23 August 2014

HNS Indie Award 2014 Finalist Author - Virginia Cox

This year, 2014, the Historical Novel Society has introduced for the first time, an annual award for the best Indie / Self-Published Historical Novel, with winner and runner-up prizes kindly sponsored by Orna Ross, bestselling literary novelist and director of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) and Geri Clouston of Indie B.R.A.G. There were eight eventual short-listed writers, from which four finalists were chosen by Orna Ross, with award-winning historical novelist Elizabeth Chadwick selecting the winner and runner-up.

Our judges found it very difficult to make their selections 
as the quality of writing was excellent, and to thank the authors, 
I would like to feature them all here on my Blog

So please welcome Finalist author 
Virginia Cox and her novel
The Subtlest Soul

It’s a curious experience for someone like me, who has spent her entire adult life studying the culture of a particular historical period from an academic perspective, to turn to writing a fictional narrative set in that period. In some respects, it is all strangely familiar. Any scholar who works on literary history (or any form of history) necessarily becomes so immersed in the period she works on that she comes to feel almost as at home there as in the modern world—if not more! So, trying to get inside the heads of people who lived five hundred years ago was not a particularly novel exercise for me. It’s something I have spent every day of my life doing since the age of around twenty-one.

And yet, and yet, and yet … Writing a piece of fiction is a very different experience from writing an academic study. Most obviously, the creative freedom involved is vastly different, even if you’re aiming for a good degree of historical accuracy. The Subtlest Soul tracks a five-year period of Italian political history pretty closely, so much so that you could use it as a background primer for the study of Machiavelli’s Prince. The main political events succeed one another in the order that they happened, and I have made only minor deviations from the historical record, all of which are diligently registered in an endnote. That still leaves a considerable leeway for invention, however, in a way that was rather liberating for me after a professional life as a slave to fact! My protagonist is a fictional figure and I have woven in a fictional spy/love/coming-of-age plot, incorporating some fairly outrageous adventure elements, alongside my more sober historical material (not that the historical material is especially sober in this case—we are talking about the era of the Borgias, after all).

One great novelty for me was that writing a novel forced me to imagine the material conditions of life in the early sixteenth century in more detail than a literary or intellectual historian generally has to: how people dressed, what they ate, how they lit their rooms, how long it took to travel from one place to another in different seasons of the year. All this wasn’t exactly remote for me, as there has been a strong convergence between literary history and material history in recent years (one of the most interesting academic conferences I have attended recently was on Renaissance accessories, with talks on mirrors, scissors, fans, handkerchiefs, etc.—almost all delivered by people who first cut their academic teeth on literary studies). Still, however much time I have spent in sixteenth-century minds in my life, this was the first time I had really tried to place myself imaginatively inside a sixteenth-century skin. I found that aspect of writing the novel very interesting, and feel it may even have enriched my academic work.

The period I write about in the novel, the opening years of the sixteenth century, is one of the most dramatic and momentous of this whole period of Italian history. It’s a time when Leonardo da Vinci’s career was at its peak, when Raphael and Michelangelo were starting theirs; when the Borgias were astounding all observers with their audacious political scheming and military adventurism; and when Machiavelli was elaborating the explosive political thought that he would unleash on the world with The Prince. All this leaves a mark on the novel. The political plot tracks the rise and fall of Cesare Borgia, and Leonardo and Machiavelli both appear as characters (Leonardo in a cameo; Machiavelli in a more substantial role). Machiavelli’s writings also inform the plot of the novel in all kinds of ways. At a narrative level, the political plot of the novel tracks events that Machiavelli wrote about in The Prince and in some of his shorter essays and diplomatic dispatches.  Thematically, as well, the novel engages with one of Machiavelli’s core themes in The Prince: the need for the successful political actor to master ‘the ways of the lion and the fox’—force and fraud.

My narrative territory in the novel has been much explored in recent years. A few months before I published The Subtlest Soul, another, very different novel appeared that exploits some of the same historical material and also features Machiavelli as a character, Michael Ennis’s The Malice of Fortune (Anchor). There’s also an overlap, of course, with the HBO series The Borgias—a production about which I have rather mixed feelings. On the one hand, I feel goodwill towards anything that popularizes ‘my’ period, and you would have to have a heart of stone not to enjoy the spectacle of Jeremy Irons hamming it up as Rodrigo Borgia. On the other hand, I wouldn’t say The Borgias was exactly outstanding in terms of historical accuracy. There’s a Euro-production on the same subject, called Borgia, which does a better job on that score.

