A recipe for writing historical fiction - what was cooking at the 2019 HNSA Conference?

The 2019 HNSA conference took place at Western Sydney University's Parramatta campus, from Friday, 25th October (for workshops) through to Sunday, 27th October. At present I have more than one historical WIP stewing in the pot and I was immensely thankful to be able to take full advantage of learning from some masters of the writing craft.

10 key ingredients I discovered at this historical shindig:

1. The Meat of History Repeats

The 2019 HNSA Conference kicks off

'History repeats' was the central theme of this year's HNSA conference. It's a long debated topic among historians and historical novelists alike, and one that Paula Morris stirred vigorously in her brilliant Keynote Address. Speaking like a true connoisseur, she attested that 'History is not static ...It's slippery and shaped by point of view.' Indeed! The maxim that history is generally written by the victors (and more often than not, the men) of a given time period has provided us with a somewhat circumscribed lens, what's more, as Jackie French, the Guest of Honour went on to point out, while the truth is essential, perhaps the 'whole truth' is not. Both their words, and those of Kate Forsyth (HNSA patron) in her sparkling introductory speech resonated deeply, but the words that keep echoing for me (perhaps because of my NZ heritage) were those Paula brought to light, of the Maori adage: 'We walk backwards into the future with our eyes fixed on the past.'

The whole weekend I dwelled on those words, like staring at a 'watch pot' waiting for it to brew. And brew it did: we look to the past to inform the present, but perhaps we should be concerned that by walking 'backwards', we sometimes also walk blindly towards the future. What's more, if history repeats, does that mean we're not learning from the past, only repeating our mistakes? As Paula also said, 'Whenever we say never again, again happens.' Sometimes it strikes me that mankind seems to be a particularly inattentive student, however, I digress, and I would like to tell you what else I discovered cooking.

2. The Variable Veg of Versatility

Versatility was not something I displayed when it came to deciding what stream I wanted to follow at the conference; if you caught me at the wrong moment I apologise - I was often like the archetypal bunny in headlights, struggling to make up my mind which way to go. However, versatility is undoubtedly a great tool to have in your writerly kitbag, so I (not moving from my seat) I attended the next panel, 'The Versatile Writer': a conversation between Sophie Masson and Kelly Gardiner, chaired by Roanna Gonsalves. Roanna put forward the notion that we were part of a 'long continuum of story tellers ...finding multiple ways of telling stories' and understanding history was about understanding 'how power is represented on the page'. While I was dwelling on this, Sophie and Kelly were expounding on their ability to compartmentalise, juggling multiple projects and multiple deadlines, using spreadsheets and different coloured notebooks, or religiously reserving two Golden Hours for writing.

How often are we told that multi-tasking is a female attribute? Unfortunately it is not one I appear to have been blessed with, but perhaps just by being there, some modicum of Sophie and Kelly's dynamism and no-nonsense approach will have rubbed off on me.

3. A Dash of Romance

Kate Forsyth giving us some 'swashbuckling' advice - write with bravado!

Embellishing the HNSA conference scene with some sizzle and sparkle were a large number of my favourite historical romance authors: Kate Forsyth, Anna Campbell, Anne Gracie, Carla Caruso, Tea Cooper, Emily Madden, Pamela Hart, Renne Dahlia, Lizzi Tremaine ... to name but a few. I was lucky enough to attend Kate Forsyth's workshop about 'Spice and Swashbuckle'. She began by exploring the definition of what constitutes 'romance' - originally 'romance' had a much broader meaning than today's somewhat restrictive genre conventions. It encapsulated stories 'full of marvellous incidents and adventure' and reflected 13th century chivalrous, romantic ideals. Kate is always entertaining, and she opened my eyes to the 'science of story-telling' (neural coupling, adrenaline, cortisol, dopamine and oxtocin - all of these need to be stirred into the pot!) which is something I hadn't previously considered. Her emphasis on the importance of employing memorable language in our work also gave me pause for thought, but more than anything I loved her encouragement to 'write with bravado'. Here! Here!

There was the opportunity to add even more romance to the pan with panels on 'Stoking the Flame' - how to add and maintain the sizzle factor in romance series; as well as regency madness and infatuation with all things 'George and Georgette'; and finally 'A French Affair' - mais oui, c'etais fantastique! I was disappointed to miss these panels, however, the good news is that the HNSA will be releasing panels as podcasts in the near future.

