I have just returned from the Historical Novel Society conference which was held in the mathematical institute at Oxford University. It was a bit like being a student again and was in a similar format to the Festival of Writing at the University of York. And just up the road was the pub frequented by CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein – the Eagle and Child.
A fascinating pub with nooks and crannies and interesting things on the walls, like these:
The weekend’s conference was a fascinating insight into the historical genre and for me broadened the scope of historical writing. There is writing about actual historical characters who we know from reading works from the past (what Tacitus wrote about Nero and Tiberius in the Annals about 1st century Roman civilisation), then there is writing about fictional characters based on actual historical characters – think Hilary Mantel on Thomas Cromwell or Antonia Hodgson on Thomas Hawkins or Manda Scott on Boudica. Then there is historical fiction about ordinary people – everyman – living through historical times.
My particular interest is in the latter. When I grew up I was captivated by Philippa Carr’s Daughters of England series which spanned four centuries from the middle ages to the twentieth century. She spun exciting romance thrillers during violent and changing times and the characters in subsequent books were descendants of characters in the earlier ones so there was a connection running through the entire series.
The conference had panels on the next big thing in historical fiction, digitisation, writing historical thrillers, on consideration of faith and morality in historical fiction, young adult historical fiction and the future of historical fiction, to name but a few.
In addition there were keynote speakers – Melvyn Bragg spoke about his newest work – Now is the Time – about the peasants revolt in the fourteenth century and drew an interesting parallel with the Brexit referendum vote this summer.
Tracy Chevalier spoke about her background, journey to publication and participation in the recent publishing reprise of Shakespeare works in modern novel format. She is redoing Othello in a novel called Black Boy.
I attended two sessions on this – the first titled The Next Big Think in Historical Fiction and the second titled The Future of Historical Fiction. These were interesting in that nobody agreed on what was next other than that they should be compelling stories.
In the first session, David Headley remarked that he would love to see a big sweeping saga covering the Second World War. Simon Taylor would like to see something from 3000 years ago in Ancient Greece. Jane Johnson suggested writing which helped us to understand diversity which is often put forward these days as being something to aspire to but in fact has always existed. And Nick Sayers cited literature in translation and getting away from the history you learn in school as the next big thing. He mentioned specifically Wolf Winter, a Danish Nordic Noir thriller set in 1717 Swedish Lapland.
The second session, looking at the future of historical fiction, began ironically with a retrospective on historical fiction sales between 2010 and 2016. It was an interesting way to start looking forwards by first looking backwards.
Hazel Cushion predicted the audio book would become prominent in the future and this was encouraging. It was the first indicator of a widening of the meaning of fiction and its audience taking into account the developing technologies that are becoming increasingly available, although with that in mind, it might be sensible to consider writing for the aural tradition rather than for the visual. There’s a particular skill to writing for radio, for example, and some of that might need to be reaped to ensure an audio book’s success.
I’m going to throw into the ring my prediction for the future of historical fiction. I could see it becoming more interactive in future where readers become players in the book’s action and make choices that affect the outcome. Obviously this means writers will need to write multiple possible endings (more work for writers is good though, yes?).
And all of this led on naturally to a consideration of what history is. There seems to be a consensus that the past is everything that led up to this moment, but that history is an interpretation of past facts based on present knowledge and understanding.
A fascinating conference. I jumped at the chance of attending as it seems to be held often in America. Next year it is in Oregon, a little too far for me to go.
Oh and I also caught up with Ruth Downie who writes about a Roman medic, called Ruso, who inadvertantly solves crimes. This is another of my favourite series and I’m on the third at the moment – Persona Non Grata – which sees Ruso and his British slave, Tilla, journey to Ruso’s homeland in Gaul.
In the meantime, we must all continue playing our part in making history.
Until next time …