This year, because of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, the annual St. Hilda’s College, Oxford Crime Fiction Weekend was available online for the first time. I’ve wanted to attend this conference for years because it delivers an international crowd from “over the pond,” including authors new to me.
With an “All Our Yesterdays” historical crime fiction theme, each online video streaming presentation lasted ½ hour with a follow-up Q&A. Topics ranged from The Invention of Yesterday with Andrew Taylor and Val McDermid; The Cold Finger of Time with du Maurier and Vine with Mary Paulson-Ellis; Out of Time: the protagonist and the point of historical fiction with Abir Mukherjee; Jill Dawson and Plotting in lockdown: Patricia Highsmith and ‘A Suspension of Mercy’; Tom Wood and You couldn’t make it up: Bloody Murder and Brilliant Science in the golden age of Crime Fiction among others.
The panel discussions were so British, so educated, so erudite I found myself juggling a different non-American vocabulary, typing ‘Brilliant!’ into the sidebar notes while picturing Ron Weasley’s goofy Hogwarts enthusiasm in my head. An interactive whodunnit The Murder of Lucy Ackroyd was also offered with the winner awarded a Scottish teacake that sounded suspiciously like an American Mallomar cookie, delicious in any case.
One panel discussion brought up a suggestion that is still stuck in my head. It was proposed that there were three types of narrative structure:
1. Explicit Narrative – what the writer presents directly.
2. Implicit Narrative – what the writer presents in-directly (via sub-text, etc.)
3. Reader’s Narrative - what the reader gets from the narrative based on the personal experiences and knowledge they bring to the table.
And then this mind-blowing remark was made: “Writers may not have a better insight into the story than any other reader” suggesting that once a story has established an independent life of its own, it may develop into a form or a reality that is different from what the author intended.
Wait a second. When I heard that I wondered: if a story has an independent future, did it also have an independent (e.g., pre-author creation) past? That question threw me back to Stephen King’s suggestion from his book On Writing:
“…stories are found things, like fossils in the ground. … Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth.”
Do stories live independently of their creator pre- and post-creation? And why do some stories touch our collective central nerve at a certain point in time and fall flat at others?
As you can see, I certainly got my money’s worth of “thinking great thoughts” from the St. Hilda’s conference and my VISA card took a direct hit at Blackwell’s online bookstall. Which books did I buy?
· The Crime Fiction Writer by Jill Dawson (a biography of Patricia Highsmith)
· The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths (A Dr. Ruth Calloway Mystery)
· An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears
· Dissolution by C.J. Sansom
My book budget was limited to four purchases, but there are plenty of intriguing new suggestions. I’ll be back for more.