4. A Whiff of Crime

Meg Keneally and I - Writing Crime Fiction Workshop

I do love a gritty crime story, and another workshop I had the spine-tingling pleasure of participating in was 'Writing Crime Fiction' with Meg Keneally. She encouraged us to find themes in our historical work that 'resonated with modern readers' and 'tapped into their concerns', such as love, greed or survival. She demonstrated how she used research and threaded it into her own work. Meg was incredibly generous with the information she shared about research, creating credible characters, how to seed clues into narratives and using appropriate historical language and the session was enormously valuable.

There were further opportunities to learn more about writing historical crime in 'The Criminal Mind' session in which innocence, guilt and psychopathy were discussed by authors Pip Smith, Janet Lee, Catherine Jinks chaired by Rachel Franks; and a panel entitled 'History and Mystery' unpacked by Malla Nunn, Katherine Kovacic, Tessa Lunney and chaired by Flick Pulman, which reiterated the idea that 'you can learn but you can't know'. And some of us forget all too quickly ...

5. A Dab of Detail

One of the aspects many of the historical novelists emphasised over the weekend was to 'make the history sit lightly', as opposed to dumping everything you've researched into your story just because you find it interesting. Kate Forsyth gave a hilarious illustration of this, pointing out that there was no need to tell the reader your character was not wearing knickers, unless that information served the story. The lesson: historical detail should be there to enhance and world build and carry the story forward, but never to show off your knowledge, or blood sweat and tears.

6. A Scattering of Strong Women

Strong women in history have long been a fascination of mine, so I was naturally intrigued to find out what Jane Caro, Ali Alizadeh and Linda Funnell had to say about Elizabeth I and Joan of Arc in their panel 'We Need to Talk about Bette and Joan'. Sometimes it can be a challenge picking out noteworthy strong women from history, especially as so many probably died in childbirth ('There's a reason there are so many step-mothers in fairytales,' commented Jane). As well as the previous reasons I've mentioned about history often being written by men, it is a writer's headache finding suitably strong historical female protagonist and reflecting their roles and status with honesty and integrity; it is understandable that Bette and Joan have been written about numerous times. Jane's admission that a school child shed light on her own rendition of Elizabeth's story - that it mirrored the Cinderella fairytale was fascinating, however, as Jane also pointed out, the key difference was Elizabeth did not need a prince to come to her rescue.

This idea was expanded upon in the panel on 'Feminine Mystique'. Juliet Marillier, Elizabeth Jane Corbett and Kirsty Murray, in conversation with Sophie Masson, deliberated on the heroes journey, and how when writing about women in history this often needed to be focused on the female heroine 'finding her inner strength, her voice and making something of herself', as well as 'having the courage to face the truth'. That while females in history might have lacked agency, they could be shown to be strong in other ways. As Kirsty put it,'The lens that you use to look at human experience through defines whether or not they are feisty.' As writers we need to decide how to respond to that challenge.

7. A Packet of POV

Some of the HNSA panels

Talking about the 'lens' that is the point of view through which choose to tell our stories was the topic of conversation in the panel 'I am Camera'. Chaired by Greg Johnston, and including Robyn Cadwallader, Julian Leatherdale and Belinda Castles. I quietly hoped they would reassure me that I'd chosen the correct POV to tell the WIP I was currently working on, and indeed, these authors shared their own ideas about how they chose the appropriate POV character through whom to convey their stories. Julian explained that deciding the POV character for him was often a matter of deciding the character who had the right to tell the story, the character whose perspective shone 'headlights into the darkness'. Robyn described it as being the 'reader's eyes', showing what the reader would see. Whereas Belinda spoke about it being a matter of choosing 'where the voice is coming from and what it knows'. Furthermore, while using multiple points of views can be tricky, sometimes it is necessary to show a 'sense of tension in a setting', Robyn explained.

Thankfully this session did just what I was hoping and I left convinced that I had not strayed too far adrift in the dual timeline narrative I'm currently working on.

