Gleanings from #HNSA2021

Another conference shifts from the physical to the virtual. More dodgy internet connections, more barking dogs and chattering children, more partners crouching in screen backdrops, more collective groans.

Hang on. Just back up a minute.

Not everyone feels that way. Let’s be honest: a virtual conference is an introvert’s dream. I know many people are chafing at the bit, desperate to return to in-person gatherings, but I’m not one of them. For introverts like me, a virtual conference is, as Mary Poppins would say, ‘practically perfect in every way’.

Not only do I avoid travel and accommodation costs, I also avoid actual people. No more standing in solitary isolation at break times admonishing myself for my anti-social preferences, no more repeat visits to the conference bookshop to avoid conversations with strangers, no more disappearing outdoors on the pretext of needing some fresh air.

For me, virtual has much to recommend it. And the 2021 Historical Novel Society Australasia (HNSA) conference, held online for the first time, did not disappoint.

The conference theme was Recovery: Restoring, Reconciling and Re-imagining Lost Histories. My conference gleanings fall into two further ‘Re-’ categories: Research and Realism.

Research: Resources for Writers

How do historical fiction writers discover what Sydney’s Liverpool St looked like in 1909 when Foy’s department store moved there from Oxford St?

How do they know what food was served on the SS Great Britain when she sailed away from Liverpool in 1871, bound for Hobson’s Bay, and with Anthony Trollope on board?

How do they find out whether buttons were used in everyday clothing in 13th century England?

Authors at the HNSA conference proffered their favourite tips and resources and, because they were speaking from their own homes, they could readily pluck items in hard copy from their shelves for ‘show and tell’. Here are some of the resources recommended at the conference:

Dictionaries and Thesauri

Geraldine Brooks held aloft her weighty, two-volume Historical Thesaurus of the OED. The thesaurus ‘works as a taxonomic index of language history … it is not just for looking up synonyms – instead, it can be used to explore the different words used for a particular meaning over time’. You can take a 15-minute virtual tour of the thesaurus to learn more.

While the first edition of the thesaurus was published in print format, the second edition is available here. Perhaps your protagonist is strolling through the English countryside in 1150 admiring the Spring blossom on a crab apple tree but, wait, was it called a crab apple back then? The answer, according to the historical thesaurus? It was a wergulu or a wuduaeppel or a wudusuræppel. (I do love a thesaurus.)

Screenshot from the Historical Thesaurus of the OED

Images

Kelly Rimmer recommends looking at photos to understand an era. I would add that, (pre- and post-photography), paintings and newspaper illustrations are another way of getting a feel for a setting and a society.

Tom Roberts (1885). Bourke Street, Melbourne

Think of the 16th century games depicted in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Children’s Games or the activity in late 19th century Melbourne in Tom Roberts’ Bourke Street.

Trove

Catherine Jinks calls Trove ‘a miracle’.

Trove combines the collections of Australian libraries, universities, museums, galleries and archives. Many of its resources are digitised including newspapers (mostly up to the early 1950s), Government Gazettes, maps, pictures, photographs, music, letters and interviews.

Reference Works

Kate Forsyth

Kate Forsyth likes to ‘deep dive’ into the social history of the eras she writes about. How do you know where/how people went to the toilet in a particular historical period? Kate uses reference books like Sally Magnusson’s Life of Pee: The Story of How Urine Got Everywhere.

Experts and Scholars

Alli Sinclair lauds the knowledge of experts and scholars. Her experience in writing The Codebreakers was that experts want to share their knowledge. Professional associations and university departments are a good place to start when tracking down specialists.

Alli Sinclair

Aggregated Data Sets

Jock Serong recommends the Google Books Ngram Viewer. Enter a word or phrase into the viewer to see its occurrence in a corpus of books over a period of time.

For example, if your characters are meeting for a sexual liaison in World War I Sydney, it’s unlikely to have taken place in a motel room – the word ‘motel’ does not start appearing in books until the mid- to late 1940s.

