When I first saw the Historical Novel Society was to have the 2016 conference in Oxford this year, I was so excited. I opened up the conference guide and pored over the workshops, salivating over the topics and authors running them... I went to sign up, only to find just about everything was fully booked. The only spaces left were on Sunday. It was the last Sunday of the summer holiday, the following day I'd be back at work, full-on, no breaks til Christmas (tell a lie...there'll be the October half term, of course ;-) ). Thing is, though, I could quite happily have done every one of the ten workshops, but I could only pick two, being as they ran simultaneously, darn it. Even many of those workshops were full. So, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey-style, I picked two of these choices:
First choice to come from these - really, how to choose?
- The Future of Historical Fiction (What do publishers, agents and authors see ahead?)
- The 1066 Debate (Crown the King: William or Harold?)
- Streets through the Ages (Everyday life as bedrock for Storytelling)
- Foreign Rights and Translation
- Secret Stuart Marriages (Navigating the politics of love at the Stuart Courts)
Second choice to come from these - all excellent topics:
- Confronting Past Lies (Can novels tell greater truths than history books; should novelists be concerned to try?)
- Going Indie: Questions and Answers
- Far and Strange (Writing about places remote and unfamiliar)
- Time Slip; Time Travel (Making them work)
- Working with an Agent v Going Solo
And that's just Sunday morning. Can you imagine how amazing to spend the whole weekend, from Friday to Sunday? I heard the mention of 'conference fatigue'. Me, a newbie? Can't imagine this.
So, anyway, today was the day... yesterday I was so conscious that the conference was going on without me. 'Conference envy'? Yep, I can imagine that. In fact, I experienced it. (Next time I'll be making a point of an earlier booking.) I'd decided to drive up, catch the Park-&-Ride into town, and, so nothing would go wrong, had printed out numerous maps of the town centre, the bus stops, the bus time-table, the conference guide, AA route-planner (just in case the sat-nav failed) last night before I went to bed. I only had a few hours before I'd have to get up at 5.30 to reach Oxford for the 9am start, so I worked out. 5.30 might have once been my favourite time of the morning, but, well, I just need every hour of sleep I can get these days. Coffee, more coffee, and I dived into the car, scrunched up wads of maps in one hand, notepad, backpack and the rest of my paraphernalia in the other. Later, I realised, I'd needed so little of it. Notepad and pen would've had me sorted!
Anyone who knows me might know of my dream-of-the-future of having a huge mansion (LOL) I could turn into a massive writer-retreat-come-place-to-stay-when-writers-come-to-the-UK. I dream of this place, where so many wonderful word artists can stop over for a little break, or while they do a book tour, or simply while they visit the locale... like a big commune. Yeah, never worked out the details, but simply like the idea of so many creative people in one place. Well, anyway, today was like the nearest thing I've ever come to that feeling. My first conference for writers/authors/readers...everyone interested in books. Everyone talking about books. Everyone thinking books. Heaven.
It started at the Park-&-Ride. I stepped on the bus and asked to be let off at the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter stop, as per emailed instructions. The bus driver pointed to the back and said she thought most of the ladies back there were going the same direction. I received a smile back as I sat down and said hello. I was comforted that they would know where to get off, so sat in silence and happily watched the outskirts of Oxford pass me by. The buildings seemed to age more as we neared the town centre. One of the ladies bounced up, ending my daydreaming, and pushed the button, saying we'd passed the stop! I hadn't seen a single sign of the building we'd been sent a picture of, but hey-ho, I was happy to believe someone who seemed to know. Four of us got off at the next stop. Turns out there had been a detour because of a circus setting up in the streets nearby, so we'd needed to walk. I chatted to the lady who had recognised we'd passed the stop as she led the way, walking fast because she was taking one of the workshops at 9.30. I was delighted to find I was talking to author of House of Shadows and historian Nicola Cornick (@NicolaCornick), who was apparently presenting the first workshop - Stuart Secret Marriages - with someone I've been dying to meet - Andrea Zuvich (@17thCenturyLady) another 17th Century historian and author of The Stuarts in 100 Facts! We parted company at the entrance as she rushed to get ready for her talk.
My first impression, as I walked down the steps into a room full of tables, around which people drank coffee, tables laden with badges to be picked up, and at least one table laden with books. It's not like I haven't been to the London Book Fair a couple of times, surrounded by book stalls, but the atmosphere there is different. It's mostly about publishers and agents touching base, in my experience, and somewhat akin to a whitewashed hospital compared to this cosy, front room feeling I had here. This was writers, readers...it felt more fundamental. They were all into historical fiction. My kinda peoples.
