Historical Fiction Weekend – King’s Grant Country Retreat – May 2015
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE TRAPPISTS
by Dave Baker
All of us who ventured out to King’s Grant Country Retreat were privileged to experience a memorable blend of mental stimulation, education, training and fun.
A veritable feast was on offer and a few technological problems were skilfully overcome. Each session produced new information evoking enthusiastic debate and, at times, fiery controversy; particularly concerning the depth of research normally required for an historical novel and the distinctions between fact, faith and fiction.
I don’t think any of our presenters will blink twice when I suggest that the highlight of the weekend was the first session on Saturday morning, led by our keynote speaker and professor of history, Charles van Onselen.
Charles prefaced his talk by saying that he prefers to view history from the bottom upwards, for example. as a simple shopkeeper would do. His talk comprised three components: (1) The story in his latest book, ‘Showdown at The Red Lion’, (2) The Essence of Historical Writing, and (3) The Novel – the Difference between History and Historical Novel-writing.
We were spellbound by his outline of the incredibly full and felonious life of a product of the seventeenth century slums of Manchester and the steel thread that ran right through it from those days to when he was hanged in Pretoria in 1910.
In suggesting the essence of historical writing, Professor van Onselen pointed out that history is half science and half art and that, unlike the historical fiction writer, the historian must disclose his sources.
His account of the differences and similarities between historical writing and historical fiction was especially fascinating. He emphasised that whereas both require research, the story-teller needs to fade the historical events into the story, hiding the scaffolding’. He stressed that although both must be written in narrative form and both must have a climax, a novel should be largely art and only partly science – the opposite of historical writing.
Guest presenter Ian Tennent’s topic was ‘Tales of History and Imagination: Inventing the Truth’. He shared his experiences, both good and bad, in the writing of his historical novel, Zululand Snow, describing his background and fascination with Zulu culture that inspired him to write it. Ian suggested that, above all, readers are looking for escape, experience and education.
On Sunday morning, historical writer Robin Lamplough spoke on ‘Confessions of a Failure.’ Having consistently failed to write good fiction, Robin felt especially well qualified to identify the pitfalls inherent in the process and warn us of some common errors and weaknesses. Just one of the tips he offered was the value of studying the work of the masters.
Our very own Mikhail Peppas spoke on ‘The Contribution of the Reading Process to the Unfolding Story’. Sadly, he was hampered by technological problems but, unsurprisingly, I still found his slot stimulating and amusing.
In between the formal presentations, Ginny Porter and our Chairman Brigitta Simpson led interesting discussions on a variety of topics; on occasions using snippets from movies and a YouTube interview of a beautifully-coiffed Ken Follett.
For me, another highlight of the weekend was our hostess Cheryl Biggs’ impromptu tour of the Trappists’ maize mill and her fascinating account of their achievements and exploits at King’s Grant. This rounded off a wonderful weekend, conceived by Ginny Porter, expertly arranged by our Committee and managed by Ginny, Brigitta and their helpers. Our thanks go to them all for what proved to be a superb experience.
WEEKEND PRIZE WINNERS
Brigitta Simpson – 1st for historical fiction short story
Sue Roberts – 1st Historical Quiz & 2nd for historical fiction Short Story & 2nd Short Story (500 words)
Shanta Reddy – Flash Fiction (100 words)
Irene Aarons – 1st Short Story (500 words) & 2nd Flash Fiction
Mikhail Peppas – 3rd Flash Fiction