Research with Red at the Concord Museum

I am thrilled to announce that I will join RedHeaded Girl of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books at the 2018 New England Chapter of RWA® Let Your Imagination Take Flight Conference to present our workshop: Breeches, Banquets, and Balls: Living Your Heroines’ History.

Don’t just research history—live the life of your characters! See how cooking their feasts, wearing their clothes, and recreating their dances or battles will make your writing better. Join practical historian and blogger RedHeaded Girl of Smart Bitches Trashy Books, and Jennifer Hallock, history teacher and author of the Sugar Sun series, for the latest online and offline trends.

Red is an experienced practical historian and officer in the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group of over 30,000 members worldwide who are “dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe.” Dressed in clothing of the Middle Ages and Renaissance that she makes herself, Red attends “tournaments, royal courts, feasts, dancing, various classes & workshops, and more.” Oh, and she cooks and bakes for those feasts. Our workshop will tell you all about her adventures and how it gives her insight on daily life in historical times.

I have a lot to learn about making clothes (or food) from history, so Red gave me a primer at a new exhibit at the Concord Museum, “Fresh Goods: Shopping for Clothing in a New England Town, 1750- 1900.”

Fresh Goods Concord Museum history fashion Regency Victorian Georgian American history
Red “shopping” for shoes at the Concord Museum.

Do you see those shoes? People had small feet. I learned that. Also, as Red pointed out, shoes were made from the same fabric as dresses, which is why they had so little durability. If you have read that a character danced right out of their shoes, that description may be literal. It was possible to wear through the soft soles in a single ball, especially in flats. Heels helped.

Fresh Goods Concord Museum history fashion Regency Victorian Georgian American history

I loved the colorful clothes at the Concord Museum. These dyes must have been quite expensive, which may be why they were so treasured and therefore survived—more on that below. We saw dresses for every stage of a woman’s life, too. Below (going backward, from right to left) you can see the dress of a young girl, who then grew to be a young woman and required a formal gown to attract a husband, and then with that husband needed a maternity dress. If your family was frugal—and they probably were—they saved your baby dresses for your babies, and so the cycle went.

Fresh Goods Concord Museum history fashion Regency Victorian Georgian American history

As Red showed me, the fabric of these dresses often predated the styles they were recrafted into. It was not uncommon to see an 1860 dress made out of an 1820 dress, which may have been sold first in 1790 in a slightly different pattern. In fact, clothes were so often repurposed that it is hard to find surviving pieces of a working-class person’s wardrobe because they were worn to the bone. What is left to us is often clothes in odd sizes—especially small pieces, Red tells me—or the clothes of the elite, who bought new duds every time fashion changed. And fashion changed a lot. Do you see the photo above, with the blue dress? Look at the dress on the far left with the big sleeves—you see the one? Yes, the 1830s were a rough time. Sort of like the 1980s.

Concord Museum history bedroom Regency Victorian Georgian American history

And going to a museum with Red makes you look at things differently. For example, at the display above of life for a woman lying-in after the birth of her child, my first thought was: “Are those tea cookies real? Because I’m hungry.” My second thought was, “Look how pretty this room is!” (And our friend Namrata Patel—also a presenter at NECRWA, giving a must-see workshop on search engine optimization—said: “Where can I get this wallpaper?”) But Red’s question was, “Where is the chamber pot?” because she has lived this period (or, rather, earlier) and knows what is truly important. She also admired the washstand in the corner and wished she had one of those for her SCA “camping” retreats.

This trip was just the beginning of my education—and yours. I hope you can join us in Burlington in April! You can see all the great workshops and speakers, as well as register, at the NECRWA conference home page.

Discoverability: A Sneak Peek from the History Ever After Survey

(In preparation for my presentation, “History Ever After: Fabricated Historical Chronotopes in Romance Genre Fiction,” I created two surveys, one for readers of historical romance and one for those producing it. Now the results are in. Do you want to sneak a peek?

