Celebrating Genre


Claire Morris on the Surrey International Writers’ Conference.

As a writer, there is something unmatchable about attending a writers’ conference. And the larger the conference, the more inspiring and invigorating it can be. Imagine sitting around tables in a ballroom with 400-500 others, sipping coffee and listening to a keynote speaker, who asks how many people in the room began writing in their childhood. You glance around, and find that nearly everyone has raised their hand. These are people who take their craft seriously. These are people who can encourage you to do likewise.

Writing is, by its very nature, an isolating occupation. Often, as writers, we immerse ourselves in our works-in-progress, hesitant to share them or discuss them with anyone, least of all other writers. True, not all writers feel this way, but I would suggest that at some point in the life of every writer, whether it is a phase they are transitioning through, or a particular piece of poetry or prose that is just too close, too important, to release to the wider world, there has existed a reluctance to release details, either verbally, or by actually showing another person those word sequences printed on a page.

I think there can be a similar reluctance to go to a place where you might rub shoulders with an author as famous as Diana Gabaldon. There is the thrill of that, of course, but there is also the concomitant battle with that tiny self-deprecating voice, telling you that you’re wasting your time. You will never achieve best-selling status or have your novel/poem/short story/biography published to critical acclaim. Why spend the money?

But if you do not go, you deprive yourself of all the encouragement and knowledge you will receive in the writing workshops, keynote addresses, and less formal discussions that inevitably occur with editors, agents, authors and others in the writing community.

My main reason for attending the 2002 Surrey International Writers’ Conference was that I happened to be living only a few minutes’ drive from the conference venue and, as a dedicated writer, would it not be ridiculous to sit at home when hundreds of writers and people in the writing industry were converging on a nearby hotel? When I was still living in Ottawa, I had heard many good things about this conference in Surrey, British Columbia, which then seemed an unreachable place. As an active member of a local writers’ group, I believed in the power of gathering with other writers. As a historical fiction enthusiast, I was pleased to learn that several prominent historical novelists would be attending the conference. What I did not expect to find in Surrey was a heightened interest in historical fiction.

Perhaps it is inevitable that a conference supported by Diana Gabaldon and Jack Whyte would attract a number of writers seeking to one day publish their own historical novel. But Canada has not traditionally been a historical novelist’s ally. In Canada, there is a jealous guarding of culture, and when it comes to the publishing world, this means that often only those novels that feature Canadiana end up displayed on bookstore shelves. Of course, these novels can also be historical novels, which I’ll define here as any novel set in a time prior to 1960. (This does not necessarily reflect my own belief, but since the debate regarding history and when it begins will not be resolved anytime soon, I’m choosing this definition for the purposes of this article.) Prominent examples of recent “Canadian” historical novels are Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (winner of the 2000 Booker Prize), and that most wonderful novel, Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief (winner of the 2001 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award). And, from two of my favourite (and prize-winning) authors, Guy Vanderhaeghe’s novels The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing, and Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers, The Underpainter, and Away.

It is important to note, however, that these works—although historical fiction by my definition—are written by authors who cannot really be considered historical novelists since they also write non-historical material. Guy Vanderhaeghe has delivered a lecture titled, “History and the Novelist,” and Jane Urquhart has explored a number of aspects of the 19th and 20th centuries in her recent novels. But would either go so far as to call themselves “quote/unquote historical novelists,” as Canadian author Sandra Gulland termed it in an article describing how she came to write her unputdownable trilogy about Josephine Bonaparte? These novelists—Gulland included—are first and foremost talented Canadian authors whose fiction is set in the past either to illuminate what has gone before or to draw parallels with today. This in some way supports the fact that fiction published in Canada prides itself on being indefinable, and above genre. So to find myself in an environment where genre is not only okay, but celebrated, was intensely refreshing.

At the 2002 Surrey International Writers’ Conference, four well-known historical novelists delivered workshops and keynote addresses, signed copies of their books, and offered advice to aspiring novelists. They also sat on a historical fiction panel. On the Friday afternoon, Jo Beverley, author of numerous historical romances, and Sharan Newman, author of the medieval mysteries featuring Catherine LeVendeur, joined Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, and Jack Whyte, author of the pre-Arthurian series, A Dream of Eagles (The Camulod Chronicles), to discuss their views on writing and researching historical fiction.

When asked why they wrote historical fiction, all conceded it stemmed from their own interest in history. Sharan Newman is a medieval historian, with a vast knowledge of languages and fallacies about the Middle Ages. She wrote her Guinevere series after researching Guinevere and realizing that this famous queen was not portrayed favourably, particularly in medieval literature. Here in Canada, Sandra Gulland embarked on The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. for much the same reason, exploring the idea that Josephine has been badly treated by historians.

Canadian novelist and RWA Hall of Fame member Jo Beverley has a degree in history, and said that historical fiction has always appealed to her. Her attraction to the Regency era comes from the influence of Georgette Heyer but she is also fascinated by the Georgian and medieval periods as well. Jack Whyte’s decision to write historical fiction came out of his exposure, thanks to a high-school teacher, to the Roman military occupation of Britain. For him, research is “fun and self-indulgent”; stimulating, Gulland calls it.

