I felt a frisson of imposter syndrome at Eltham Library on Saturday, as they held their annual Women Write History day. I rather foolishly thought that it was women writing History/History (with a capital H), but instead it focussed on local women historical fiction writers. “But I read historical fiction too!” I reassured myself, although I do find it hard to take off my historian’s hat when I do so.
Eltham Library is a beautiful mud-brick, octagonal building designed by Greg Burgess and it received the RAIA Institutional Architecture Award 1995. There’s a statue of Alan Marshall, who lived in the area, by local Eltham sculptor. It has a huge wrap-around verandah, and it’s very pleasant sitting there in the shade on a warm afternoon having coffee, overlooking Alistair Knox park opposite and the old trestle railway bridge.. But Saturday was more than warm – although not as hot as expected- and it was equally pleasant to enjoy the airconditioning inside.
The speakers were Kate Murdoch, Christine Bell, Leah Kaminsky, Keren Heenan (short story writer) and Anne Connor. The seminar was organized by Wendy J. Dunn. Unfortunately Eleanor Limprecht and Glenice Whitting were scheduled, but could not attend.
The day was divided into four sessions, one of which ran concurrently with a workshop. Feeling somewhat out of place amongst all these aspiring writers, as I did, I stuck to the sessions. The sessions dealt with Character, Setting, Plot and Conflict and Resolution, and each panel had three or four of the guest speakers. Each session started with a reading from one of the author’s works. As you might expect with four such closely related topics and a relatively small panel of guests, there was quite a bit of overlap.
In the Character session, they discussed issues of appropriating and whitewashing, the responsibility owed to real-life characters and the idea of giving voice to the dead. Most of the writers enjoyed the research process, even though much of it was discarded. They spoke here of the distinction between ‘plotters’ who have everything worked out ahead of time and ‘pantsers’ who fly by the seat of their pants. (I misheard this as ‘panthers’ and assumed it meant writers who just prowled around hunting. Oops.) They noted that much of the research was in order to give a flavour, and to weed out what was possible from impossible. They spoke of the danger of writing what-if history. Given that most of these women writers were writing about other women, there was a question about depicting agency as a character at a time when women didn’t generally have agency. Both Christine Bell and Anne Connor answered that their female characters displayed agency as a series of small decisions.
In the Setting session, several of them revealed that they started off with a visual image. Ann Connor recommended actually visiting the places written about, but as Kate Murdoch noted, this was not possible during COVID so she relied on Google maps and virtual tours. Keren Heenen only writes about places she knows, although in her novella Cleave she lifted her knowledge of one country town to create a fictional one. They were asked which was the last historical fiction they read with a strong setting? Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall was mentioned by Anne Connor; Kate Murdoch nominated Where the Crawdads Sing, and Keren Heenan named Jack London’s short story To Build a Fire (which I had never heard of).
It seemed, in terms of Plot, that several of these authors are Pantsers (they could be panthers too- who knows!). Some used dialogue as a starting point, while others used a visual image or an event. Some knew what the book was going to be ‘about’ in a wider sense.
By the time we reached the final session Conflict and Resolution, it had already been pretty much discussed under the other sessions. The panel were asked whether, as readers and writers, they needed a clear ending. Keren Heenan liked endings that reflect the beginning, without necessarily tying everything up neatly. Leah Kaminsky and Anne Connor were more concerned about the language in the novel, than the actual ending; Kate Murdoch didn’t like abrupt endings, although she didn’t need everything tied up either. The discussion then moved to AI-generated writing, especially within genre fiction. There was a reluctance over reading a book written by someone with no lived experience, but they acknowledged that perhaps this is a generational resistance, and that perhaps we need to see how it works. (Having seen multiple-hundreds output of Nora Roberts, writing also under the names of J.D. Robb and Jill March, I wonder if she is AI)
So, all in all, a very pleasant way to spend a hot Saturday afternoon
Thanks for sharing this, Janine.
But yes, it would be interesting to feature women writing actual history rather than historical fiction.
I am glad you went, thanks.
For me, the key issues you mentioned were 2] the responsibility owed to real life characters and 2] giving a voice to the dead. If it was true fiction I would have no issue, but if there is a connection to real history, the obligations remain. Even after generations.