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

I am not going to spoil the whole presentation now, but I will show you a little bit from the reader’s survey. Here were the questions asked:

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

Question four is my topic of the day: discoverability. That’s the toughest nut to crack in today’s market so authors, listen up! Below are the options available to the respondents. (They also had a write-in option.)

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

I wish I had a drum roll for the big reveal here, but since I don’t here goes…

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

I know what you’re thinking: Social media recommendations won? Woot woot! I’m gonna throw promo around my favorite Facebook groups like graffiti! Well, hold on there, friend. Let me make an important disclaimer before you do. My survey link was distributed via social media, especially Facebook groups and, to a lesser extent, Twitter.

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

It makes sense, then, that the survey respondents would take book recommendations via the very same channel that suggested the survey, right? So let’s not overvalue that response. But what can we learn from the results?

  1. As you might expect, book blogs do sell books. If you can get reviewed by several of these sites, especially the big ones, terrific! (It does not matter the grade they give you, believe it or not. I have heard both Sarah Wendell and RedHeaded Girl from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books say that—according to author feedback—the books with the biggest sales boosts might be those with the lowest-scoring reviews. Keep in mind that while the reviewer might not like bear-shifter-billionaire-alpha-hole-holiday-baby-surprise books, Jane the Reader might want to devour them like, well, a bear.
  2. Beyond book blogs, though, almost as many people find books through random browsing online. You can pay to promote on retail sites like Amazon, and how often your ad shows up depends on how much you bid for the spot. The real gold mine, though, is when a retailer promotes your book for free, especially in search results. To do this, you need to make friends with a nasty beast: the algorithm. How? Well, being a bestseller already is good. That’s helpful, right? To sell books you need to have sold books. Great, Jen. Thanks. Okay, how about this: a connection to another bestselling novel helps, too—those coveted “also bought” features. Outside of this survey, I have been tracking bestseller lists for three months, and I have noticed that sales on Amazon are strongly affected by our next marketing tool…
  3. Promotional newsletters like BookBub, Bargain Booksy, and others have changed the publishing industry. Initially, BookBub was a resource targeted at independent authors, but its tremendous success (millions of subscribers) meant that bricks and mortar publishers quickly got on board. While the big New York houses do not like to discount their books too close to publication date, they do use BookBub and others for their backlists. For example, Julie Garwood’s The Wedding, first published in 1996, was discounted to $1.99 this past week, advertised on BookBub on Tuesday, and now (on Thursday) it is still number 67 in the Kindle Store. That means it is on target to sell approximately 1500 copies today, according to Dave Chesson’s Kindlepreneur calculator. Before you rush to submit to BookBub, know that they do not accept everyone’s request for promotion. And, even if they do take your book deal, a spot in their newsletter is not cheap: from $66 to $4,000, depending on your genre, market (US or international), or book sale price. Is this worth it for an indie author? Maybe, after you have enough other books in a series to sell at full price to the new readers you attract.
  4. Speaking of newsletters, an author’s newsletter still has cache! (Did you know that you can sign up for mine here? Just checking.) In fact, author newsletters came in above promotional newsletters in the survey, but I put the paid ones first on this list because of their success in pushing sales. (By the way, I will be writing more about my bestseller tracking results after IASPR this summer.) Just keep emailing your readers—and do recommend the books that you enjoy reading, too, because people are listening. Read on…
  5. Fourteen people wrote in “recommendations by other authors.” This result could be compromised by the place I solicited for responses—two of which were big author pages—but I do think it is interesting that four percent of my respondents wrote in the very same idea (and that they felt it was distinct from other social media recommendations). So endorsements work. But you need to find an author with a big enough following to matter, and this is not always easy for debut authors without the support of a good agent or large publisher.
  6. Giveaways are popular in this survey, too, but I have a question about those: will entrants buy your book if they lose the giveaway? Anecdotal evidence from my friends says not necessarily, but I imagine that if your goal is to create name recognition, a giveaway on a site like Goodreads could work for you. I have no data to back this up, other than the relatively strong showing on this survey.
  7. Even digital people have a real life. The next response people gave was browsing in bookstores, superstores, grocery stores, libraries, and (yes!) yard sales. Obviously, this distribution channel favors print books; those who publish digital-only miss out. The deck is also stacked for traditional publishers who have distribution networks that reach into Walmart, Target, Barnes and Noble, and more.

