took and illustrates the value of historical fiction.

Q. In your experience, who is best suited to write historical fiction?

A. In my personal experience (and I am completely generalizing here), I feel that many academic historians-turned-writers tend to focus more on the historical details, neglecting the plot and characterization. Since this genre is, ultimately, fiction, and the audience looks forward to an enjoyable reading experience, I think a person who is a writer, first and foremost, and who is talented in and enjoys historical research is probably best suited to write historical fiction. I’m sure many people would disagree with me, though.

Q. What is the best advice you can give a writer who is keen on succeeding with historical fiction?

A. From a review editor’s point of view, regarding self-publishing, I would say write—and write WELL—what you’re passionate about (choose a time period, event, or figure that captures your imagination and make it appealing to your potential audience) because this enthusiasm will shine through in your work; hire a good developmental and copy editor; and take layout, style, and design issues seriously.

Q. Where can we read what your reviewers are writing?

A. The HNRO magazine is located at http://www.historicalnovelsociety.org/hnr-online.htm.

Thanks for spending time with my following, Andrea!

Tomorrow’s blogoversary guest is

freelance fiction editor and award-winning blogger Helen Ginger, discussing her unique coaching style of editing that makes novelists better writers.

Click that FeedBurner button now so you don’t miss Helen’s exclusive offer for tomorrow’s commenters.

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  1. Milan Kundera says that the role of history in fiction is to take the reader to those crossroads where we, as a culture, buried certain values “in that vast cemetery of forgetting,” and went on with others.
    Here, at the end of the Petroleum Age and in the decayed ruin of the Industrial Revolution, it serves us to bring our audiences to contemplate Arts and Crafts sensibilities, for instance, and the tremendous community organizing benefits of the Guilds.

    We are pleased at sitio tiempo press to have our first publication, Burning Silk, the first in the Textile Trilogy, recognized not only by Andrea Connell reviewing for HNR, but also the Independent Book Publishers Association as one of the top three First Novels of 2011.

    Thanks Andrea, for featuring it in this blog. I wrote down the books you recommended as well.

    Destiny Kinal


  2. “A problem we run into, though, is remaining fixated on trendy topics—beating a dead horse, as it were (Henry VIII and his wives, for example, or Jane Austen sequels). We need to allow authors to wander off the beaten path or we risk the reading public’s boredom with the genre. My guess is this is partially why self- and subsidy-publishing has taking off lately—authors now have the opportunity to expand their reach beyond the trends of the traditional publishing houses and write what they are passionate about…”

    Your guess would be entirely correct, Andrea – especially in my case. I gave the good old college try to interest traditional publishing in my first and second historical (about an unknown wagon train and the German colonies in Texas, respectively) … and got as far as agents reading all or part of the MS, and then regretfully telling me that the writing and story were fantastic, but that neither MS wouldn’t “sell” commercially.

    This amuses me to no end now, because the wagon train story has sold hugely over the last five years although I hardly market it at all. The German colonies novels have done pretty well in a niche market, and over time, they will continue to sell, too. The POD model works very well for writers who don’t want to write another book about the Tudors or a Jane Austen sequel!

  3. This is a fascinating discussion to me. l write in the Victorian period in England when money, love and who has either, neither or both were in high revolution. It is heartening to hear that historical fiction outside of the Regency period is seriously considered. This article is a good reminder that many readers read historical novels for excellent characterization. People are more or less products of their time and, worse yet, products of their choices. As a writer, I am constantly searching for the attitudes and psychology that would make a character make such a horrendous mistake.

  4. Great interview! I found it very interesting. I subscribe via FeedBurner.

  5. Andrea, thanks for an insightful interview. I was fortunate enough to have one of your reviewers write a review of my historical fiction, A War Of Her Own. Your new requirements are understandable and certainly make sense — it helps ensure the quality that your readers expect from your organization. Thank you for your time.

  6. Having just seen Stockett’s “The Help”, which she says was rejected 60 times, I can see how important historical fiction can be in re-creating a particular time period through the lives of characters. As a teen, reading everything that was interesting to me, I read all the Anya Seton books in the library. History might be boring, but fiction gives it life. I’m happy to hear that so many unexplored areas of history are being considered now. Thank you, Ms. Connell for the overview.

  7. Thanks so much for your wonderful interview with Andrea. Historical Fiction is my favorite genre to read and I anxiously await the next issue of Historical Novel Society reviews each quarter to see what is new in the world of historical fiction. Inbetween, I often (at least once a week) go to Historical Novels Review Online to keep up with the latest new books. Thanks for a great job, Andrea!

  8. As a reader, not a writer, I appreciate your approach. I like the historical books I read to be as accurate as possible in the historical detail and setting. At the same time, I want a book with well developed characters and a good story.

    Your comment about the class you took that had historical fiction paralleling the historical text is so true. High School American History was the only class that had us read fiction, and only one book of our choice. The book I read dealt with the Barbary Pirates, Napoleon, and the slave revolt in Haiti. All these topics had been mentioned, but not in depth. It was my first historical novel and an eye opening experience. With that book and many since, I have learned and understood more history than the textbooks taught. It is much easier to understand events if you can “experience” them.

    Thank you for an interesting post.

  9. A good article – thank you Andrea.
    I am a writer of historical fiction and historical adventure fantasy. Although my mainstream HF books are doing well, no one wanted my pirate-based adventure fantasy series because “pirates don’t sell”. I find that a very bewildering statement, as the feedback for my (self published) Sea Witch Voyages is enormously encouraging. I have so many people saying “Thank you for writing the book I’ve been wanting to read.”
    Publishing houses focus on trends, which is not good for us readers. (Yes Harry Potter was wonderful, but do we really want dozens of HP lookalikes? Vampires have now been staked into their coffins because of overkill (excuse the pun!) I’m just waiting for the sudden realisation that nautical adventure fantasy is a good read….. *laugh*.

    I am a firm believer in potential writers going down the self publish route – but these novels must be well written and professionally produced. Text printed left justified or double spaced, rambling prologues setting up a back story (instead of getting on with the story proper and subtly integrating the back story) does not make for a good read. The HNOR has tended to concentrate on the US SP market because that’s where Andrea lives – it costs a fair bit to post a book from the UK to the US in hope of getting it reviewed, and I mentioned this to the Historical Novel Society’s administrators. I felt there was an unfair balance between review opportunities for US & UK writers.
    I am not one to complain about something and then expect others to do the donkey work, however. So I am delighted to say I have recently been installed as Andrea’s UK counterpart, concentrating on receiving UK self published historical fiction submissions. I hope I can do as good a job as Andrea – and like her, I look forward to raising the standard of quality self published historical fiction.
    Bring on the good books!

  10. Absolutely interesting interview! I enjoyed her advice and will take it to heart. I too loved Dracula in Love! Thanks for the giveaway. I am a FeedBurner subscriber.

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