Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Historical Fiction Round Table Discussion - July 2022

“Write what should not be forgotten.”
 –Isabel Allende

Welcome to the latest installment of the Historical Fiction round table discussion. This edition will focus on marketing, covers, social media, Covid, finding audiences, and where we go for inspiration. Readers are encouraged to pour themselves a cup of coffee or, if the hour permits, a glass of wine. Chocolates are encouraged but not always mandatory. Good humor is mandatory, but not always encouraged. And so, without further ado, let me to introduce our panel of authors:

J’nell Ciesielski is the author of The Brilliance of Stars and other heart-stopping adventures and sweeping love stories in historical settings. The bestselling author of The Socialite, she is a Florida native who now lives in Virginia with her husband, daughter, and lazy beagle

Heather Day Gilbert is the author of To Love a Viking along with Jen Cudmore. An ECPA Christy award finalist and Grace award winner, Heather writes contemporary mysteries and Viking historical fiction. Her novel, Forest Child, earned a starred review from Publisher's Weekly.

Annabelle McCormack
is the author of Sands of Sirocco and other historical and contemporary women's fiction and romance novels. She earned an MA in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University and loves the under-explored bits of history. She lives in Maryland with her husband and five children.

M.B. (Michael) Zucker is the author of The Eisenhower Chronicles, winner of the “Highly Recommended Award for Excellence in Historical Fiction” by the Historical Fiction Company. His other books are A Great Soldier in the Last Great War and Liopleurodon: The Master of the Deep. He lives in Virginia with his wife and his dog, Maggie.

Eileen Donovan is the author of A Lady Newspaperman’s Dilemma and the forthcoming The Campbell Sisters (March, 2023). A New Yorker, she holds an MA in English from Northern Arizona University and won the Marie M Irvine Award for Literary Excellence (2019).

Maureen Morrissey
is the author of Sonder: Janie’s Story and Woven: Six Stories, One Epic Journey (2020). She taught writing workshop to thousands of children, graduate students, and other teachers. Her interest in writing historical fiction sprang from her family history and her love of stories.

Kate Heartfield is the author of The Embroidered Book, a Sunday Times bestselling historical fantasy about Marie Antoinette and her sister, Maria Carolina. Kate’s novels, novellas, short stories and games have won or been shortlisted for several major awards, including three Nebula nominations. She is a former journalist who lives near Ottawa, Canada.

Jules Larimore is the author of The Muse of Freedom, the first in a series inspired by the true story of a Cévenol apothecary in 17th century France. She writes emotive historical fiction to inspire positive change for oppressed people. She lives in Ojai, California and travels to various countries in Europe for research and inspiration.

First off, please tell us a little about yourself. How did you start writing historical fiction?

J’nell Ciesielski
: I’ve been reading historical fiction since I was very young. Stories of days gone by have always fascinated me. By the time I got to college I felt many of the plots and characters were becoming predictable, and at some point, I got fed up and decided to write my own novels with stories and characters that evolved on the page as I wanted. Years later, I still love what I do.

Heather Day Gilbert: I've been fascinated with Vikings for a long time, since I'm allegedly related to Eirik the Red and Leif Eirikson. After reading the Icelandic sagas, I wrote a novel inspired by Gudrid, a real Viking woman (and Eirik the Red's ward) who sailed to North America. The title of that novel is God's Daughter, and I was pleased it received a "well-recommended" review by the Historical Novel Society. I will be discussing Gudrid along with a few other historical authors (Margaret Elphinstone and Nancy Marie Brown) later this year in a TV miniseries called Templars, which is streaming now.

Annabelle McCormack
: I’m a Maryland-based writer, professional photographer, a graduate of the Johns Hopkins M.A. in Writing program. I’m also a homeschooling mom of five young children! I just naturally gravitated to writing historical fiction without thinking about it too much. I loved history in grade school and enjoyed movies and stories that were set in the past.

M.B. Zucker: I learned about WWII in my 8th grade history class, which sparked my history interest. I wrote a novel set in the Battle of the Bulge while in high school, took a break from writing in college, and wrote The Eisenhower Chronicles while in law school.

Eileen Donovan: I actually started out writing children’s fairy tales, but after many rejections, my agent told me my voice was too “adult” for children’s literature. Then I realized that almost everything I read was historical fiction, so when I watched a PBS documentary, Lost Children of the Empire, about children who were shipped off to British colonies for their safety during World War II, I was hooked. I decided this was a story that few people knew about, so I had to write it. After a year of research, I finally sat down and my novel, Promises, was born. I was bitten by the historical fiction bug and would never recover.

Maureen Morrissey: As a child of Holocaust survivors, I was surrounded by stories of strife, adversity, and survival. As I became a teacher and then a mother, I realized two things: my own family stories should not be lost with the passing of time and family members, and that history is comprised of a collection of stories about how people survived world events. When I retired from teaching after thirty-seven years, I had the time and mind-space to delve into writing full-time and began work on my first novel, Woven.

Kate Heartfield: I’m a former journalist with a degree in political science, so I’ve always been interested in the forces that shape humanity’s course. As a kid, the books I loved best were by Rosemary Sutcliff and Susan Cooper. I always felt there was something inherently uncanny about the past, or at least about our relationship with the past. So, I suppose it’s no surprise that most of what I write is speculative fiction in historical settings.

Jules Larimore: I was born and raised in Indiana where I studied Medieval History, Ancient Greece, Anthropology, Folklore, Narrative Composition, and Architectural Design at Indiana University. Twenty years ago, I decided to write about my French Huguenot ancestor. After gathering research and traveling to locations in the Cévennes mountains of France, I began an intensive course in writing historical fiction. The resulting novel is still in the developmental editing phase and will soon be independently published.

Congratulations on your new book! What inspired you to write it? Is it part of a series?

J’nell Ciesielski: The Brilliance of Stars started a few summers ago when I was watching a Captain American movie marathon on TV, but found my attention sliding from the charismatic Captain America to his friend, Bucky Barnes. In particular, when he became the Winter Soldier. I was impressed with his fighting skills, but it made me wonder: what if this cold-hearted killing machine fell in love? What if someone loved him before he became an assassin? How could a relationship survive after years of torture, separation, and brain washing? A few years and one pandemic later, I completed the Jack and Ivy duology with the first half set to be released November 2022.