That’s all for now. I am still analyzing the results of this survey, and these are just my first thoughts. Do remember that this is a survey for historical romance, and the results may have been different for readers of contemporary, erotic, inspirational, paranormal, or other romance subgenres. I will put this survey together with my other research to examine the most popular settings, plots, and characterizations in bestselling historical romance—the chronotopes—and see how flexible the market is. More to come!

[Background photo used in header taken by Jerzy Gorecki, used with permission under the Creative Commons CC0 Universal Public Domain Dedication 1.0 license.]

The Craft Workshops of #RT17

The RT Booklovers Convention is an industry trade show more than writers’ convention. As a result, there are more bloggers, publicists, readers, and vendors than you’ll see at an average RWA event, which takes some focus off the craft of writing in favor of the business and marketing side of things. (And there’s lots of fangirling. See my previous post.) But RT does have craft workshops, even if these tend to be author discussion panels rather than instructional presentations. Learning happens! Let me prove it to you:

What's In A Name Piper Huguley Romantic Times Atlanta

Piper Huguley lead a solo workshop called “What’s in a Name?” in which she discussed onomastics, the linguistic field that studies the origins and history of personal names. She discussed considerations in naming your characters, but she went well beyond online tools—though she gave some of those, too, and I’ve added a few to my character tools site. But her sociological lessons captivated me most. For example, she talked about the history and derivation of gender crossover names. Did you know that Ashley, Beverly, Shirley, and Joyce were originally boys’ names? Many only crossed over to girls in the latter half of the twentieth century. Some are just crossing over now, like Mackenzie and Wyatt. Why? According to Huguley, names can be a symbolic armor or protection. If you have one child, and you want to give her the strongest chance at a successful life in a male-dominated society, you might give her a boys’ name. And there are “born to win” names, taken up by the African-American community when their children could not get the respect they deserved in white society. Earl, for example. Or Lloyd (for Lord). Or Piper’s relative, King Huguley. Or her character Champion Jack. Or Prince. “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” was a legal name change forced by Prince’s dispute with Warner Bros music, but Prince itself was born that way. Prince’s father had the stage name Prince, and he gave it legally to his son—Prince Rogers Nelson—because “I wanted him to do everything I wanted to do.” Shivers, right?

Heroines You Can Have It All Alisha Rai HelenKay Dimon Sonali Dev Romantic Times Atlanta

Alisha Rai, HelenKay Dimon, and Sonali Dev led a workshop on “Heroines: You Can Have It All.” They brought up an issue that has always been prickly to me: the “TSTL” (“too stupid to live”) criticism. Readers can be hard on heroines, especially ones who make mistakes. Yet, as HelenKay pointed out, sometimes our characters have to make the wrong choices, especially if those errors fit the character or situation. The key is to allow your heroine to be strong in other ways. Alisha talked about this in terms of “competence porn,” à la My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. In that wonderful show, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) is an utter mess with relationships, but she is a bloody brilliant lawyer. Actually, she is a casually brilliant lawyer because it almost seems to take no effort. She’s just that good. She puts relatively little thought into her job until she needs to save the day, and then—whoosh, she’s stunning. When the show goes back to her personal life, though, she is still a freaking mess. She’s a relatable heroine, but still one we admire (most of the time). Sonali Dev talked about a different problem: turning the reader’s knee-jerk pity into a heroine’s weapon. Instead of making her heroine Mili a stereotypical child bride, she let Mili own it. Mili essentially says, “Okay, I’m a child bride—promised but not yet married. And instead of pouting about it right now, let me use that status to get educated and do what I want to do first.” This kind of nuance is really inspiring.

