Vashti FarrerGetting Hysterical About Historicals

by Vashti Farrer


For years, I've toyed with the idea of writing an adult novel set in 17th century Germany. Then I remind myself that I don't speak German, I've never been to Germany, and nor can I read old Germanic script.

So it would mean an uphill battle all the way, in other words, enough to make anyone hysterical, and as a result, it sits on the back-burner.

On the other hand, Susan Preston is fluent in French. So her research on the Astrolabe whilst it may not have been easy, was at least within her grasp. And Felicity Pulman, too, has been over vast tracts of English countryside with a magnifying glass in search of clues. So she, too, can tell her wormwood from her monkshood.

The bottom line is, if you want to write historical fiction, you have to be prepared to put in the hard yards. That means hours spent in libraries, reading diaries and letters, eye witness accounts, Royal Commission Reports, ship's logs, official government papers, and so on. Perhaps staring at old newspapers on microfilm till you think you're getting cataracts. Then there are maps, paintings, prints and old photos to be scrutinized. Along the way, never be afraid to consult the experts, they're often only too willing to help and over the years I've rung dozens of museums to ask weird and obscure questions. If your historical event is within living memory, try to interview those who were there - maybe old miners, war veterans, or even grannies with shonky short-term, but wonderful, long-term memories. Then after all that, try and visit the site to soak up atmosphere while thinking yourself back into the 12th, 19th or whatever century, to imagine what it was like for your characters.

It's unlikely you'd need to cover all the sources I've mentioned for one book, but that said, there's no short cut to research either, even for kids. In fact, especially for kids. While adult readers may know something of the period already, so details can be sketched in, children won't, which means they'll need enough background information to be able to make sense of your plot. For kids, it's a good story that's most important, but it doesn't mean they won't notice if you skimp on research. They will, because somehow the book won't seem "real". So the more research you do, the more authentic your background.

The irony is, most of your research will probably end up on the cutting room floor, but none will it go to waste. If you steep yourself in the period it can't help but show itself by a process of osmosis. You won't, for instance, make anachronistic mistakes. You won't dress your 18th century heroine in a crinoline, or feed potatoes to your 10th century English peasants. Mistakes can still creep in, even with famous names. Rosemary Sutcliff once had a character in King Arthur's England kangarooing down the street. Daphne du Maurier had a character during the English Civil War ask, "I wonder what are they're gerrymandering about?" 

|image2|So having amassed your research, you're passionate about sharing it with your reader, but beware! Don't try and include all of it or even most. No child (or adult for that matter) wants to feel they're being given a history lesson. Any background information therefore has to be selected carefully and worked in seamlessly, so as to be hardly noticed. I've sometimes been over passages up to 30 times till I'm happy. For my first historical novel, Escape to Eaglehawk, I did nine full drafts, but the good news is, it gets easier.

 To make it work, try and distance yourself from the text. Look at the manuscript objectively, preferably from a child's perspective. Every time you need to provide information, ask yourself - Does my reader need to know this? Chances are he won't and as a general rule: If in doubt, leave it out.

To write historical fiction for kids you need to be able to put yourself in their shoes. So start off by making your main character a child, but one who's accessible, with whom they can relate. Not some stuck-up Little Lord Fauntleroy, or a toffy-nosed nerd they'd be unlikely to associate with in the playground. Instead, choose a kid with a sense of humour, let him use the slang of his time, have him play the odd practical joke perhaps, allow him to get into strife. Just because he lives in the 18th century doesn't mean he can't be "normal". Allow him the chance to experience curiosity, wonder, nervousness, fear and excitement, so that he'll appeal to kids of today and they'll identify with him and consider him a mate, almost.

Next, decide if the major historical event underpinning your plot is exciting, or likely to interest a child. If it isn't, mention it only in passing. For instance, the Transit of Venus would hardly grab the attention of today's Space Age child.

In PLAGUES & FEDERATION - The Diary of Kitty Barnes, I had to cover the movement towards Federation but frankly I remembered finding it boring when I was at school. What kid wants to hear the arguments for and against Free Trade? Who was going to be responsible for customs, defence, education and health? Some of these arguments are still going on! So I focussed instead on the search for a Federal Capital site, because they've all heard of Canberra. I tell them Queen Victoria gave the desk on which she signed the Act to the people of Australia and I described the celebrations on 1 January 1901 when 10,000 school children in Centennial Park sang God Save the Queen.

