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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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’.
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 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.
Williams invented a doorway. In The Dictionary of Lost Words, she breathes life into the words that fell through history’s cracks.
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.
The following sessions from the 2021 HNSA conference are referenced in this post:
- Geraldine Brooks (Elisabeth Storrs in Conversation with Geraldine Brooks)
- Kelly Rimmer, Sue Williams and Kelly Gardiner (Bio-Fiction: Which Lies Do We Tell?)
- Alli Sinclair (I Never Knew: Lost Women’s Histories)
- Kate Forsyth (Jenny Quinlan in Conversation with Kate Quinn and Kate Forsyth)
- Catherine Jinks, Jock Serong and Kate Kruimink (The Dark Heart: 1830–1840s Australian Fiction)
- Mirandi Riwoe (Research and Fieldwork workshop)
- Steven Carroll and Pip Williams (Stephen Romei in Conversation with Steven Carroll and Pip Williams)
- Julie Janson (Keynote address)
Other Authors and Books
- Jesse Blackadder
- E J Corbett Mentorship
- The Codebreakers by Alli Sinclair
- A Treacherous Country by Kate Kruimink
- The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
- Tom Roberts. (1885). Bourke Street, Melbourne
- Phil May. ‘The Mongolian Octopus: His Grip on Australia’. The Bulletin, 21 August 1886, pp.12-13
- Sebastien Le Clerc the elder. (17th century.) The Seesaw. Etching. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Felton Bequest, 1925.