I picked up my badge, and asked if there were any of those HNS conference bags I'd seen folk carry around? Sorry, all gone. Not the end of the world, but it would've been nice to have a little memento of my first conference. Well, that's where I could've hugged the lady handing out the badges there and then! "If you meet me after the workshops, you can have mine." OMG - how generous - it was such a friendly and welcoming gesture that made me feel 'I've arrived. I'm part of this conference!' The lovely lady who offered up her bag to me? None other than Christina Courtenay (@PiaCCourtenay) - Whoo hoo! I didn't even remember at the time that we followed each other on Twitter. In fact, I was so bowled over by the whole thing, I think I walked around in another world, not quite recognising this was a synergy of real life and virtual life. Twitter friends come to life! Christina also introduced me to Henriette Gyland (@henrigyland), another Scandanavian, a pleasure to meet.
First workshop I had signed up for was Foreign Rights and Translation, chaired by Carol Blake of Blake Friedmann literary agency; with other panelists as Louise Rogers Lalaurie (@LLalaurie), translator of Tregian's Ground and winner of Best Translated Book Award for Gabriel Wittcop's Murder Most Serene and author of The Gondola Maker, Laura Morelli (@lauramorelliphd).
(I had a question to ask: "How does translating historical fiction differ from translating contemporary fiction set in the present?" In my mind was my concern about translating 'The Popish Midwife', with such a lot of Ye Olde English... I wondered if it were even possible. For instance, how would a person translate the change of style and grammar, or the odd words like 'Forsooth!' or 'Gads!' into, say, Spanish or French?) Did I ask the question? Nope, not a bit of it. I was so carried away with the great interactive discussion about the use of agents, contracts and personal stories used to illustrate points, I totally forgot. Also, I was fascinated by how many folk came from the US and other places to the conference. And then the workshop was over, and my thought was to find Andrea as well as see where I was going next.
I didn't get far. The book stand, bulging with historical novels and history books, beckoned. Of course I had to buy something. Who can pass a book stand and not buy something? Then I realised I hadn't had a drink since the early hours of the morning, and maybe it would be a good idea to get a coffee. Got me a coffee (one of those classically small cups on a saucer - coffee gone in a gulp - needed more, but still too many things to do, people to meet).
It was already time to go to a keynote address by Tracy Chevalier (@Tracy_Chevalier) (author of Girl with a Pearl Earring and At the Edge of the Orchard) on 'Fact into Fiction: A Historical Novelist's Relationship to the Past'. I must admit, I empathised a lot with how Tracy came to historical fiction, first through genealogy, then through realising that, to write any piece of fiction set in the past, if you don't know the answers already, you have to question everything - from 'did they eat at a table?' to 'did they eat with a knife and fork' and 'what did they eat?' You can't assume anything.
Like Tracy, when I started The Popish Midwife, I had no idea how many little details I'd need to find out. My similar line of questioning might have been:
- 'Did men smoke in the coffee houses?' (yes, there are images of them doing so)
- 'What did they smoke?' (Tobacco. This was, after all, after Raleigh's time)
- 'What did they smoke with?' (clay pipes were the thing)
- 'How did they light the pipes, did they have matches or lighters?' (One method was to use special long tongs to pick a small ember of coal/burning wood out of the fire)
Tracy was interesting and had the audience give a knowing chuckle or two, but mostly had us rapt.
My next optional workshop was 'Confronting Past Lies' - this was one I particularly wanted to be a part of, having constantly questioned myself, how much fiction was acceptable, how much truth should be in a biographical fiction. Could you stretch the truth? I wanted to tell Elizabeth Cellier's story as close as possible to the facts I'd found on her, and wrote every chapter based on something that illustrate those facts or filled in between the facts. But, even now, I feel guilty for putting in there one detail that wasn't fact, the only one I knew to be false. It was sacrilege, I was sure! I had called Elizabeth's French midwife friend a 'Huguenot', knowing full well she was a Catholic. She hadn't come to England to get away from the prejudice of the majority of the population, for that, too, was Catholic. Like Elizabeth Cellier, she was one of the religious minority, but I wanted her to be a Huguenot, a protestant. However, my conscience played on that one, until I simply itched to correct it!
On the panel of this workshop were three excellent speakers: Chair was author of The American Boy and The Ashes of London, Andrew Taylor (@AndrewJRTaylor) , Then there was Jenny Barden (@jennywilldoit), author of Mistress of the Sea and The Lost Duchess and, not least, Margaret George, author of Elizabeth I. (see, told you I was going to name drop ;-) ) It wasn't long before there was a lively discussion about the similarities and differences between writing history and writing historical fiction. The historian has to guess much of the reasoning between sparse facts, but so does the historical fiction writer. Both rely on those facts, but "fiction can be truer than plain facts", because it tries to create the best scenerio to account for them, where historians can only state them. "First and foremost, we are telling stories," says Andrew. "Without engaging the reader we are nothing". What we know as true shouldn't be played with, but there are "areas of doubt" that we can create within. Then Margaret George added "Gaps in sources leave wiggle room to answer the question: 'What Makes them tick?'"