Heather Day Gilbert: To Love a Viking is Book 1 in the Tavland Vikings series. It's co-written with my friend, Jen Cudmore, and it’s been neat to collaborate and mesh our writing styles. Jen loves Vikings as I do, so I was honored to have this chance to bring these fresh Viking tales to readers under the umbrella of my publishing imprint, WoodHaven Press.

Annabelle McCormack: Thank you! Sands of Sirocco is the second book in the Windswept WWI Saga. I’ve always been fascinated by the lesser-known stories in “bigger picture” tales from the past, which is what this book is all about. The time period and locations are familiar, but under-explored. The intrigue and conflicts that took place during the Middle Eastern theater of the Great War had a huge impact not only on the outcome of the war itself, but on modern-day conflicts.

M.B. Zucker: Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) ignited my appreciation of biographical drama as a subgenre of historical fiction. I knew from junior year of high school that I wanted to write an Eisenhower novel one day. In college I read everything I could about him, which became 35 books in total. I created an online “Eisenhower Encyclopedia” in 2018. While in law school, I wanted a non-law activity to stimulate my thinking. Writing about Ike became a perfect fit. The novel was originally self-published in three volumes but in June 2022 it was published as a single piece by Historium Press.

Eileen Donovan: A Lady Newspaperman’s Dilemma, will be released on Sept 6, 2022. A friend sent me a clipping about the one and only time the US Army had bombed a US city. I had never heard about it, so my curiosity was piqued. It’s a stand-alone novel, and I believe readers will see why when they read it. I prefer to write my books as a complete story in one telling.

Maureen Morrissey: Sonder: Janie’s Story began in an unusual way. I belong to several online groups where writers share ideas, thoughts, and suggestions. It was in one of these groups that someone randomly shared a "word of the day" that struck such a deep chord in me that I stared at it for several minutes before it began to take shape and become the story I needed to write or I would have no peace in my life. The word was "sonder," which became the title of my novel.

Kate Heartfield: The Embroidered Book is a big standalone novel about Marie Antoinette and her sister Maria Carolina – with the twist that they have a secret book of magic. It was first published in the UK, where I’m pleased to say it was a Sunday Times Bestseller, and is now being published in North America. As for the inspiration, I was fascinated by the powerful women of 18th century Europe, about the sacrifices and bargains they made, and magic seemed the perfect metaphorical tool to explore that. One of the first moments of inspiration came when I was reading Antonia Fraser’s biography, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, and came across a mention of the two sisters being separated for bad behavior when they were children. My imagination immediately started wondering what exactly they’d been up to.

Jules Larimore: The Muse of Freedom is inspired by the true story of my 7th great-grandfather, Jean (Jehan) Pierre Bondurant, who is also the ancestor of many famous and infamous American Bondurants. As a minor noble during a time of religious persecutions against Huguenots, he was trained as an apothecary and rebaptized as a Catholic at seven years of age. Jehan’s motivation to give everything up and flee the country always intrigued me, and I knew there were many sides during this divisive period that needed to find a voice. This is the first book in a planned series of three.

When is your book set, both year, era, and geographical location?

J’nell Ciesielski: The Brilliance of Stars is set during the Great War and starts off in Washington DC before quickly hopping around to Russia, Crimea, and eventually Romania.

Heather Day Gilbert: To Love a Viking begins in A.D. 989 and continues through 999. It is set on the fictitious island of Tavland in old Scandinavia.

Annabelle McCormack: Sands of Sirocco is set in World War I Egypt and Palestine, in 1917.

M.B. Zucker: The Eisenhower Chronicles is set between 1938-1962 and takes place in the Philippines, the US (mainly DC), London, Algiers, France, and Belgium.

Eileen Donovan: A Lady Newspaperman’s Dilemma is set in 1926, the Roaring Twenties, in Montana. (The actual bombing was in 1940, but I wanted to tell a story that was not set in a World War II time-frame since the war had nothing to do with the story.)

Maureen Morrissey: Sonder: Janie’s Story takes place in New York City, mostly in the 1960’s-1970’s, which is incredibly considered historical. Embedded in the book are stories from New York City in the early to mid-1900’s.

Kate Heartfield: The Embroidered Book is set in Austria, France and the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily between 1767 and 1793. It covers the lives of the two sisters from their respective arranged marriages up to the effects of the French Revolution.

Jules Larimore: The Muse of Freedom is set in the Cévennes mountains of Languedoc, France from 1695-1697 during an era of intense persecution and dragonnades ordered by Louis XIV against Protestants, (referred to as Reformed, Calvinists, or Huguenots during the period). The series will take us through Europe and eventually to a settlement of Huguenots in an abandoned Monacan Indian village in Virginia. Meanwhile, it will also follow his fictional love interest, a mystic holy woman and healer, who remains in the Cévennes for a few years while the Camisard War begins to break out.

WWI Egypt is a fascinating setting for a historical novel.

How long did it take you to write it? How did the plot materialize?

J’nell Ciesielski: Much longer than I originally anticipated! I started writing this story right when the US went into lockdown. Both my husband and daughter were home, and as I’m sure everyone can relate, it was an incredibly stressful time. I had to lock myself down in the basement and force myself to type every day, but it was like pulling teeth. The stress had dried up my creativity which is gut-wrenching for a writer. Little by little, the story came out, and after two long years, I was able to type: The End.

Heather Day Gilbert: Jen (Cudmore) wrote the original draft, which I edited for content and wording. She worked on it for years, polishing it with a book coach and others.

Annabelle McCormack: I first drafted Sirocco three years ago and have been working on various versions of the book since then. The plot picks up right after the end of the first novel of the series, Windswept, and works to resolve some of the impact of the events of the first book.

M.B. Zucker: I wrote it between August 2019-August 2020. I liked how the John Adams miniseries opened with the Boston Massacre and thought Kristallnacht was a similar catalyst for Ike. This led to the idea of a novel set from Kristallnacht through Ike’s death. But I knew that was a huge amount of material and the novel would either be enormous or light on detail. I decided to target certain notable or interesting episodes, starting with Kristallnacht, which led to 15 separate stories that, when put in chronological order, formed a novel. I concluded with the Cuban Missile Crisis, because it was the last time Ike had a large impact on world events and Ike’s global heroism is a major theme of the book.