And Diana Gabaldon? Holder of three university degrees and a New York Times best-selling novelist, she is warm and approachable and her sense of humour shaped her response. “It was the kilt,” she said.

Another conference event that promoted historical fiction was the “genre lunch,” held on the Saturday. Jack Whyte hosted the historical fiction table, where we discussed everything from Jack’s work-in-progress to why Welsh history is such a difficult sell. Only ten people could fit around the table, and I was interested to note that we had to turn people away. Was this because they were eager to share their soup and sandwiches with Jack Whyte, or was it because they wanted to discuss historical fiction with someone who has successfully made a living at writing it?

Perhaps a little of both. Jack Whyte has a magnetic personality yet he is also extremely serious about his writing and just as serious about the research that goes into it. He is also interested in encouraging not-yet-published writers. As lunch progressed, he wanted to hear about the works-in-progress of every writer about the table, who were all Canadians writing about non-Canadian history. Topics ranged from 19th-century Australia to late 15th-century Scotland to the Viking Age. And every writer there not only had their storylines fully developed, but had them firmly grounded in historical research.

In her workshop titled The Architecture of Fiction: Focus on Description, Diana Gabaldon provided a number of valuable insights into how to best present historical detail in a historical novel. She pointed out that a common mistake made by many writers of historical fiction is the compulsion to lay out all the historical details early on, and often in large paragraphs that overwhelm the reader. She advised writers to keep their eyes on the action, introducing the historical details gradually, and as needed. She also pointed out that not all details are needed. Although you, the writer, may have uncovered some fascinating historical fact, you must resist the urge to include it in your novel. Ask yourself, does the reader really need to know this in order for the story to make sense? She reminded us that in writing, nothing is ever truly lost. Yes, we may slash entire scenes because they no longer fit, but the fact that we wrote them initially has in some submerged way contributed to the final work.

Sharan Newman delivered a workshop on how to make settings more vivid for the reader (The Architecture of Fiction: Focus on Setting). As an author of historical fiction, she naturally drew from her own experience writing novels set in medieval France, although she made her audience work (and at 9:30 on a Sunday morning!). Between our exercises, she emphasized the importance of using a place not as a backdrop, but as an integral part of your story. She reminded us that your setting must always remain in your sub-conscious as you write, because what is surrounding your characters can be used to heighten the intensity of what is happening to them, as well as setting the mood, and revealing details about them. A poignant example of what she means comes from her second-last novel, To Wear the White Cloak. In the prologue, she writes, “His ambition ended at the boundaries of his own land.”

A number of other conference workshops were of interest to writers of historical fiction, including Jo Beverley’s Classic Storytelling Techniques, which discussed character development, and goal/conflict enhancement, and Jack Whyte’s session on researching. I also had the opportunity to attend two workshops which, while not directed at historical fiction writers, addressed concepts that are very important to the genre. Jeffrey McGraw, Editor for HarperEntertainment, hosted an interactive seminar on theme, where he used films—some of them based on epic historical novels—to explore this elusive topic. In Gone with the Wind, for example, he identified the theme as survival, but pointed out how difficult it is to portray this through a heroine like Scarlett O’Hara, who acts selfishly so much of the time.

One of the most enjoyable and entertaining workshops of the conference was titled Focus on Pacing. In this session, Donald Maass, the highly successful New York literary agent, delved into the various issues that slow down a novel. Reminding us that “tension is story”, he warned us against main events taking place off-stage, and giving equal weight to all events. After all, isn’t a death more monumental than drinking your morning cup of coffee?

The conference also offered writers a chance to meet one-on-one with literary agents and editors, several of whom are interested in historical fiction. As well, there was the popular Blue Pencil Café, where writers can sit down with authors to discuss their works-in-progress.

For 2003, the conference promises to be bigger and better than ever before. Now in its eleventh year of operation, it will again host appearances by Diana Gabaldon (who told us in her keynote address that this is one conference she never misses) and Jack Whyte (another regular presenter). In their desire to promote the talents of unknown writers, Diana and Jack have banded together to sponsor a prize for short fiction, and to judge it as well. Jack served as the overall fiction judge for the 2002 Surrey International Writers’ Conference Contest, and said he very much enjoyed the experience. It is interesting to note that at least two of the prize-winning authors in the 2002 contest are also writers of historical fiction.

Will I attend the 2003 conference? Definitely. Partly for the inspiration I know it will give me, but also because I will once again be reminded that historical fiction is very much a force in the minds and lives of Canadian writers.

The 2003 Surrey International Writers’ Conference will be held October 16-19 in Surrey, British Columbia. The conference website is www.siwc.ca.

Claire would like to thank Teresa Eckford, Sandra Gulland, Lisa Mason, Carmen Merrells and Sarah Nesbeitt for their help with this article.


Claire Morris is a writer and researcher with a public relations company in Vancouver. She began reviewing for the Historical Novel Society in 1998. Several of her short stories have been published and have won awards, including The White Man, which placed first in the 2002 Surrey International Writers’ Conference Contest.

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