You Tube

Kate Kruimink suggests YouTube as a way to hear the music of a particular historical period.

For her novel A Treacherous Country, in which her young protagonist sails from England to Van Diemen’s Land, she listened to recordings of sea shanties via YouTube. (Captain Halyard has multiple compilations of sea shanties and folk songs on YouTube. You can get a taste of them here.)

Jock Serong and Kate Kruimink

Cartoons

Mirandi Riwoe suggests cartoons as a source for discovering what people were really thinking.

An example highlighted by Riwoe is The Bulletin’s 1886 depiction Chinese people. Phil May’s cartoon (complete with a recognisable Henry Lawson smoking opium) is titled ‘The Mongolian Octopus: His Grip on Australia’ and it encapsulates The Bulletin’s and the wider community’s attitude in the late 19th century.

Phil May. ‘The Mongolian Octopus: His Grip on Australia’. The Bulletin, 21 August 1886, pp.12-13.

Fieldwork

Despite the extraordinary array of resources available today – both online and in hard copy – nothing beats research ‘on the ground’.

In yet another impact of COVID19, more than one HNSA conference panellist revealed cancelled plans for research trips to overseas destinations during 2020 and 2021. Expect 2022s international flights to be crammed with historical novelists.

Realism: Historical Authenticity and Accuracy

How do historical novelists balance detailed research with captivating fiction? Because, as Sue Williams succinctly puts it, ‘readers don’t want to read the research’.

Perhaps writing historical fiction is a bit like being on a seesaw. The author begins with the seesaw weighted down on the side of research but finishes with the story solidly on the ground and the research sitting lightly in the air.

The Seesaw. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

And it needs to be remembered that the historical record is both incomplete and subjective. It can only take the novelist so far.

An incomplete record ‘recovered by the imagination’

During her conference workshop Research and Fieldwork, Mirandi Riwoe referenced Hilary Mantel’s take on historical fiction: 99.9% of human activity never makes it onto the record and ‘can only be recovered by the imagination’ (History Extra, 28 July 2020).

The fiction writer, says Steven Carroll, needs to ‘take history by the hand and lead it into the land of supposition’.

Steven Carroll

The subjectivity of history

Travelling into the land of supposition offers the novelist scope to remove some of the filters entrenched in the written record.

Pip Williams

Pip Williams reminds us that ‘it’s wrong to think that history is true and fiction is not’.

Non-fiction writing is subjective; historians and eyewitnesses write from (often unacknowledged or unrecognised) perspectives.

Historical fiction is important, says Williams, because the ‘official’ record is often inadequate to answer the questions we’ve got about history. It doesn’t necessarily tell us the ‘why’; the novelist can posit a thesis. As Carroll puts it, we need to ‘invent a doorway’ to do the things that history cannot.

Here’s an example.

In the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the words of women are largely missing. Where are the words of the scullery and the birthing room, asks Williams?

If those words were not found in a written source, they were omitted from the dictionary. Even the words that are included are generally sourced from the writings of male authors, and then filtered through the minds and morals of male editors and male lexicographers.

Cover image courtesy of Penguin Random House

Williams invented a doorway. In The Dictionary of Lost Words, she breathes life into the words that fell through history’s cracks.

Remembering

On a sombre note, Kelly Gardiner reminded conference participants of the deaths in 2020 of esteemed authors Jesse Blackadder and Liz Corbett.

The HNSA has established a mentorship in Corbett’s name. The mentorship, ‘for a previously unpublished author from Australia or New Zealand’, will help an author develop an unpublished historical fiction manuscript for young adults.

Julie Janson – Keynote Address

It would be remiss of me not to mention Julie Janson’s keynote conference address. (It was the only session where I missed being physically present in the conference room with other people. I’m sure I wasn’t the only virtual attendee who clapped at the end of the address.)

