10 questions on Writing Australian History with Pamela Freeman

Great news: our new half-day course, Writing Australian History is coming up in November 2014! So to get the inside story, we asked presenter and historical guru, Pamela Freeman, a few questions around this fascinating genre…

Hi Pamela. There seems to be lots of Australian historical stories appearing in mainstream media currently (e.g. Gallipoli and ANZAC Girls etc). Why do you think they’re so popular at the moment?
Historical fiction generally has become more popular worldwide, often due to television shows like The Tudors and Da Vinci’s Demons (although I wouldn’t call that history!).

In Australia generally, people are becoming more interested in history; the number of people going to the Dawn Service for Anzac Day, for example, has gone up and up over the last 10 years or so. And then, of course, we had the 60th anniversary of World War II, and now the 100th year anniversary of World War I, which is sparking even more interest. The media ia riding the centenary wave, but I think they’re being successful because people are genuinely interested in the past and, in particular, in the people from that past – how they differed from us and how they were the same.

So, how old does something need to be to qualify as “historical fiction”? Does writing about last Tuesday count?
Only if you were born on Wednesday! The technical qualification is that the period written about must be before the author was born. So a 20-year-old writing about the 1980s is writing historical fiction. Less technically, I would say that anything more than 50 years ago is seen as historical. It’s a bit like ‘classic’ vs ‘vintage’ vs ‘antique’ in cars!

In your opinion, what's the most common mistake people make when they try to write history?
The most common mistake is to put the history before the story – to overload the reader with information and research that has nothing to do with the character’s experiences. Research is like an iceberg – only 10% should show. The rest becomes part of how you understand the world and times of your characters.

Research quote

Do you have any examples where authors have got their facts wrong?
Oh my yes! One of my publishers uses me to read some of their historical fiction before publication to prevent that sort of thing. In these Google days, there’s really no excuse for getting simple facts wrong. Easier to forgive, but still annoying, is when writers use anachronistic language.

A good example is ‘unconscious’, as in “She’s unconscious! Get the smelling salts!” Unconscious in that sense is quite late – originally it meant being unaware of (as in, ‘he was unconscious that she was looking at him’). We still use it that way sometimes, but the sense of ‘fainted’ or ‘stunned’ only entered the language in the mid 1800s. So before that a person would say ‘She’s insensible.’ That sort of thing annoys me. Yes, it’s nitpicking, but…

Isn’t English fun! Okay, so why is it so important to get the facts right when writing historical fiction?
There are a couple of answers to this, and it depends on how seriously you take yourself. The first is pretty simple – your reader has paid to read a historical story, and they expect you to have done proper research and give them their money’s worth. So to be an honest crafter, you have to do that.

The second is more high-falutin’ (as PG Wodehouse would say). Most people these days learn most of their history from TV, film and novels. An understanding of history is part of the intellectual capital of a society (‘those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it…’). A shared, known history binds a society, as the Anzac Day march does this country. How important, then, to make sure that that history is correct?

A good example is the issue of whether indigenous people should be acknowledged in the Australian Constitution. Without an understanding of the doctrine of terra nullius, without knowing about the massacres, the smallpox epidemics and the complexity of indigenous culture that existed before 1788, it’s hard to understand why indigenous people care so much about this issue – and pretty soon we’ll be asked to vote on it in a referendum. So stories about white settlement that don’t acknowledge the price paid by indigenous Australians have a direct political impact.

You’re right, definitely falutin’ pretty high there. So, elephant in the room time. How much of an impact has the advent of the Internet had on this kind of research?
An enormous impact. It’s much easier to find out things like dates, clothing styles, furniture, and that sort of thing. In Australia, we are very very lucky to the National Library’s ‘Trove’ – an online collection of digitised newspapers, magazines, images and more. We are also lucky that many of our major institutions (such as the Australian War Memorial) have fantastic databases.

But there are still some things you need to do in-depth research for. For example, in my latest book I needed to find out how soldiers’ wives drew their portion of their husband’s pay. Couldn’t find that information anywhere – but the lovely man at the Commonwealth Bank Archives not only told me, he sent me PDFs of all the forms my character would have had to fill in!

What are your Top 3 methods of research?
Google is obviously number 1. Not only in finding specific facts but also in throwing up ideas about a period you might not have considered – the trick here is to follow the links from page to page. You can end up in some wild and wonderful places!

Secondly, first hand reports, if available. Diaries, letters, even official reports (the Chadwick Report in the mid-19th Century is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in how factories and mines operated in that period).

Thirdly, contemporary materials: newspapers, books, plays and poems written during the period, and also paintings, photographs if they exist, etchings, handbills, programmes, advertisements. I often start here to build up an understanding of how people in that time thought and spoke.

Do you think it makes any difference whether you research first, then write, or write first and then add in historical elements?
I think you have to have a broad understanding of the period before you write, and particularly about the way of life of your main characters. You can certainly add in elements if you come up against something you don’t understand, but you need to have a good feel for the time beforehand.

Can you share some innovative ways and places to research history that most people wouldn’t be aware of?
Come to the course! History is very broad – there are as many ways to research as there are time periods!

Fair enough. So, on that note, who should do the course Writing Australian History, and why?
The course is for anyone who is interested in history and who wants to find out more directly, either because they have a specific story in mind to tell, or because they think they might like to write a historical story one day. It’s for people who might know what they want to find out, but don’t know how to find that information.

It’s not a lesson in history – it’s a technical course designed to improve skills in historical research and help people find the right source material. I will be tailoring the course on the day to the needs of the participants, and of course we’ll be talking about their projects, actual or planned. We’ll also discuss how best to write history – how not to let the research overwhelm the story, so it’s also a good course for someone who has the information, but can’t seem to get the story to ‘live’ on the page.

Although it’s called ‘Writing Australian History’ the techniques are broadly applicable to any time period.

Great explanation Pamela! And if you want to find out more about bringing the past into the present, take a look at the Writing Australian History course details now!

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