Eileen Donovan: After lots of research, the writing went fairly quickly. I’d guess about six months, but then, of course, there was editing and revising for another six months. When I realized I couldn’t jump straight into the bombing, not enough of a story there for an entire book, I considered all the newspaper reports about it at the time and decided to write about the lady cub reporter who finally got to write the story.

Maureen Morrissey: Sonder took a year to complete. It is a character-driven story and I basically followed Janie Thompson’s lead, even when she did not do what I expected her to do. I had the title to guide me, which is not my usual way of writing, but in this case it was the most important thing about the story.

Kate Heartfield: I started working on it in 2015. It required a lot of research, and I tore it up and rewrote it several times. It’s a big book (about 650 pages) so the rewriting was not a minor task! But I was working on other books and stories at the same time, in between drafts.

Jules Larimore: I worked on it sporadically over twenty years, with intensive research to start the writing process taking about four months. It took about two years to complete the manuscript, and I have an additional month invested in final edits. The plot was developed out of a timeline of known events as well as some days (and sleepless nights) of allowing the “muse” to guide me. Low and behold, Jehan’s own muse became part of the story. I had intended to develop a fictional love interest, but I didn’t know until I opened up to it that it would be a free-spirited, mystic holy woman!

Eisenhower's global heroism has inspired books and movies.

Give us a logline or elevator pitch for your novel.

J’nell Ciesielski: Amid the chaos of the Great War, two elite assassins learn precisely how dangerous it is to have something—or someone—worth losing.

Heather Day Gilbert: Get swept up in an enthralling new romance series featuring women who rule the hearts of Viking men." Each novel explores the relationships and romances of interconnecting characters in the series.

Annabelle McCormack: A British nurse, caught up in the tangle of political intrigue and deception, must race to save the life of the man she loves in WWI Egypt.

M.B. Zucker: A biographical novel about Dwight Eisenhower comprised of 15 episodes from his career, focusing on his time during World War II, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movement.

Eileen Donovan: In the roaring twenties, Alex, a savvy young journalist at a small-town Montana newspaper has to choose between her dream job and her dream man after the Army bombs her town to rescue it from a flood. 

Maureen Morrissey: New York City in the 1970’s is a dark and dangerous place for Janie Thompson, a young woman ill equipped to make her way through the temptations and pitfalls of the era. Will she survive?

Kate Heartfield1768. Two sisters are sent away to be married: Charlotte to Naples to marry a man she has never met, and Antoine to France, where she is renamed Marie Antoinette in the palace of Versailles. The sisters are alone, but are not powerless. As children they discovered a book of spells that work with dark, unpredictable consequences. In a time of vicious court politics and dizzying changes, they use the book to take control of their lives. But every spell requires a sacrifice. And as love between the sisters turns to rivalry, they send Europe spiraling into revolution.

Jules Larimore: In 17th century France, a young Huguenot nobleman trained as an apothecary meets a free-spirited healer who beguiles him with her mysticism and beauty as she reveals ancient healing secrets that provide him with the transcendent vision to survive the persecutions of Louis XIV. Will he choose to live in hiding, flee, or revolt?

Marie Antoinette continues to inspire works of historical fiction.

What inspired the cover? As you wrote it, did you foresee a particular cover image?

J’nell Ciesielski
: I didn’t have a particular cover in mind as I wrote it, but I knew it needed to be romantic yet suspenseful. After all, they are assassins in love! The design team at Thomas Nelson did an amazing job of evoking the feel of the story with Jack and Ivy walking into a night of unknowns with stars shining over a Russian landscape.

Heather Day Gilbert: I already knew how difficult it was to find period-authentic stock art for Viking covers—I'd worked with cover artists on my Vikings of the New World Saga covers, and for the second novel in that series (Forest Child), it took a lot of work. The process involves removing makeup on stock models, adding authentic clothing, weapons, background, and more.

Annabelle McCormack: The cover hints toward the climax of the book. It’s exactly what I pictured when I was writing it.

M.B. Zucker: There’s a photo of Ike looking at a globe that I love because it captures the theme of Ike as a global hero. Historium used the concept to create a cover that captured it perfectly.

Eileen Donovan: Actually, I left the cover design up to the illustrator. I didn’t have any particular image in mind, although I got lots of ideas from my friends (none of which I passed on). She sent me two designs and I chose one. Fortunately, my publisher also liked it. I know that’s not the route traditional publishers usually take, but I was a finalist in a nationwide competition and a cover was a requirement of the competition.

Maureen Morrissey: I knew I wanted to have the color scheme of the 60’s, a cityscape, and an anonymous young woman. I used Canva to design the cover and went through many edits and revisions before I was satisfied.

Kate Heartfield: The gorgeous cover was designed by Andrew Davis, and I love the way it conveys the richness and beauty of the sisters’ world, gives a hint of magic, and shows the two sisters whose relationship is at the heart of the book. I don’t think I ever had a cover in mind, but if I could have imagined the perfect cover, this would have been it.

Jules Larimore:
Both the cover and the title are placeholders for the final version. The final versions will be ready before too much longer. The placeholder cover incorporates a page from Materia Medica to represent the apothecary trade and healing, and the medallion is a version of the Huguenot cross.

How much input did you have on the cover of your book? If you’re a self-published author, did you hire a professional designer or did you provide most of the vision?

J’nell Ciesielski
: For each book, the design team has me fill out a sheet with all the pertinent information about the novel. What the feel of the story is, what mood should be conveyed, what the characters look like, any important landmarks, etc. Then one of the designers sends me a few mockups and we tweak it from there until everyone approves. I’m very happy that my publisher includes me in this process because they could just as easily not.

Heather Day Gilbert: I knew I wanted the best possible covers for this series, so I hired one of the best designers, James T. Egan at Bookfly Design. Jen and I had pinned many historical covers on our Pinterest board, but James ended up designing us a cover that was far more gorgeous than anything we could have dreamed up. The colors are astounding. The woman's clothing is embroidered and perfect. There’s even a Viking longship in the background, which hints at the era. It looks very Nordic, which was exactly what we’d hoped for. It always brings that breathless "Wow" reaction from readers—it’s like an artistic gem. I look forward to working with James again for each cover in this series.