8. Two Heads (are Better than One)

With dual timelines in mind, I was keen to hear Carla Caruso, Tea Cooper, Emily Madden and Di Murray discuss writing parallel narratives in the session, 'Intertwining Lives Revealed'. The authors generously shared what each of them had learnt about writing dual timeline narratives, such as not having too many characters, potentially writing the two threads separately and then interweaving them once a clear idea of the storyline had been establshed, or using the pivotal turning points to enable the intertwined stories to resonate. It was interesting to hear their tips for moving from one thread to another, such as using 'seasons', 'symbols' and 'cliffhangers' to effect the transition in time. They emphasised that while one story line might be stronger, both storylines required strong and engaging characters. I am also extremely grateful for the time they spent afterwards chatting to me about their manuscript plotting and structuring.

9. A Slither of Subtext

In 'Learning from History' the audience was able to learn about more about the subtext in historical novels and the underlying themes from Lucy Treloar, Winton Higgins, Michelle Aung Thin and Kelly Gardiner. Kelly repeatedly asked the question, So what is your novel really about? In order to make historical stories really resonate, this is probably something a historical novelist needs to ask themselves regularly, especially in the editing phase of their writing. What underlying subtext can be whetted to sharpen the reader's appetite for more? This panel had me pondering my own wip, and I'll definitely be checking that I have interwoven sufficient subtext into my manuscript.

10. Add some attitude

Sophie Masson and I at the HNSA Workshop. Writing for Children and Young Adults

Sophie Masson explained in her workshop on 'Writing for Children and Young Adults' how she 'looks for the gaps in history' and 'scraps of information' with which to furnish her stories. She also emphasised that while the language a historical novelist uses needed to have a feel for the period, it also needed to be accessible to the reader, and importantly, not to give historical characters 21st century attitudes.

11. A Bollock or Two

I couldn't resist finding myself a bit of action and going to the Medieval Armour and Armouring display/re-enactment. Although the time period I am writing about was not directly covered, AJ and Matthew, who were running the show on the day I attended, were knowledgeable and entertaining, and more than happy to give us a 'hands on the kit' experience. I learnt a considerable amount about pre-14th century armour, the etymology of 'bollock daggers' (I had no idea the word 'bollocks' had been around for so long), as well as being entertained with some of their own historical anecdotes, such as another fierce woman - Black Agnes. Over lunch we were privy to some more 'action' in a fabulous display of fencing.

In disguise ... ? You're fooling no-one Chris Foley!

12. My Fiction Rules

Unfortunately for me, I am not able to be in two places at once, so I was not able to attend (or therefore write about) all of the workshops, panels or sessions, but I heard so much brilliant feedback. The Conference was a veritable smorgasbord for historical novelists and lovers of historical fiction alike. And as if the pot were not already overflowing, the HNSA also had an academic stream running concurrently, provided opportunities for manuscript assessments, and hosted a number of competitions, such as:

'First Pages Pitch Contest', a HNSA Colleen McCullough residency, and a Short Story Competition, generously sponsored by TCW, Burnt Pine Travel and Baunti Escapes, and ARA respectively.

Congratulations to the winners listed below, and a huge thank you to the sponsors and judges!

First Pages Pitch Contest - Liss Morgan

HNSA Colleen McCullough residency - Christine Bell and Sally Collin James

Short Story Competition - Christine King, and short-listed Lou Greene (yes, me!) and Dell Brand

HNSA dinner friends - there were some lovely announcements of contest winners!

13. The Final Magic Ingredient

As with any historical recount, this only gives you a snippet of what went on at the HNSA conference, and I apologise to everyone I have omitted and look forward to catching up when I get to see the podcasts.

Elizabeth Storrs, Kate Forsyth, and Ilke Tamke bewitch us with their magic!

The HNSA Conference closed with a final session on 'Love Potions and Witchcraft', another subject close to my heart (and manuscript). Kate Forsyth, Ilka Tamke, and Elisabeth Storrs spoke about what wishes and curses and magic meant to them and left us awestruck by reading excerpts from their own beautiful novels. It was a magical end to a wonderful weekend, and I mean that in the true sense of the word - a weekend full of wonder - wonderful people, wonderful writers, wonderful conversation. We were all winners!

A packed lunch! With Sharon Mullins.

On a final, final note, it would be amiss not to thank, as well as the dazzling array of authors, the brilliant supporting caste of volunteers, and the incredibly talented and hard-working HNSA committee: Elizabeth Storrs, Greg Johnston, Kelly Gardiner, Dianne Murray, Elizabeth Jane Corbett, Gabrielle Ryan and Chris Foley. You have done yourselves and us proud! You have my profound respect and deepest gratitude!

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