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Four Speakers Look at Writing, History and Dragons

Paul Davis  | Published on 12/6/2017

Author Parris Afton Bonds helped launch the Romance Writers of America group in 1980. But there was nothing glamorous about her early career. She borrowed money and spent $800 in phone calls promoting her work. She wrote newspaper, magazine and TV journalists in seven states, assuring them she “was a great interview.”

The beginning writer—and mother of five boys—had some down days. If you're passionate about your work, “you will be trampled on,” she told attendees at the Historical Writers of America's second annual conference in New Mexico.

But you can get through it with a big dose of passion, persistence, and Pepto-Bismol, said Bonds, the Texas-based author of 45 historical and romance novels. Writers must share the same traits as the heroes they write about, she said. They must cultivate an indomitable spirit.

“Close your mind to discouragement,” she said. “Don't let those bastards get you down.”

Bonds, who spoke at the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort near Albuquerque, was one of four keynote speakers at the Sept. 21-24 conference, which included all-day master classes in writing, a chuckwagon dinner, agent pitches and more than 30 writing and history classes.

Massachusetts author Jodi Daynard talked about her early struggles as a writer. The former Harvard writing teacher shelved three novels before she wrote The Midwife's Revolt, a book about murder, midwifery and the American Revolution. “My agent read a rough first draft and fired me,” she said. Another agent said, “There’s no market for American historical fiction.”

Undeterred, Daynard rewrote Midwife 20 times and self-published it. But a nagging voice inside her said, “You're not a real writer. You're self-published.”

Then she got a call from an acquisition editor at Lake Union Publishing, an imprint of Amazon Publishing. The online retailer marketed Midwife to its customers and sold more than 100,000 copies.

“I guess there is a market for American historical fiction," Daynard said, adding, "What mattered is that I kept writing. By working every day, I got better at my craft.”

Keep at it, she told attendees at Friday's dinner. “Seek out feedback. Read great books. Take your medication regularly. And revise, revise, revise. You'll get better. In the end, you'll come to realize those critical voices don't matter. It's all about the work.”

Two Santa Fe writers spoke on Saturday: author and scriptwriter Melinda Snodgrass and A Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin. At first blush, the two authors—a sci-fi writer and a fantasist—might seem out of place at a historical writers’ conference.

Not so, they said.

Where do science fiction writers look for inspiration and material? The past, said Snodgrass, the author of The Edge of Reason, The High Ground and Double Solitaire.

When she wrote “The Measure of a Man,” her acclaimed Star Trek: The Next Generation script, Snodgrass based it on a historic 1857 Supreme Court case: Dred Scott v. Sanford. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled a black man was a piece of property and not a person.

In “Measure,” Snodgrass asked a similar question—in the 24th century. Was the android Data only Star Fleet property—or a sentient being capable of self-determination? “Science fiction writers are constantly mugging history,” said Snodgrass, a scriptwriter for Reasonable Doubts, Profiler and other TV shows.

And not just sci-fi writers.

Her long-time friend, George R.R. Martin, borrowed from the War of the Roses to create his A Song of Ice and Fire series, the basis for HBO's hit show, Game of Thrones.

A knowledge of history, she said, “can bring life to other places and other cultures.”

Snodgrass, a former lawyer who studied history, credits her love of the past to her insomniac father, who read Thomas Costain, the author of The Black Rose and other historical novels. “I got beat up for being a nerdy girl,” she said. “I swashbuckled my way through The Three Musketeers.”

A good historical novel can drop a reader into a rousing adventure tale. But it can do more than that, Snodgrass said.  “It can show us a changing world, a world in flux that is terrifying to some and exciting to others.”

George R.R. Martin, who spoke at HWA’s awards dinner, agreed.

“I don't actually write historical fiction,” Martin said. “I just sort of mug history, turn it up to 11, and add dragons, which has worked out kind of well for me.”  (Indeed. Martin, the author of A Dance with Dragons and A Storm of Swords, has sold more than 60 million books. Time magazine called him “the American Tolkien.”)

During his awards speech, Martin praised the Historical Writers of America for accepting a wide range of works, including mixed genres, graphic novels and songwriting, rather than focusing on straight historical fiction and nonfiction. “It's great to have a group like this,” he said. Readers, publishers, and organizations are too balkanized in their tastes, he said.

“What I love is stories. We've erected too many barriers” to reading by isolating everything into genres. Science fiction, romance, historical fiction, chic lit, mysteries, thrillers—they're all stories, he said. “We read too narrowly.”

The son of a longshoreman, Martin grew up in a housing project in Bayonne, New Jersey. As a boy, he bought comics and paperbacks at a local grocery store. The books sat in slots on metal spinner racks. Everything was racked together: Shakespeare's plays, Raymond Chandler's detective stories and Louis L'Amour's westerns.

“They're all stories,” said Martin, who reminded conference-goers of William Faulkner's 1950 Nobel Prize speech. The only thing worth writing about, Faulkner said, “is the human heart in conflict with itself.”

It doesn't matter if a novel takes place in nineteenth-century Russia or on a college campus in 2017, Martin said. If it tells the truth about humanity, “it's something I want to read, and it's the stuff I want to write about.”