Annabelle McCormack: I hired a professional designer for the first book in the series and have continued to work with him for subsequent books. I do give him a lot of my ideas up front, but he’s brilliant and able to translate them into exactly what I’m thinking. I think readers should be able to look at the cover and grasp something about the setting, era, and protagonist. I think it’s hugely important for covers to both be on-genre but also unique and stand out. To me, the cover is the most important part of marketing.

M.B. Zucker: Historium was happy to have my input. They ran an audience poll of a few options but there was a quick consensus around my favorite. New writers might have a small budget, so they need to weigh how large an investment to make to get a high-quality cover. You get what you pay for and unfortunately, a lot of people do judge a book by its cover.

Eileen Donovan: I think the most important aspect of the cover is that it catches the reader’s eye. I think the bright yellow/gold on my cover does that. I also think it has to be easy to read. I see too many covers that have so much going on in the background that the title gets buried. As I said, I really gave my illustrator free rein. She sent me a sheet of questions about the book and characters and went from there.

Maureen Morrissey: As an indie-author, I take the designing of the cover as seriously as the story itself. I spent so much time designing it, I wasn’t sure I would ever be happy. I wanted it to appeal to men and women of all ages, not an easy goal. I spend a lot of time looking at covers in all genres to see what people were attracted to.

Kate Heartfield: I was lucky enough to have my publisher, HarperVoyager UK, on the job! I do think the cover has done wonders for the book and got it into the hands of readers. For all my covers so far, I’ve been sent something close to the final version and I’ve been able to make suggestions. So far, I’ve been very happy with all of them.

Jules Larimore
: I will be hiring a professional designer, but I am providing the images and the general concept since I have some experience with graphic design from my marketing career. I will rely on the designer to pull it all together into something amazing.

Nothing can replace the talent of a skilled cover designer.

What is the hardest part about crafting the blurb and sales copy? Did you hire a professional to do this part? What are some of the pitfalls of doing it all by yourself?

J’nell Ciesielski: The dreaded blurb! For some reason, it’s easier to write a 100K word novel than a two-paragraph synopsis because you only need the most vital plot points, but to the author, all plot points are vital. Luckily, I have a wonderful editor who takes my rough draft and turns it into a smashing blurb that will hopefully catch readers’ eyes.

Heather Day Gilbert: The blurb required hours of work since we have two main characters and two separate romantic threads. It's an unusual setup for the historical genre, as I discovered when studying bestselling historical blurbs. The fantastic thing about the blurb for To Love a Viking is that at least three other authors helped us hone the wording. It meant so much to me that they took time out of their busy schedules to steer us in the right direction. We’ve been so blessed to have some amazing authors endorse this novel as well. The author community is so supportive in the circles I engage in.

Annabelle McCormack: The hardest part of crafting the blurb is getting over the urge to explain the plot. As I’ve written more blurbs, I’ve learned that less really is more here. An effective hook works far better than a summary. I’ve gone the route of both writing the blurb myself and hiring professionals and have found that I prefer to write them myself. The pitfall, of course, is that the blurb requires drafting, editing, and critique from others, and that’s not so easy to find. (I do recommend the Facebook group Indie Cover Project for this, by the way.)

M.B. Zucker: One difficulty is the fact that it’s unattractive for a writer to pat himself on the back while still making the book sound interesting. If a book is traditionally published a writer might be able to get away with tooting their own horn because readers will think the company wrote the blurb. But a self-published writer likely wrote the blurb himself, so they face a tricky balancing act. I read a self-published biographical novel where the blurb described it as an epic masterpiece that I felt didn’t quite live up to that standard.

Eileen Donovan: Crafting the blurb and sales pitch is probably more difficult than writing the book. I did them myself, with input from my editor and I think I did about six or seven “final” revisions after the first few attempts failed. So, it’s time-consuming and frustrating, but I knew what the book was about better than a professional would. I’ve found they don’t usually read the entire book, just enough to give them a flavor for the story, but maybe not the heart.

Maureen Morrissey: Again, as an indie author with lots of time on her hands, I crafted the blurbs on my own. I read a ton of examples and articles about how to write blurbs, and revised and edited mine until I was happy. To this day, I customize my blurbs and sales copy depending on the planned use. Just like doing anything by yourself, the hardest part is to know when you have nailed it. That’s what friends are for.

Kate Heartfield: This is another aspect where my publisher did a lot of the heavy lifting, with input from me. I find it difficult to convey the nuances in historical fiction in a quick and compelling way to readers who may not be familiar with the period, so I’m grateful for the deft work of marketing and publicity professionals.

Jules Larimore: Condensing it! I have not hired a professional so far, but I am considering it. My editor, who has extensive experience at NY publishing houses, will also be working with me on that.

Did you have a marketing plan going into this project or did it evolve naturally or are you crafting it as you go along?

Heather Day Gilbert
: As an independent author/publisher, I always have some kind of marketing plan. Although I know Amazon ads won't significantly boost sales until we have more books in the series available, I did do several things for our launch of Book 1: I booked a social media/review tour, Jen and I are doing interviews, and we've requested a Historical Novel Society review, among other things. I also knew it was important to create buzz with early endorsements from other historical fiction authors, which we received from talented authors like Sandi Layne, Stephanie Landsem, Michelle Griep, and Jocelyn Green. The cover and blurb are also a form of marketing, creating a strong brand for the series. I also post A+ content on the Amazon home page as a visual hook for browsing readers. Honestly, I never stop marketing, and I'm always looking for opportunities to reach more readers.

Annabelle McCormack: Because this is the second book in the series, the marketing plan is in part based on the first book (these are sequential books that should be read in order, rather than a series of standalones). The marketing plan has evolved slightly as I have gone along, though.

M.B. Zucker: I’ve been anxious about marketing from the beginning, mostly from a fear of making mistakes and wasting money. My wife and I spent months researching and discussing marketing ideas.

Eileen Donovan
: When I began the project, I knew I wanted to appeal to historical fiction and women’s fiction readers, especially book clubs. Then as I continued, I discovered there were groups of readers interested in 1920’s novels and another group interested in Western novels, so I began marketing to them too. Right now, I’m working with a publicist (my first time) so I’ll see what he has to offer.

