Historical Writing: Facts and Trivia
Published A.S.L.A. NSW Inc, December 2005
History provides writers with a never-ending source of material, whether it be fiction, non-fiction, or fantasy. It not only contains wonderful stories, with everything from high drama to human comedy, but it is also full of trivia, an invaluable writing tool.
Writers bring stories to life by adding little details, and colourful trivia can often make the difference between a dull record of the eighteenth century, or something vibrant and alive.
However, there are pit-falls to be avoided, and writing historical fiction for children, is not nearly as easy or straight-forward as it may seem. Authors find themselves far more restricted than their adult counterparts and therefore more conscious of the needs of their reader.
This is partly because, in choosing a book, adult readers will almost certainly know something of the period already. They will probably know the names of major players and understand the political climate, if not the social and cultural mores of the time. In fact, it is often a knowledge of the background that attracts them to the book in the first place.
Children, on the other hand, rarely know anything of the background and merely want a good story. The writer considers it a bonus if they learn some historical facts along the way, but the story remains paramount.
Another restriction is the amount of information the author can reasonably include. Historical fiction for adults can be heavily laden with information (for instance, the nautical novels of Patrick O’Brien) which are all very popular. Science fiction, too, can be packed with information about control panels in space ships, inter-galactic travel time-tables, and high-tech weaponry, but perhaps that is because children regard science fiction as belonging to them. History, on the other hand, they see as firmly cemented in the past (along with their parents) so too much information is seen as bordering on a history “lesson” and the author’s job is to get the balance right.
A third obstacle is that the protagonist in a children’s book must be a child, which tends to limit the historical field. Children will tolerate adults as secondary characters, even heroic figures, but they expect the main character to be a child of roughly their own age. For example, if I were to write a child’s book on the Battle of Waterloo, I wouldn’t choose the Duke of Wellington as my main character , but would probably invent a 12-year old drummer-boy in the King’s Own Rifles, someone to whom my reader could relate.
This of course makes research more difficult. Apart from the Children’s Crusade of 1212, children in history were rarely seen and never heard. They didn’t lead armies, or make laws, and little has been written about them. They have almost disappeared without a trace.
In order to find them, and their world, secondary sources are of little use. They provide an overview, but one that is coloured by 21st century hindsight. They lack freshness and immediacy, both of which are crucial to children’s fiction. The child reader must be able to “see” the period for himself, so the writer is, in effect, trying to create a video in words.
For research, therefore, I look for primary sources, such as diaries, journals, letters and eye witness accounts, Royal commission reports, and ships’ logs. I also study paintings, contemporary prints and early photographs where relevant. These allow me to see the era through contemporary eyes. Then having absorbed as much detail as possible, I put my notes to one side, referring to them only as necessary, hoping that the period detail will filter through my imagination and onto the page by a process of osmosis. I try not to allow my characters to act outside their historical confines, for instance, I would never allow a heroine in a crinoline to ride bareback, or side-saddle.
That is not to say I don’t make occasional mistakes. In the first edition of Eureka Gold I said that the price of gold had risen from 63 shillings to £2! But as my mother pointed out it wasn’t an historical error but my maths.
In Ned’s Kang-u-roo I had them scrubbing the decks with soap. I did not mean lavender handsoap, but blocks of hard, grey sand-soap but I should have said “holy-stone”. Sometimes a second edition allows one a chance to change a mistake, but not always.
When it comes to deciding what information to include and what to leave out, I usually ask - does the reader need to know this? If the answer is “yes”, then I feed it in either through the action or in bits of dialogue, if not, I discard it.
The importance to adult readers will probably be the major events of the day, be it the French Revolution, or the English Civil War, but children have no interest in such events, unless they also tell a story. So the author has to catch them unawares. The official reason given for Cook’s expedition to Tahiti was to observe the Transit of Venus, an event of major significance in the 18th century, but then, today’s children were born in the Space Age, and there is almost a traffic jam up there now, so children are far more blasé about the planets.
So I looked for bits of trivia to interest them. I still mention the Transit of Venus but only in passing, my aim was to give readers a feeling for life on board H M Bark Endeavour, traveling up the east coast of Australia. I also tell them that the artist, Sydney Parkinson, had himself tattooed in Tahiti. I describe how three dozen chickens went overboard in a storm in the Bay of Biscay and that Botany Bay was originally named Stingray Bay by Captain Cook until Sir Joseph Banks came back to the ship laden down with plant and specimens and insisted the name be changed.
Assuming that children are less likely to be interested in the crew than in the animals carried on board, I discovered a including a goat which, poor thing, had already spent three years sailing round the world with Captain Wallis before being sold to Captain Cook and signed on for another three. I couldn’t find out her name but since this was fiction, I simply christened her Fanny.
Another restriction on children’s authors is the dreaded “political correctness”. One reviewer said that I gave Ned in Ned’s Kang-u-roo “a politically correct 20th century voice” and I make no apology. An adult would be aware of 18th century attitudes on slavery, Aborigines, women, convicts, the mentally retarded, as well as the physically handicapped, but children would not. For me to present such attitudes in fiction, without allowing the child to see for himself that they are wrong would be unethical. In the classroom such views can be discussed, leaving the child better informed, but the writer must allow for the child reading alone, to make sure that he doesn’t believe such attitudes still acceptable today.
The first historical novel I wrote was Escape to Eaglehawk, set on a convict ship for boys aged from nine to sixteen, and then at a juvenile gaol in Tasmania called Point Puer. It contains a series of actual events which I put into some semblance of order to create a plot. I went to Tasmania with the help of a Literature Board grant and was shown over the site where the gaol had been (very little was left of it by then) and spent some time in the State Archives and libraries in Hobart doing research. I remember asking to look up a case at 4.45 pm on a Friday when the Archives closed at 5 pm. They were clearly wanting to be rid of me, and began putting up chairs on desks all around me, while I worked. Then at 4.55 pm precisely, I found the case, exclaiming, “Acquitted!” out loud. Such moments are a pure joy.
