This week, we will be looking at one of the top alternate history writers active today, Robert Conroy. Hopefully, this blog will cover many more writers from this Genre in the future, but there is no way to have a conversation about Alternate History writers without bringing up Robert Conroy. For those of you who have not tried the genre out, it covers the ‘what-if’ scenarios that are replete throughout history, giving a writer the dual advantages of being able to depict actual events and time periods while still feeling free to use their imagination to concoct scenarios involving Richard the Lionheart fighting alien badgers and whatnot.
Robert Conroy has been writing great military-oriented alternate history for the past decade, covering topics ranging from a British intervention in the Civil War to a German invasion of New England at the turn of the 20th century, to a Nazi insurgency following World War II. My first Alternate History book was a book of his called 1901, about the aforementioned German invasion, and it has been my hands-down favorite genre ever since. Generally, his books revolve around one minor decision made by a historic personage at a historical crossroads that sends history hurtling down a different path, striking the perfect balance between plausibility and dramatic tension. He does a great job depicting historic figures and inserts very compelling characters of his own to bring the story together.
Robert Conroy agreed to an interview last month and had some great advice for writing good period fiction, and outlined some of his exciting future projects. Enjoy.
-For the readers who are unfamiliar with you and your work, would you mind describing your personal background and what influenced you to become a professional writer?
I did not begin writing until I retired from a mid-management position at the corporate headquarters of Volkswagen of America. I have an MBA, courtesy of the GI Bill. I love history and I enjoy writing. An easy marriage.
-What tools do you feel are necessary to write an engaging Alternate History novel?
A warped imagination helps. Seriously, a thorough knowledge of the time about which I will be writing. The old saying of who, what, when, where, and why morph into what if and why not. My first novel, 1901, set me on that path. I read a history of espionage (Honorable Treachery) in which the author stated that Kaiser Bill had plans to take New York hostage in return for our giving him Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and other places. Obviously, he didn’t go through with it although the plans were real. I wondered what would have happened had he invaded and, since I had just retired, wrote the novel.
-How would you describe your path to publication (i.e. agenting, self vs. traditional publishing, ebook sales, whatever you feel to be relevant)?
I was fortunate that my first novel was sold without an agent to a small publisher. When that publisher was bought out by Random House, I came in through the back door. It worked well, sort of, but now I have an agent, Eleanor Wood, and she has done wonders. She even sold the rights to Himmler’s War to a publisher in Poland and now there is a Polish language version. Self-publishing is fine but very limited and many of the books I’ve read that have been self-published tend to be very bad. In short, there’s a reason publishers wouldn’t buy them.
Having an agent is definitely the way to go. Most publishers require that a writer have an agent. To anyone who resents having to pay a commission, let me ask a question. Would you rather have 100% of nothing or 85% of a lot? Don’t think too long.
Ebooks are the way of the future and somewhat of the present. There used to be a dreaded word in publishing – Remaindering. This meant that sales had slowed and the remainder of the books would be dumped. With ebooks there is no such thing since inventories can be carried electronically forever. Of my older books, fully ninety percent of sales are from ebooks. They may go on forever.
-How would you describe your writing process?
Very casual. I like to write, not work, about two hours a day and my goal is a thousand words a day. I can usually hit that mark in plenty of time for happy hour. When it becomes work I call it a day.
-Historical fiction requires a great deal of research to ensure that everything from the dialogue to the presence or absence of certain technology is accurate. How do you go about researching your novels?
This is a problem because I don’t have a staff. I own and have read a ton of books and I can do a lot of research at home. Of course, the internet is marvelous. I try to avoid going into too much detail for fear of making a mistake. I have made a few minor ones and that irks me. I hate it when amateur reviewers say that my research has been sloppy. The technology of the period has to be correct and any improved tech has to be a plausible leap. Thus, no jet fighters in 1784. I try to keep the dialog as we would speak today, but without jarring anachronisms. Language is fluid and meanings are always changing. Just think of how the word “gay” has changed over a generation or two. I do have books on word and phrase origins and there is a site on the internet. All are invaluable.
-Where do you see the Alternate History genre going in the next ten years, and what part do you plan on playing in it?
I think there are only two major writers of alternate history, Harry Turtledove and me. We have never met, by the way. Someday, one of us will have a breakthrough novel, hopefully one of mine, that will have people really taking up alternate history which I obviously find fascinating. I do have a personal rule – there will be no time travel or magic. Therefore, Turtledove’s classic Guns of the South I don’t consider an alternate history because time travel played a big part. That said, it was a good book and a fun read.
-Do you have any future projects that you would like to tell your fans about?
Custer in Chains will come out in May, while Germanica 1945 in the fall of 2015. Storm Front, a thriller and a departure from alternate history has been bought but no publishing time has been given. I am now writing a novel about the Civil War.
– What do you know now that you wish you knew starting out?
That publishing is such a slow-moving industry. Sometimes the pace is glacial. Also, unless you really hit it big, you are not going to get rich. I still drive a Ford Fusion. Also, it is next to impossible to write when you have to work for a living.
Thanks for reading! As always, if there are any authors that you would like to see interviewed or questions that you would like to see answered, let me know. Here are some links:
EDIT (9/3/15):I learned today that Robert Conroy passed away earlier this week at the age of 76. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family and tonight I’ll be raising a glass in memory of the writer who first made me interested in what is now my favorite genre.