15 September 2010

Con report: day 1

The first session I attended was in the academic stream -- a talk by Gillian Polack on Writers and their history: how writers use and view the historical aspects of their settings. Polack is a historian, and I've attended her sessions at other cons, and they're always well informed and interesting, so I knew I had to see this one.

Polack talked about why fantasy and historical writers draw on the Middle Ages, and then the different ways that fantasy and historical writers approach and use history. Of course the fantasy writers felt more free to take liberties than the historical writers, but even the fantasists said they would move the time period of their novels if the historical credibility of their stories would be challenged. It's interesting because to me the setting comes first -- I have to imagine the world and how the people fit into it, so I'm not sure I could just move time periods, which is not to say that any of these writers have ever actually done that. They were responding to questions in an interview situation. Perhaps if you imagine the time period first, really imagine it, and come up with a world that is internally logical and cohesive, you won't have this problem. (And maybe this is my way of thinking because my novel isn't set in the past but in the future, in a medieval-type society, which is to say a pre-industrialised society, but so I am free to move away from historical accuracy as long as I don't stretch the reader's disbelief. So I have still had to go and do research, and I'm resigned to the fact that I can never do enough -- if I did I'd be forever researching and never writing.)

I was so caught up in all of this that I was wishing I had sat in on Polack's interviews so I could hear the whole story and ask questions myself. But the other major point that Polack made was that all the writers agreed that modern perspectives had to be taken into account -- that in the end readers need a good story, and that's more important than anything else.

This point was reinforced by Alice Davies who presented the second half of this session: The stories we tell ourselves: myth and history in Neil Gaiman's The Sandman: Thermidox. The fascinating thing I took out of this paper was the point that historians use pattern recognition when deciding which facts to include and which to exclude, which sources to listen to and which to ignore. Now, that's an interesting idea -- and I wondered if I could extrapolate this to work with the few of my students who struggle with the idea of which details to put in and which to omit in their own writing. Pattern recognition -- I suppose that if you go and read the classics, the books that you really admire for whatever reason (page turners, well written etc) and study them, read them as a writer, then you are employing exactly that. I do tell my students to do that, but I've never called it pattern recognition before . . . I think it's worth a try -- sometimes it's that slight change in phrasing that can be the difference between someone getting an idea or not.

The second session I went to was called "Steal the past, build the future: new histories for fantasy", with Kate Elliott, Amanda Pillar, Catherynne Valente and Jonathan Walker. The most interesting aspect of this session for me was thinking about how we view past cultures -- that we view them through modern-day filters, interpreting how people behaved, using our modern-day sensibilities. Is there any way around this? Is there any need? After all, our readers have these same sensibilities and, as someone pointed out, we mightn't understand the behaviour of past people at all. (Makes me think of Annie Proulx's short story "People in Hell just want a drink of water", which has one of the most arresting beginnings of all times. It's set in the early twentieth century and the actions of the woman in the story would stretch credibility today, but her motivations are clear and understandable. Yes, it's not quite the same point, but makes me think of it anyway!) The bottom line, again, is that the needs of the story are paramount.

The panelists talked about the telling detail -- something I often discuss with my students -- but the fascinating thing was hearing Valente's story about 1816, the year without a summer, what the telling detail was for her, and how another friend wrote about the same time period but omitted the one thing that Valente thought was crucial to the time period. Writers -- we're all different!

Walker said the telling detail must have imaginative as well as conceptual power, that it must attract us to it, which was something I hadn't thought of before.

Pillar, who was an archaeologist, spoke about how Ramases perpetuated the myth of what had been a giant stalemate as a victory, and she raised the question of how he could have done this when all of his army knew it wasn't a victory. Really makes you think about the differences between then and now -- in the days of CNN that could never happen. Or could it?

I was then going to a session on creating zoological lifeforms, but the previous session was so interesting we needed to go and discuss it, so that was the end of panelling for day one. (The con only ran for half a day.) Already, I was fired up, ready to go home and write, which is the great thing that happens when you attend these sessions. And why I'd really really recommend attending cons to anyone who's working in the spec fic area. And they're a great way of meeting new people and networking too!

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