Maureen Morrissey
: I learned a lot about marketing on the fly with my first book. I honestly had no idea how much hard work indie publishing was going to be. For my new book, I started where I had left off, and am still learning daily new ways to market. I hired a publicist to do a specific job, creating an Instagram Book Tour. That puts your book in front of hundreds of thousands of people. We’ll see if it results in popularity and sales. If I could afford to, I would like to have hired a professional marketer so I could focus more on writing.

Kate Heartfield: We definitely had plans, and a lot of help along the way from book bloggers, social media posters, and readers of all kinds. Thank you! I hope that word of mouth becomes organic after a while.

Jules Larimore: Half way through the writing, I took time to listen to workshops on marketing plans, so I created a draft then. But it is being refined as I learn more and go through the editing phase.

Any marketing plan will hopefully include book signings.

What are the necessary ingredients of a successful book marketing campaign?

Annabelle McCormack: I’m a big fan of using virtual book tours to build some buzz and start that “rule of seven” with marketing (aka, the average consumer needs to see something seven times before they’re likely to notice and purchase). I also use ads (particularly Facebook/Meta and Amazon), ARCs, Netgalley, newsletters, and social media (especially Instagram/Tiktok).Another marketing took that I will be employing is a prequel novella of 45K words for the series that will be available on all the retailers where my books are sold. I’m launching it at 99 cents and it’s a natural lead-in to the series.

M.B. Zucker: I’ve mostly used Twitter and have had mixed success. Instagram was a waste of effort. Historium will conduct a marketing campaign for several months, and so I’ll see what worked and what didn’t and carry on from there.

Eileen Donovan: Right now, I’m concentrating on getting the word out through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and email marketing. I’m also looking into a number of review sites as well as a Goodreads giveaway. I have my book listed with BookFunnel, but of course, some venues won’t be putting anything out until the book is on sale. Right now, it’s only available for print version pre-orders. My publisher will not put the e-book up for pre-order. I would love to do in-person book signings, but a lot of venues are still leery about large gatherings. Hopefully that will change soon.

Maureen Morrissey: All of the social media platforms I’m not kidding. My Facebook author page gets a lot of attention too. My jury on the success of a Goodreads giveaway is out. I have hundreds of TBR people but no bump in sales. My favorite part is live book signings and talks; I guess the teacher in me still likes to speak to groups and individuals.

Kate Heartfield: It’s hard to say what matters most. I was very happy to have physical and e-book ARCs and the support of book tours. I set up several podcast interviews and guest blog posts myself, and I’ve been doing a lot of online events. I do think BookTok is very important, but my personal presence there is pretty small. I’m still learning!

Jules Larimore
: Since I am new at this, I am basing it on what I have learned from workshops, conferences, writers’ groups, and guidebooks. From what I read, all of it is good, but that email marketing has the best return on the investment of time, and email lists can be built primarily with giveaways.

How can authors best reach their target market?

Annabelle McCormack: Social media, paid newsletters, and ads. I do think having some budget for ads and paid newsletters for sales is helpful, even if your ad budget is only five dollars a day.

Eileen Donovan: I really think that depends on the type of historical book you write. I’m trying to use mostly free venues, but I’m sure advertising in the right journals would work.

Maureen Morrissey: A lot of research goes into this. Reading reviews of books in your genre can give you many ideas and joining genre groups (like the Historical Novel Society) is also really helpful.

Kate Heartfield: The million-dollar question! Word of mouth is so important, but the biggest thing I’ve noticed so far is that booksellers are the best champions a book can have.

Jules Larimore: I am starting with various Huguenot associations, where I am already making some great headway. So, I’d say, find organizations, book clubs, history associations, museums, bloggers focused on your genre, etc. and connect with them. I also write articles for France’s Splendid Centuries, a Facebook collective of authors writing French historical fiction.

If an author had only a limited budget for marketing, where would he get the best results? Which marketing tools do you think are the most successful?

J’nell Ciesielski: In my experience, which is rather limited, book tours on Instagram have been successful because your book gets in front of thousands of eyes with the help of amazing “bookstagramers” who love nothing more than talking about fabulous reads.

Heather Day Gilbert: For an independent author, Bookbub US ads are still the golden ticket. But they work best if you have a series, and they're notoriously difficult to come by. While Amazon ads definitely bumped up my income, they don't make a huge difference for everyone. In my cozy mystery genre (my primary genre), Kindle Unlimited combined with AMS ads and Bookbub deals work well, but the historical genre is probably a whole different kettle of fish. We're going to see how our book does in Kindle Unlimited, then move it if necessary.

Annabelle McCormack: This depends a lot on the career stage of the author, but probably ads.

Maureen Morrissey: I scour the internet for free marketing ideas, and one of my favorites is the mockups you can create and post on your social media. It’s too early for me to feel successful yet, but I would say Amazon and Facebook ads are good tools that can be personalized to fit budgets.

Kate Heartfield: Again, I think this depends on personality and personal strengths, but getting to know your local librarians and bookstores is a great start and doesn’t cost very much. Social media is free, and has the potential to reach many people, so it’s easy to see why the industry puts so much emphasis on it. But it’s worth remembering that “free” doesn’t account for an author’s time and energy, of course.

Jules Larimore: I think a good editor and a website are critical. Cover design falls right behind, and there are some talented, affordable ones on Fiverr and similar gig sites. It seems advanced reviews are helpful, so if one cannot afford a service that offers Netgalley and the like, then I suggest connecting with as many authors and others of prominence to seek out reviews. Promotions can be handled by the author to save money, but a wider audience can be reached in a shorter amount of time through services.

During hard economic times, people turn to movies and books as a form of escapism. A 1933 issue of Publishers Weekly declared that “the reading of books has increased throughout the Depression as shown by library circulation records.” What types of books are likely to weather the present economic downturn? Is this something writers should be keeping in mind? If not, why not?

J’nell Ciesielski: I’m a bit biased on this because my main purpose in reading or writing a book is for escapism. I want to be whisked away on a romantic adventure every time I crack open a page. Anything that makes me forget about the modern drudgery of bills, cleaning house, and traffic jams. If I learn something all along the way, even better but it’s not my main reason for picking up a book. I also believe that the world can be such a dark place at times and books offer us hope with a happy ending. We need more happiness in this world.