I made the fictional decision to imply that one overseer might have been a pedophile. My reason for this was that some overseers were clearly more brutal than others but one in particular regularly had full urinals tipped over him and was more than once waylaid by boys after dark and beaten. In fact, he eventually died of injuries after one such beating. To me this suggested far more than a harsh disciplinarian, and that the boys had scores to settled. I also wanted to send a strong message to my readers that bullying was not to be tolerated and that it is possible to stand up and be counted.
The publisher asked for a sequel but wanted it to be set thirteen years later during the Eureka stockade. My hero was still to be in it, but by this time he would have been in his twenties, so I had to invent other fictional children and make my first hero a secondary character instead. The book was Eureka Gold. Apart from the Royal Commission report and other research, I also contacted an expert in 1850s gold-mining techniques and had him check my manuscript.
All three books – Escape to Eaglehawk, Eureka Gold (both Millennium) and Ned’s Kang-u-roo (Lothian) were aimed at a readership of nine to fourteen year olds and are each about 30 000 words long.
Plagues & Federation – The Diary of Kitty Barnes, one of Scholastic’s My Story series, is about 40 000 words in length and is aimed at ten to fifteen year olds. This book brought together research I had undertaken over many years on various projects, for instance, a play I co-wrote on the history of Canberra, research I did when working at the Mitchell Library into The Rocks area of Sydney and the outbreak of plague, study I had done on the Boer War and an English legal case I had had to look up for an essay. All these pieces came together in one book, yet there was something missing; details of their daily lives.
Some of this I was able to track down from reports on archaeological digs in the area and from old photos of the time. As for the rest, I read The Sydney Morning Herald on microfilm for the whole of 1900, which was hard on the eyes, but which gave me information on the weather, advertisements, shipping news, racing results, accounts of the war, reactions to Federation, the search for a suitable capital and the tower going up on St Mary’s Cathedral.
Having to write the novel in the form of a diary added another layer of difficulty because it meant only writing about historical events that a child was likely to record. Free Trade and Protectionist issues of Federation and the politicians arguing for them would be of little interest, but the big party to celebrate its introduction on 1st January 1900 would.
Given history is such a rich source of material for writers, I don’t feel limited to fiction. Walers Go To War is a small non-fiction book which came out of research I did on the Boer War and First World War. I felt children should know about the thousands of horses sent from Australia to various theatres of war, which because of our vital quarantine restrictions did not return (with the exception of “Banjo” Paterson’s own horse and General Bridges’s horse which was brought back to march in his funeral cortege).
This being a sad topic and one potentially upsetting to children, I chose an illustrator, Sue O’Loughlin, whom I knew would lighten the subject matter and between us we came up with a number of illustrations to make the subject matter a little more “palatable”.
The same publisher, the Anzac Day Commemoration Committee Inc (Queensland), is bringing out another book in September which I have co-written with author Mary Small, also non-fiction, on the Second World War. It’s called Feathered Soldiers – An illustrated tribute to Australia’s wartime messenger pigeons. These birds did not come home either and again the illustrations, by Elizabeth Alger, show a deft touch in dealing with a sad topic.
History has provided me with backdrops also for fantasy. Lulubelle and Her Bones is a love story about two dogs, set in the 18th century. Because it is fantasy I feel able to move back and forth within the century, and not be restricted by dates, but I still include historical facts. There were lapdogs living pampered lives with the aristocracy in grand estates with hundreds of rooms, and lavish gardens with artificial lakes and bridges. At the same time, there were dogs below stairs, earning their keep in the kitchens as tournbroches turning the spit to cook the roast. There were also highwaymen, tinkers, gypsies and assorted thieves. Not to mention rats.
The famous actress, Sarah Siddons, once had her life saved by a stagehand when the hem of her dress caught fire on a footlight candle. I have fudged the truth a little by having my dog hero save her life, but that I claim as literary licence. While I was writing the book, I knew that somehow the dogs would have to end up in London earning their living, probably in the theatre, but I wasn’t sure how. Then I stumbled across one of those little gems of research. I discovered an entrepreneur named Scaglioni, had a troupe of performing dogs at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. The dogs wore little uniforms and dresses, they rode across stage in tiny carriages, used spinning wheels and scaled up ladders. They were famous for performing a play called The Deserter.
Today we would regard performing dogs dressed up and having to stand on their hind paws as cruel, but in the 18th century this was not the case, and besides, being fantasy, no dog suffers unduly. For the child interested in going beyond the story to learn a few historical facts, they are there to be found, buried like bones, among the fiction.
Young girls are more interested in relationships between characters than straight out information. They have told me they find the ending of Eaglehawk sad (when a convict boy is drowned), and they like the mini-romance in Plagues & Federation.
Boys are more interested in hard facts I realized, when a small boy once asked me, “Does it hurt to get 36 strokes on the breech?” I said I was sure it did, but I wasn’t about to find out!
Some librarians have told me they have used Eaglehawk to get reluctant boy readers “hooked”. One had almost given up on a particular twelve-year old, and gave him the book in desperation. Back he came later, to tell her not only had he read it, but his father had taken him to spend a night in the Hyde Park Barracks, and he added, “It was just like in the book!”
Hearing that, was a bonus. It meant my historical hook had lured him into reading.
"Shell-shock" was not merely a politically correct term for cowardice, but described a real and devastating condition. British generals knew it, but chose to ignore it - in the public interest.
© Vashti Farrer