I approached writing The Subtlest Soul in an entirely noncommercial manner. The recommended approach for genre novelists who want to make money by writing is to identify the genre they wish to write in; to gain an accurate idea of its conventions through analysis of successful examples; and finally to craft a successful example themselves. Bernard Cornwell has a very informative account on his website of his own formation, which followed these lines. I approached the task—or adventure—in a far more amateurish manner. I essentially set off to write the kind of historical novel I would personally like to have with me if I were embarking on a long-haul flight (something I do rather a lot). I wanted to write a novel crafted to a decent literary standard, but plot-driven and full of incident and colour; sufficiently accurate in historical terms for a reader to learn something about the period, but also true to fiction’s vocation of telling a good yarn. Other than that, I started with no real parameters or guidelines; I just started writing and watched what emerged.

I don’t know what a publisher would think of the formula I came up with, but the great thing about self-publishing is that it allows you to reach out to readers over publishers’ heads. I’ve been encouraged by the response to my novel so far, and it’s wonderful to have reached the finalists’ list for the HNS’s first Indie Award. Helen Hollick deserves a medal for having got this award going, and she and Steve Donoghue and their review teams deserve another for their tireless labours separating the wheat/chaff/sheep/goats among self-published historical novels. It’s hard work, but exactly what needs to be done if self-publishing is to earn its place at the literary table. 

Read the HNS Review of The Subtlest Soul

About the author 
Virginia Cox was born in Devon, England, and educated at Cambridge University, where she completed a PhD in Italian literature.
She taught at the universities of Edinburgh, London (UCL), and Cambridge before moving to the Department of Italian Studies at New York University in 2003. Her specialist fields are Italian Renaissance literature and intellectual history and the history of rhetoric. Her latest academic book (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013) is a bilingual anthology of lyric verse by women poets of the Italian Renaissance 

The Subtlest Soul is available from

HNS Indie Award 2014

HNS Indie Award Short List 2014
judged by Orna Ross

1. The Sower of the Seeds of Dreams by Bill Page
2. Blackmore’s Treasure by Derek Rogers (withdrawn, author deceased)
3. Jacobites' Apprentice by David Ebsworth
4. A Gift for the Magus by Linda Proud
5. The Prodigal Son by Anna Belfrage
6. The Bow of Heaven: Book 1: The Other Alexander by Andrew Levkoff
7. Khamsin: The Devil Wind of the Nile by Inge H. Borg
8. The Subtlest Soul by Virginia Cox
9. Samoa by J. Robert Shaffer

and the 2014 Four Finalists are:
judged by Elizabeth Chadwick

1. Jacobites' Apprentice by David Ebsworth
2. A Gift for the Magus by Linda Proud
3. The Subtlest Soul by Virginia Cox
4  Samoa by J. Robert Shaffer

full details and rules can be found here

Elizabeth Chadwick: website
Indie B.R.A.G. website

HNS Conference 2014

Details of how to submit an Indie / self-published historical novel for review can be found here 


  1. Thanks for sharing how you went about writing your novel! I like that idea of something people would read on a long flight, giving details from the period without overwhelming the reader with info. I really think there has to be a balance in historical fiction--getting those details right, yet pulling average readers into that storyworld without over-complicating things or reading like a textbook. Congrats, Virginia!

    1. Thanks for your kind comment, Heather. I think you're right that information dumps can often be the downfall of historical fiction. Fortunately, I get to dump as much information as I like during my day job as an academic, so I didn't find it too much of a temptation when writing my novel! I hope I struck the right balance, at any rate.

  2. Congratulations, Virginia. Wouldn't it be wonderful it we could all sit down at one of those long hand-polished tables in a vineyard above Florence and discuss our love of history, spinning a good yarn, and having been noticed by the learned folks at the Historical Novel Society.

    1. Yes, what a lovely idea, Inge. One day, perhaps ...


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