Heather Day Gilbert: Anything that offers an escape really shot up in popularity in 2020, cozy mysteries in particular, which happened to be the genre I was writing in. People began buying e-books like crazy, while physical bookstores had to close their doors. It was a good kind of perfect storm for my income, but I know that hasn't held true for some authors (given increasing paper shortages, etc.). Of late, I believe readers crave book series they can binge, on, where all the loose threads are wrapped up and there isn't lingering angst at the end. Good historical novels can do that too, whisking you away to another time and place (even if viruses were on the loose then, too!).

Annabelle McCormack: Romance will always be able to survive economic downturns. Having the genre requirement of a happy ending is something that will make readers turn to it naturally when life gets difficult. However, that doesn’t mean that all readers out there are looking for romance so I do think to a certain extent you have to ignore the advice about what’s popular. Indie writers have the advantage that they can publish more quickly and write to market a bit more easily, but with the length of time it takes to traditionally publish a book (if it gets accepted at all), writing to market is much harder. In general, I think a well-written book that an author was excited to write will probably outperform a rush job meant to check the blocks.

M.B. Zucker
: The internet atomized society to such an extent that I’m not sure the trends that once existed would be as visible today. I doubt socio-economic cycles would be the main cause for one genre benefiting over another.

Eileen Donovan: I don’t believe in writing to trends, whether in publishing or economic/world events. I believe in writing the best possible book you can at all times. Situations can change overnight. No one knows what tomorrow is going to bring, so just write from your heart.

Maureen Morrissey
: Writing is my art and my therapy, and my hope is that this will shine out and get people to read my work. Commercial writers, who generally are professional writers who do this for a living, may have to worry more about popularity. That being said, I did hire a professional narrator to create an audio book version of Sonder, because so many people are now listening to books as they commute or work out. I do want my book to sell, but it is not the driving force in my creative choices.

Kate Heartfield: It's interesting, isn’t it? The initial reports suggest that reading went up during the pandemic, too. I don’t think it changes our core job as writers, though: we’re still trying to write something that resonates with a reader, that touches them, or changes their way of seeing the world, or makes them stare out the window in thought for a moment, or brings them a smile or a tear.

Jules Larimore: I believe stories that strike a deep emotional chord but provide inspiration and hope will survive longer than the plethora of books full of violence, doom, and gloom. 

What is the one thing you wish someone had told you when you were just starting out as a writer?

J’nell Ciesielski: Start networking. Go to conferences, join writer organizations, anything you can do to meet other writers and industry professionals to start forging those relationships. People who can rejoice and commiserate with you, help write cover blurbs, work on collaborations together, and help you flourish in your career.

Annabelle McCormack: How slowly the publishing industry moves! Haha! Seriously, though, even in indie publishing it really is a marathon, not a sprint, and one of the most important things I’ve had to learn along the way is patience, especially patience with myself. Not to compare the beginning of my journey to another author’s middle or end.

M.B. Zucker: I wish I knew the value of slowing down to make the writing quality as good as possible in the first draft. The Eisenhower Chronicles took a long time to edit because I didn’t pay attention to sentence construction until the editing process. I put more focus on the actual writing, and not just the substance, when writing my subsequent book. Alternatively, I wish I didn’t know about how judgmental people could be about writers and writing, even before they’ve read the book. I’m glad I didn’t know this when I got started because it may have deterred me.

Eileen Donovan
: How long everything would take. From querying to actual release date feels like an age and a half. I’m sure self-publishing goes a lot faster, but I’m not in a position to do that.

Maureen Morrissey: I wish someone had told me how important beta readers are.

Kate Heartfield: I wish I had let myself write what I wanted to write, with more freedom and less worrying about whether it was important enough or marketable enough or anything else. Paradoxically, once I gave myself more freedom to write what I wanted to read, my work started to sell.

Jules Larimore: I wish I had known there is an ever-changing list of “rules” about writing techniques that “they” tell us to follow. It seems these are always in flux and, fortunately, the set of rules governing writing in recent years seems to be shifting again to allow beautiful, yet balanced, narrative prose.

What is the one thing you’re glad you didn’t know?

J’nell Ciesielski: I’m glad no one told me in the beginning how much networking I would have to do, otherwise I might have stayed in my writing cave! I’m much more comfortable staying out of the spotlight and typing on my computer with my imaginary friends, but speaking on Zoom calls or with book sellers is part of the gig. Hopefully I’m getting better at it!

Annabelle McCormack: I’m glad I didn’t know just how steep of a learning curve there was in indie publishing—it would have intimidated me more than just jumping in and learning along the way, as I did. But I tend to be more of a leap before I look person. [Editor: Same here! 😉]

Eileen Donovan: Nothing. I wish I knew it all before I began. Then I would have been working with much more realistic expectations.

Maureen Morrissey: I’m glad I had no idea how hard marketing and promotion is, I would likely have been discouraged.

Kate Heartfield: I suppose I’m glad I didn’t know there isn’t likely to be a moment I’ll ever feel I’ve “made it” and can have confidence I can just keep writing books and publishers will keep buying them. It’s a precarious industry even for writers who’ve had some success.

Jules Larimore: I’m glad I didn’t know that traditional publishing takes nearly two years from manuscript completion, or I would have been discouraged from investing the time to write. I’m a bit impatient, so I’m really thankful for the state of the self-publishing industry.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and TikTok seem to be the social marketing tools of our time. Which, in your opinion, yields the best results? Which ones are best to avoid?

J’nell Ciesielski: I adore Pinterest! Pictures of forbidden castles begging to be inhabited! But really, Pinterest is where I collect my ideas. For reader interaction, I focus on Facebook and Instagram. Facebook has so many wonderful reader groups to participate in and meet fellow book lovers, and Instagram is great for getting short messages out there like when I visit a historical site or a new book I’m loving. The reading population is huge there!

Heather Day Gilbert: Over the years, I've tried just about everything (except TikTok!). What I've found is that if it's too much of a time-suck and it takes away from my writing/publishing, it’s not worth it. I'm better off getting more books out than trying to finagle the newest trend. While I'm relatively active on many social media sites, such as Facebook, I can't afford to dump my time into any one place (outside my newsletter, which only comes out every 2-3 months). That's why I'm avoiding TikTok like the plague, and also because I don't think my sense of humor would translate well there. LOL.