Janson, a Burruberongal woman of the Darug people, and a playwright, novelist and poet, took as her theme ‘the role and responsibility of historical novelists in recovering lost, overlooked or deliberately erased histories’. She asked whether the genre could ‘play a part in achieving truth in reconciliation’.

Janson concluded her address by suggesting three specific measures to aid reconciliation: change the Australian flag, change the national anthem and change the date of Australia Day.

Links and Sources

If you were unable to attend the conference but would like to know more, the online recordings will be made accessible, for a fee, for a limited time. Check the HNSA website for details.

Conference sessions

The following sessions from the 2021 HNSA conference are referenced in this post:

Other Authors and Books

Images

After Story – Della’s Discoveries

Here’s how the story starts: Jasmine’s friend, Bex, wants to write some articles about English literary sites to launch her career in travel journalism. Bex co-opts Jasmine to accompany her to the UK and offers to pay half Jasmine’s fare. Six weeks prior to departure, Bex lands a new job; Jasmine now has a spare ticket. Jasmine asks her mum, Della – who has rarely left her hometown – to go on the trip with her.

Here’s how the story starts: ‘People often assume I chose to go to law school because of what happened to my sister.’ (Jasmine)

Here’s how the story starts: One night, while Della and her daughters are sleeping, seven-year-old Brittany is snatched from her home.

Here’s how the story starts: ‘I was fifteen years old when I ran away from home … I came across Jimmy coming back from the river.’ (Della)

Here’s how the story starts: ‘A long time ago before there had been any death…’ (Cultural story told by Della)

After Story is a book with many beginnings and many stories – stories of the past and the present, of the living and the dead. The novel unfolds over the course of 11 days and across 65,000 years. It lives within time and outside time.

Which Story To Choose?

Multiple themes unfold in Larissa Behrendt’s After Story: love, loss and grief; family violence and intergenerational trauma; the Australian justice system; the English literary canon; and ‘deep listening’ and the wisdom of elders. I’m going to focus on just one strand: Della’s discoveries on her trip with Jasmine.

Map of Della and Jasmine’s tour

Discovery #1 – Names and Dates

Unlike university-educated Jasmine, Della ‘wasn’t very good at learning in school’. She had dropped out of formal education by the age of 16 when she gave birth to her first child. But Della has a keen sense of curiosity. Early in their 11-day tour, Jasmine buys Della a notebook so her mother can write down the things she wants to remember.

Della starts to fill the notebook with factual snippets: ‘Great Fire. 1666. Few lives lost’, ‘Charles Dickens – 12 years old. Blacking = shoe polish’, ‘Winchester – very old. Cathedral. 900 years like yew tree’.

Winchester Cathedral, Choir Stalls

On Day 2 of the tour, she jots down: ‘Ye Old Cheshire Cheese public house’. She has learnt that an earlier pub on the site burnt down in the great fire of 1666 – a fact she had recorded the previous day. ‘See, that’s why you write stuff down’, she thinks. ‘Then you can join the dots and see how everything’s connected.’

Discovery #2 – ‘Helping something to grow’

The function of the notebook expands as the tour proceeds. Wandering the grounds of Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst Castle sparks Della’s interest in gardening. The idea of ‘helping something to grow’ appeals to her. She decides that, when she returns to Australia, she will start a garden at her own home even though no-one in her street has a garden ‘except for Aunty Elaine, and since she’d passed away most of her plants seemed to have died’.

Because she is a complete novice, Della purchases ‘a good book for starters’ at the castle’s gift shop. As the tour continues, she dips in and out of the book, learning about seeds and soil and compost, and about air plants and cut-and-come-again plants and companion plants. She begins listing memory prompts at the back of her notebook: ‘Aunty Elaine’s flowers?’, ‘Easy to grow?’, ‘Watering can’, ‘Bucket’.