Bangin Hot Betas Karen Stivali Vanessa North Annabeth Albert Tamsen Parker Romantic Times Atlanta

Another great workshop was “Bangin’ Hot Betas” with Karen Stivali, Vanessa North, Annabeth Albert, and Tamsen Parker. They write hot, hot books—and they give good workshop, too. The big point was that beta does not mean boring. In fact, you can mine more complexity with a beta character but still get all the feels. The “let me teach him a thing or two in the bedroom” is pretty sexy, if you think about it. Betas can be more self-aware, more concerned for their partner’s needs, and more vulnerable. The authors acknowledged that pitching a beta hero is difficult, but their advice was to focus on what is awesome about the hero. Don’t highlight the beta bit—just write it that way. Like any book, get the tension and stakes high. Write it with the best dialogue and the hottest romance, and use those attributes to market the book. The reader may not even know why she loves the hero so much, but the point is that she does!

Historicals Welcome to Americana Beverly Jenkins Alyssa Cole Piper Huguley Joanna Shupe Kianna Alexander Kate McMurray Romantic Times Atlanta

I also loved the “Historicals: Welcome to Americana” workshop, but my notes were a little more sparse because I was too awestruck to really process everything that was being said. Why? Let me tell you the panel: Beverly Jenkins (our 2018 NECRWA Master Class presenter!), Alyssa Cole, Piper Huguley, Joanna Shupe, Kianna Alexander, and Kate McMurray. The latter two I have not read yet, but I plan to. They talked about all sorts of issues I care about, including the need to allow for a more representative slate of characters in more varied time settings, especially in American history. Ms. Bev said that a reader once told her that she couldn’t imagine an HEA between African-Americans in the nineteenth century. Ms. Bev rightly pointed out: “Even in the toughest times, people still love, still have birthday parties, still have picnics.” So true. While we all love our Regency historicals, we have to acknowledge that the real Regency period was one engulfed in war. We don’t get that in our costume dramas, which are significantly based upon Georgette Heyer’s description of the Regency rather than real history. For example, even Jane Austen spent much of her life not in the bucolic countryside—or even in Bath—but in Southampton, a “dock town filled with public drunkenness, street prostitution, and violence.” If you, like me, appreciate a little real history thrown into your entertainment, Camille Hadley Jones and I discuss this kind of thing in our new Facebook group, History Ever After. Come on by!

Smart Bitches Trashy Books Reader Recommendation Party Sarah Wendell Romantic Times Atlanta

There were many great reader events, but one that really stood out was the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books Reader Recommendation Party. Here’s how it went: the Bitches gave a book recommendation each—with reasons—and then we readers got a chance. Sarah Wendell came around with her mic and briefly interviewed us on what we liked and why. Here’s the thing: Sarah is funny. Correction: Sarah is freaking hilarious. I imagine that doing a podcast for so long has sharpened her quick wit, but part of it is talent, plain and simple. What fun! Those who made recommendations got extra raffle tickets. (We had each started with one, if you were keeping score.) After a bunch of book recs, raffle prizes were awarded. Then rinse and repeat. I got to give one recommendation—just one, and it was so hard to choose! But I had to pimp #romanceclass, so I chose one that had both Manila and millennial feels, so I went to one of my favorites: Mina V. Esguerra’s Iris After the Incident. There was a lot of good book noise (“oooohhh”) when I described it, so I hope lots of people bought it! If you want to know more, read my review here.

These were just a few of the offerings in Atlanta. If I did not mention a panel or workshop, I probably just could not get to it. Despite all the awesomeness above, I actually spent most of my time at marketing or industry workshops, which will be the subject of my next post. Stay tuned!