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Historical Novel Society Conference--Oxford 2016


The ancient city of Oxford with its fabled university, narrow medieval streets and red brick buildings seemed the perfect spot for a meeting on historical fiction. In the beginning of September, with the first hint of autumn already evident in sprinkles of amber amidst the green, the Historical Novel Society held its annual conference here. Although I had been to Oxford many years ago, I had forgotten that the university is comprised of multiple colleges spread throughout the city. The HNS Conference was held at the college of St. Anne's on Woodstock Road. It was an appropriate setting for a gathering of writers whose works spanned the period from ancient Egypt to the nineteenth century.

                 The conference was organized around the-panel-of-experts concept, comprised mainly of writers, publishers, editors and agents. It stretched over three days covering a range of topics from Writing the Historical Thriller, Medieval Women, The Future of Historical Fiction to Creating Fictional Historical Characters, Working with an Agent or Going Solo, to mention but a few. The gathering had the typical mix of readers, published authors, aspiring authors and first-timers who came looking for encouragement and knowledge about the craft of writing.

                 In  an effort to pull all this together I sat down one evening in a pub over a beer to think. Fortunately I was interrupted by Eric Burton of the Animals singing The House of the Rising Sun on the pub radio. Echoes of the sixties. Listening to it I was struck by the power of art, in this case writing set to music, to transport one back in time, to reach through the generations, to build bridges across the ages, to bind people in the distant past to those of the present, to reveal what is hidden and bring it into the light of day. Fiction, historical or otherwise, has the power to do that. It struck me that maybe that's what a conference on writing can foster and encourage. It's a forum where one can learn how to create new meaning from disparate historical facts or events and weave them into stories, stories that not only entertain but also disrupt our comfortable perceptions of the world as we think it is, or was.

                 One of the keynoters at the conference, Melvyn Bragg, BBC writer and producer, in speaking about his new novel, Now is the Time, his fourteenth century novel about England, touched on an aspect of this. He certainly disrupted my view of a bygone era with a world view so strikingly different from our own as to be shocking. The novel introduces us to a period in history in which the black death has devastated over forty percent of the English population. This was a time in which imagination and reason were circumscribed by religion as in a vise. Since God was the cause of all things, he was the cause of the black death. Mankind must have angered God by sin. There was no other possible explanation within that claustrophobic world view. Man was trapped in a fortress of ignorance and blind obedience. This idea is frightening and has lessons for us today.

                 But  the conference did address other issues not quite as heavy or gloomy.  On one panel when confronted by the question, "What is the future of Historical Fiction," the panel members began spit-balling. They were as much as sea as the rest of us. One saw a big surge in audio books especially in the U.S. Another predicted the loosening of the genre system, to allow for the inclusion of books that didn't fit neatly into categories. Yet another predicted that Amazon would deliver the coup de grace to big chain stores like Barnes and Noble. Ironically, this would clear space for the revival of small independents that were more service-oriented. And then there was the panel on real life heroes and heroines. Hate to shatter childhood illusions, but Robin Hood? Nah, he didn't exist, not at least in the sanitized version history has handed down to us. In all likelihood he was conjured up from a worthy named Williken of the Wheel--a killer and a violent thug. Sorry!

                 Finally, there are the odds and ends one walks away with from a conference when it's over, like raindrops dripping from leaves after a shower. These are the items that you think about on your way home, gems distilled from the overall experience. Here are a few that I walked away with: writing must be driven by passion; don't write to satisfy the market. A book needs to be as long as a book needs to be, as long as it takes to tell the story. (Of course the trick here is determining the appropriate length of the story--not so simple.) All historical characters, to some extent, embody modern attitudes. There's no escaping that.

                 So that's it from Oxford. Not a comprehensive review by any means, but the impressions of one person. Now I'm going to finish my beer and cogitate a little more about "The house in New Orleans" which I first heard in L.A. going south on the 405 almost fifty years ago.


Seamus Beirne



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