Sissinghurst Castle Gardens by Len Williams. Licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Throughout the tour, Della takes herself out of buildings and into gardens, from Dean Garnier’s Garden at Winchester Cathedral and the garden at Thomas Hardy’s Cottage in Higher Bockhampton to the hotel garden at her Bath hotel and the Knot Garden at Nash’s House in Stratford-upon-Avon. (“knot garden”, not “not garden”’, she writes in her notebook – ‘my own little joke’.)

Although the tour’s focus is literary, Della observes:

If there was one thing I was learning today it wasn’t about books but about how lovely a garden could be. I wondered that I had never thought it until now but I guess that’s what seeing the world is all about – opening your eyes to things you haven’t seen before.

Discovery #3 – Wondering while Wandering

Travelling by bus and on foot offers the chance to reflect. Time and again, Della pauses to wonder:

  • seeing the flourishing garden at the bombed ruins of London’s St Dunstan-in-the-East, now wedged between skyscrapers, she wonders about remnant ‘pieces of history’ and then reflects further on the 65,000-plus years over which Aboriginal people have lived in Australia. ‘When you think of it, even things from Shakespeare’s day are all kind of new.’
St Dunstan-in-the-East, London
  • walking through Oxford, with its ‘bell towers and church steeples, narrow lanes and gardens, markets and rivers’, Della muses: ‘as soon as you arrived here to study you must have felt you were special and in your own little world’. This thought then prompts her to wonder what it must have been like for Jasmine when she first moved to the city to study. ‘I felt a little ashamed that until that moment I’d never thought much about what a big change and adjustment it must have been for her to go to such a new place like a university … I was more focused on how much I missed her when she left, so I didn’t think about it from any sides other than just mine.’
Oxford street, looking towards the former All Saint’s Church, now part of Lincoln College
  • visiting Cambridge, with its ‘big buildings and big thoughts’, Della wonders ‘why the British didn’t think they had everything they needed right here in their own country so had to go and claim someone else’s’ and, having done so, why try ‘to erase what was there before. I guess because you think one is superior to the other’. But, if you were ‘really smart’, you’d value Aunty Elaine’s kind of knowledge ‘about plants and medicines and the stars’.

Discovery #4 – Cultural Stories and Practices

‘I’m beginning to understand why you might [travel] now I’ve done it, and can see how much you learn’, thinks Della. But, in truth, it’s a recognition of the importance of what she already knows that is Della’s greatest discovery on her trip.

Prompted by the sights she sees, Della’s memories of cultural stories and practices re-surface. She begins to add another kind of entry to her notebook – snatches of the old cultural stories that have been passed down by Aunty Elaine.

On the final day of the trip, Della and Jasmine visit the Museum of London where Della learns more about the Great Fire of 1666: ‘that fire was an angry one – violent, hot and intense’. Her thoughts continue: ‘Back home, fire was used to keep the land healthy – a cool fire could help clear the undergrowth. I thought again about how Aunty Elaine said fire helped some plants regenerate … I tried to remember all I could about it. There were complex rules about where fire burning should take place … I took a minute to write everything I could remember into my notebook.’

Walking from the museum to the British Library, Jasmine tells Della how much she enjoyed Aunty Elaine’s stories and suggests to her mother, ‘we should write them down’. Della instantly realises: ‘It was that thing when you have already been doing something but until someone puts it into words, you don’t quite realise that it’s what you’ve been thinking.’

I thought of all those bits and pieces I’d been noting down and now it seemed like somehow the spirits had brought it all together and planted this idea that we should record it … I can’t tell you how much I liked the idea.

Discovery #5 – A Tip for Novice Travellers

Finally, on a slightly frivolous note, here’s one last discovery: with an overcrowded suitcase and a constant urge to buy gifts to take home, Della learns how to roll clothes so they take up less packing space – a not inconsequential skill, especially now she’s had a taste of travel and thinks she might enjoy more.

‘I’ve liked the trip’, she tells her sister Kiki, ‘I wouldn’t mind another one.’

Links and Sources

A garden in Bath frequented by Jane Austen.