The Historian adds theories and should try to be objective, whereas the novelist provides/ creates emotions and makes it more immersive. Sometimes there's a crossover - an increasing trend to use the art of fiction to write history more interestingly. Still, historians tend to cross reference their work, where the novelist more often postulates a single view of the events, but the novelist breathes life into the facts (Well, I think we all know that :-) )
So, before the conference wrapped up, we had a bit of fun in The HistFicionist Challenge - a quiz with the whole audience against Tracy Chevalier, CC Humphreys (@HumphreysCC author of the Jack Absolute series amongst others) and Harry Sidebottom (author of the Throne of Caesars series amongst others). Not really a fair game, with three minds against a lecture room full of historical fiction readers, writers, enthusiasts... but such fun!
The buffet lunch was superb and, for once, there was more than only carrot sticks and houmous for us vegans. In fact, there was a lovely large tray of roast Mediterranean vegetable sandwiches on each table... plenty enough for everyone (I did like that idea that vegan food wasn't only for the vegans :-) ) I hijacked the table with Christina Courtenay, Henriette Gyland and a couple of others (here I go a bit fuzzy, but I do know that these amazing woman had made much of the arrangements for the conference). They were excellent company. I left them to find Andrea Zuvich, who I still hoped to see (I only found out later that I'd passed by her table where she was doing a signing...what a short-sighted mole I am! :-O ) and then left, feeling very satisfied with my day.
I arrived at the bus stop at the same time as Harry Sidebottom, and friend (I'm afraid I didn't catch his name) and we chatted amiably in the back of the bus on the way back to the Park n Ride, there to part company. In the car park, again I bumped into Christina and Henriette, swearing I wasn't following them (I was quite grateful my car was nearby, and I could click the door open, as proof I wasn't stalking them! ;-) )
The best thing about the whole morning, that toe dipped into the HNS conference, was the feeling of camaraderie, of friendship, of an extended family gathering. It might be that I bulldozed my way into some conversations, tagging myself onto folk who didn't know me, but they were so absolutely lovely not to show it, and not to judge. I hope I might meet all these people again, and grow our friendships and relationships deeper: it would be an honour to know each and every one of them more.
Further Adventure: ('More?' you say.)
You'd think the conference would be enough for the day but, when I sat in the car, I made a snap decision - Great Missenden and Buckinghamshire couldn't be far away. Great Missenden being the place I'd discovered a record to show Elizabeth Cellier, real-life heroine of The Popish Midwife, to have been buried. 45 minutes. Over an hour closer than from home in Sussex. I set the Sat Nav and off I went.
As I approached Great Missenden, something like awe filled me. I was being pulled to Elizabeth's final resting place. In my mind was an old entry of a book that said there had been a brass plate in the chancery of the church, on which was written Richard Dormer and Mary Cellier. And then, in another place, 'Mrs Cellier the popish midwife, who was of the Dormer family, and is celebrated for her concern in the pretended meal-tub plot in the year 1679, lies buried in the chancel of Great Missenden Church' (truth be told, I didn't remember all that, only that there was some sort of plaque in the church :-) ):
With the help of a couple of locals, I found the old church at the top of a windy road up a hill, hidden behind a small wooded area. I would have had trouble finding it if it wasn't for my helpers! But, it was worth the search. An aged and majestic church greeted me:
I thought to walk around inside, but I soon discovered that the silence of prayer wasn't on the cards for this Sunday. Inside, cream tea and music was being served, to the delight of a fair few people sitting in the pews chatting. I was greeted and asked if I'd come for the cream tea? On explaining my mission, as so often happens, I was passed from one helpful parishioner to another, until one lady on another table pointed to her husband and said, 'he's the one who can help you. The one in the red apron.' As it happened, he couldn't help me, but he tried. He showed me the book of all those who had died in WWII and the war memorial. He showed me where headstones had been used as a wall, and pointed out the old churchyard (as opposed to the newer council-run burial ground across the road) where I might walk between old headstones that had laid there for centuries.
He also told me a bunch of great stories from history books he'd been reading, entertaining me for some time! He left me with the warning to stay on the path in one area to the left, because it was dangerous, but told me, if I had an accident, he was on duty today, and could give me the kiss of life (I suspect he might not have said that if his wife had been in earshot! :-D )
On the way home, I wondered if I should be worried, when I stopped off at the service station and saw this van:
...but I was so hungry by that time, I decided to risk it for one of the service stations Mexican tortillas!