Annabelle McCormack: I absolutely love Instagram and have started getting into making more TikTok videos. And of course, I’m on Facebook, which I love for the groups. For me, Instagram has yielded the best results, but I’ve also spent more time on there than any other platform. I’m not too big a fan of Twitter or Pinterest, but as with anything, the time that you put into any form of social media will probably be correlated to your results.

M.B. Zucker: Twitter has delivered mixed results. I’ve only used Facebook to a small degree and haven’t used Pinterest or TikTok at all. Instagram was a waste of money and led to harassment by other accounts wanting me to pay for more advertisements. Instagram was a waste of effort. We paid for an advertisement that did nothing.

Maureen Morrissey: Pinterest seems out of the loop now, and I think most people use Twitter for news and entertainment news. I don’t TikTok, so Facebook and Instagram are the ones I use the most. They are where I have gotten the majority of my followers.

Kate Heartfield: This probably varies by writer and by genre and audience. For me, Pinterest and Facebook are interesting but not places where I tend to connect with readers. It took me a while to feel comfortable on Instagram, but now it’s a really valuable forum for me as an author. Twitter is where I feel most comfortable, probably because of my years as a journalist. And TikTok is definitely a huge driver of sales and interest, so I’m keen to understand it better.

Jules Larimore: I have not tried TikTok and I am not a fan of the Twitter 280-character-limit, although I occasionally post there. So, I tend to use the others, such as Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest. I have had a good response on Instagram. My followers seem to grow organically after a few posts with the right hashtags to attract my target market. I would add Goodreads to this list since there is a social component to it.

When you’re not busy marketing or writing, where do you go for inspiration? Do you travel?

J’nell Ciesielski: Movies are my inspiration. I’m a visual learner so I tend to soak up images and my brain twists and turns them to see if there’s a story lurking in the shadows. Music is another inspiration. Sometimes it will be a single line in a song that sparks an idea or conveys an emotion I want to interpret. I’m very fortunate to have been stationed in Germany years ago and got to visit so many wonderful places where history was forged. I’ve visited the castles of kings, and seen the bullet holes in village walls. All of these experiences help to carve out stories, and I can’t wait to visit again soon.

Annabelle McCormack: My hobbies, other forms of art, and nature really inspire. I’m a lover of music and painting and baking and gardening. I get inspired by reading history books or articles about history, archeology, or discoveries. I love traveling but with five young kids, that’s on the back burner for now.

M.B. Zucker
: Mostly reading and thinking about things that interest me. I always have my eyes and ears open for interesting stories.

Eileen Donovan: I’ve always enjoyed the theater and now some Broadway venues have started to accept negative Covid tests for admittance. I’m just waiting for a play I really want to see before I go back to attending. Living in Manhattan, I was used to seeing plays about once a month. I really miss that. For now, I take walks along the river and occasionally get together with friends.

Maureen Morrissey: I love to travel! And hike and run and sit on a rooftop bar in NYC and contemplate the meaning of life. Characters for stories are everywhere.

Kate Heartfield: I love to travel, and was on my way to Hadrian’s Wall when the pandemic hit in March 2020 and we cut the trip short and returned home to Canada. I like going to museums when the well is dry, and I listen to music nearly every day.

Jules Larimore: The fields and forests. And France.

Writing in the era of Covid has been fraught with complications, from delayed research trips to getting sick, to closed libraries and archives, how did you manage to craft your story despite the setbacks? Or ironically, did the Covid quarantine help you complete your book?

J’nell Ciesielski: Google was my best friend. That and watching the Captain America movies on repeat.

Annabelle McCormack: I’m one of those rare people that didn’t get affected too much by the Covid closings and quarantines—with so many young children, a lot of that stuff wasn’t on my radar anyway. However, the busier I get, the more productive I tend to be, so maybe it gave me the final push I needed to make the journey to indie publishing!

M.B. Zucker: I think Covid helped. I was in law school when I wrote The Eisenhower Chronicles and Covid reduced the number of social obligations I had to attend. It also killed my summer internship in the Hague (it became remote from Cleveland). That let me write two Ike chapters that summer.

Eileen Donovan: Covid didn’t really affect this book. I was finished writing it, just worked on revisions. It would have been nice to travel to Montana, but I’d been there before when I lived in the Southwest so I had some idea of the landscape and feel for the place.

Maureen Morrissey: I will go with irony. Because I was stuck at home and my social life was nil, I was able to give all my time to writing. The internet is a magical thing, and because the majority of my first book, Woven, was already written in my head, I was able to complete research online. It was therapeutic to be able to get lost in writing; and I was able to run every day, which is when I do my best composing and fixing plot puzzles.

Kate Heartfield: The biggest challenge for me has been not having access to libraries and coffee shops; I didn’t realize how useful it was for me to be able to get away from my household duties (in order to concentrate on the story).

Jules Larimore: Fortunately, I completed a research trip to France in the fall of 2019, so the quarantine did serve me well in keeping me at home to write. However, transitioning to life during a pandemic took a lot of adjusting and changing routines, so I didn’t get much done during the first three months.

What would be your ideal writing getaway?

J’nell Ciesielski: Scotland! But then Scotland is my answer for everything, ha-ha. Somewhere peaceful with water and no distractions.

Heather Day Gilbert: I'd love to visit Norway, Iceland, and Newfoundland at some point, to see the Viking-era museums.

Annabelle McCormack: Probably the beach. I’m all about writing at my favorite place on earth. It would be amazing to go somewhere like the Maldives (or anywhere that has those amazing over-the-water villas) and spend the day swimming and writing on the porch overlooking the water.

M.B. Zucker: Someplace quiet where I could focus for long stretches of time. I’d like someone nearby with whom I could take breaks and discuss ideas.

Eileen Donovan: A larger apartment right here in Manhattan, with a dedicated writing room with shelves for book and a large picture window with a view of either the East River or the Hudson.

Maureen Morrissey: I live in it. I am fortunate to have a small in-home office in our house in the woods.

Kate Heartfield: I’m a parent and was until recently a caregiver, so just give me a room with a door that closes and no interruptions and I’ll thank you profusely. A decent hotel room for a weekend with no obligations sounds like paradise. Could be anywhere.

Jules Larimore: Actually, I’m planning a getaway for 2023 in order to complete the research for my second novel: Southern France with time in the Cévennes, Marseilles, and following the Huguenot trail across the Rhone and through the Jura mountains into Switzerland. Then stops in Geneva, Aarau, Brandenburg, Rotterdam, and London. I am not sure if I will fit it all in, but I have planned the portion in France with the Bondurant Family Association.

A French cottage would be an ideal writing getaway.

What is your favorite “writing drink”?

J’nell Ciesielski: I stick to water when I’m writing since I write during the day while my daughter is at school. Sometimes I’ll spice things up with flavored water.

Heather Day Gilbert: Coffee and water. I'm not a big snacker while I write—just drinks.

Annabelle McCormack: Seltzer water. I’ve become my parents from the 90’s and started to chug the stuff. (I honestly have no idea how I became my parents but I did.) But I do love coffee and tea, too. (Which, I guess, also makes me like my parents, hah!) [Editor: Same here! 😉]

M.B. Zucker: Black coffee.

Eileen Donovan
: Black tea.

Maureen Morrissey
: Water and coffee are the liquids of life for me as a writer.

Kate Heartfield: Usually a cup of Red Rose orange pekoe tea, black, no sugar.

Jules Larimore
: Oolong tea.
The next time you sit down to write, try some Red Rose Orange Pekoe Tea.

What is your favorite “writing snack”?

J’nell Ciesielski: While I crave chocolate like crazy, I try to grab the healthier stuff while I’m sitting at my desk. Fruit is always good, a protein bar, or trail mix.
Heather Day Gilbert

Annabelle McCormack: Popcorn or potato chips, usually with Old Bay seasoning.

M.B. Zucker: Officially carrots. Unofficially Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

Eileen Donovan
: None. Snacks are too distracting.

Maureen Morrissey
: Not a snacker. Maybe hunger drives my art?

Kate Heartfield: Dark chocolate!

Jules Larimore: Dark chocolate, although I try to save that for times when I need to power through.

Dark chocolate is a perennial favorite of writers.

Which authors have influenced you the most and why?

J’nell Ciesielski: I love the world building of Tolkien. He was a true master at conjuring other worlds and making you believe they were part of your own history. Is there anything more magical than that? Diana Gabaldon has also been a huge influence because she is a storyteller like few others. She makes you feel exactly what those characters are feeling and you come to know them so well that it’s difficult to believe they don’t exist. She makes history come alive which is a truly special gift.

Heather Day Gilbert: Agatha Christie, because she's one of the few authors who continues to surprise me while at the same time offering me a comfort read. She's the kind of author the reader can trust to bring quality content, and she's definitely what I aspire to. As for historical authors, or classic reads, I'm a Thomas Hardy fan. While most of his novels are tragic, his depth of character insight and the details of his settings are practically unparalleled.

Annabelle McCormack: The authors that made me fall in love with reading and writing: Jane Austen, L.M. Montgomery, Edgar Allen Poe, Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Tolkien. Each of these authors had a different effect on my journey as a reader and a writer. Mostly, when I consumed their books, they inspired me to want to be a storyteller who could evoke the emotions I felt while reading their books.

M.B. Zucker: Steve Alten and Hemingway were my favorites in middle school and high school, respectively. I recently read Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell and it became my new favorite book. I think it’s one of the best works of the biographical drama genre. My new puppy is named “Maggie.”

Eileen Donovan: I’d say Mary Doria Russell, Sara Donati, and Kate Morton. They all write beautiful prose and truly transport you to the time period in which the book is set.

Maureen Morrissey: I learned to tell stories from the works of Roald Dahl, Judy Blume, and Stephen King. Their ability to weave and build a tale around the foibles of their human characters continues to inspire me today. I learned how to engage readers in historical fiction through Ken Follet and Herman Wouk. And one of my favorite writers about family and culture and characters is Amy Tan.

Kate Heartfield: I’ll restrict myself to one: Susanna Clarke is THE historical fantasy writer, as far as I’m concerned, and I admire her immensely. She is fearless about committing to what she wants her story to be. She leaves me believing utterly in the existence of the worlds she creates.

Jules Larimore: The author that most impacted me was Victor Canning with his book, The Crimson Chalice. It was the first historical fiction that I read as a young adult that provided a lesson in history, my first love, and drew me in with its incredible prose. It’s an extremely well-researched novel that enlightened me with an immersive and realistic Arthurian retelling of the late Roman period. After that, I decided I was hooked on historical fiction.

Amy Tan.

Tell us a little about your next project.

J’nell Ciesielski: Now that Jack and Ivy’s story has been wrapped up in a duology, I’m switching gears a bit to the 1920’s and a jewel heist. It’s filled with romance, mystery, tiaras, the Mediterranean sun, and castles. Let the hijinks commence!

Heather Day Gilbert
: As for historical fiction, we are working on Book 2 in the Tavland Vikings series. I'm also actively publishing my Barks & Beans Café cozy mystery series—Book 7, Roast Date, is on preorder now.

Annabelle McCormack: I’m working on the third book in this Windswept series and getting ready to launch an unrelated contemporary romance series (which leans heavily into women’s fiction).

M.B. Zucker
: I’m currently researching a novel about John Quincy Adams’ time as Secretary of State.

Eileen Donovan: My next project is the story of three sisters in Manhattan in 1955 with three very different goals. One’s goal is to get married and have a family, another’s goal is to become a doctor and doesn’t care about marriage, and the third one’s goal is to become the most desired woman in NYC. The Campbell Sisters will be released on May 7, 2023.

Maureen Morrissey: I’m back into writing short stories and submitting them to literary magazines while I spend a lot of time, attention, and energy on promoting both of my novels. I expect (though I’m not really thinking about it), that my next novel may grow out of one of those short stories.

Kate Heartfield: My next project is a tie-in novel set in the Assassin’s Creed universe, called The Magus Conspiracy. It’s set in 19th century Europe and comes out in August 2022. After that, I have a few more historical novels in the pipeline.

Jules Larimore: My next book will be the second in the series of three books, continuing where The Muse of Freedom leaves off. It will be a dual POV with chapters from both the apothecary and the muse.

Thank you for participating in this round table discussion.


  1. Thanks so much for this opportunity to talk about my book, A Lady Newspaperman's Dilemma. There's just one thing I'd like to correct. The US Army bombed the town to rescue it from a flood, not a snowstorm.

    1. Thank you for pointing that out. Changes made. Good luck with your book!