I'm not a teacher, so it's not up to me to teach Federation, nor Cook's voyage up the east coast of Australia, nor the Eureka Stockade, nor transportation. But it is my job to whet the child's appetite, by bringing the period to life for him, by means of a story. At the same time I supply him with enough detail so he can understand what daily life was like back then, and the conditions leading up to Federation.

I weave real historical events in and out of my plot, always mindful of the impact those events had on the lives of ordinary people who didn't make it into the history books. I stick to real dates and weather conditions, as well as what was on sale in the shops, and so on. I'm aware that the Herald was published from Monday to Saturday, but never on Sunday, so I don't allow a character to read it over Sunday brunch.

To make the book more reader friendly, I include lots of trivia. Little details that kids might know, or might find interesting, such as the first spire going up on St Mary's Cathedral, the underground tunnel being extended from Central Railway to St James Station. I cover the daily horror of the plague as people were dragged off to the Quarantine Station, often with no warning. The many children and their families whose lives were turned upside down by plague. I also deal with the clean-up campaign that destroyed parts of the Rocks area, at the same time pouring millions of gallons of chemicals into Sydney Harbour and killing some 70,000 fish in the process.

Often when doing research I'm looking for trivia. You won't find it automatically in library catalogues, or even online. Mostly, I don't even know what I'm looking for, because no librarian will have recorded it for me, so it sort of leaps off the page at me. For instance, I was reading a dictionary of obscure words when I came across the name for the dog that turned the spit in 18th century kitchens -  the tournebroche. When I needed to have two dogs performing on stage, I discovered a Mr Scaglioni owned a performing dog troupe at Sadler's Wells.

You find trivia almost always by chance. Sydney Parkinson, the young draftsman on H.M. Endeavour, happened to mention in his journal that he'd had himself tattooed in Tahiti. A bold move for a young man in 1768 or thereabouts. It had me wondering how his mum might have reacted had she seen him? It would have been the 18th century equivalent of a punk hair-do and matching nose ring.

Trivia may not be relevant to the main historical event. Parkinson's tattoo had no impact on the Endeavour  hitting the Reef at Cape Tribulation, nor on the fact that she was saved by fothering, that is, filling a sail with spoilt straw and animal dung then heaving it overboard to plug the hole in her side. But his tattoo helps bring him alive as a character and provides background colour, in a way straight facts don't or can't.

So, how do you include important information? Obliquely. NEVER in a paragraph-shaped list. Introduce facts indirectly, perhaps in the form of dialogue, or in the way characters interact with each other, maybe as a passing reference, or as something they happen to read in a newspaper, a letter, or a diary. It can even be by way of an item they find, always keeping in mind that your character, being 9 or 13 in 1770 or 1900, is going to be unsophisticated by today's standards. This will affect his reactions to events as they unfold around him and the way in which he absorbs information.

As for getting hysterical during research, I admit I came close recently. I suggested a topic for the My Story series - namely, the first Melbourne Cup of 1861. Legend has it the horse, Archer, walked from Nowra to Flemington, then won the race. I told my editor it was a legend but I probably couldn't prove it either way but she said it didn't matter, to go with the legend and explain later.

That's when the headaches started. How would he get there? Would he take the coast road? Or go inland? I started looking at maps. Then someone said if he stayed on different properties, I could name them. More hours spent in Mitchell tracking down names of properties, which have a habit of changing, as do their owners. So properties listed in 1848 weren't necessarily there in 1861. I was getting more and more bogged down. I could see another 17th century Germany looming and I had a deadline to meet.

Then Randwick Racecourse put me in touch with someone who had researched racehorses from 1788 to 1900. He insisted that Archer didn't walk, he went by ship and he had proof. Bang went the legend. To have gone overland he would have had to trek through the snow-covered Snowy Mountains in midwinter. So half my research went down the gurgler, and I turned to shipping. I plodded on, doing more research, even visiting stables at Randwick at 4 in the morning till finally, I  got the manuscript in on time, last December. Shortly after Christmas, my editor left for another firm and I was given a new editor. He wanted 83 significant changes most involving more research. I went out and bought a $55 book on how to train racehorses and struggled on.

Then just before I was due to send off a second draft, I decided to check out the area. Where I had had the horse galloping up the odd hill this was all dead flat dairy country. Still, I thought, okay, at least he took them swimming so I sussed out local swimming spots.

To tidy up a few tiny details I rang a local historian who'd written a book on the trainer, and he said he never swim them locally, nor did he walk them to Sydney to catch the ship to Melbourne, and as for the stable manager, who was one of my main characters, he never existed.

This happened on the day before Good Friday when I also heard that my editor had been headhunted and guess what, I had a new one! and a manuscript due straight after Easter. So yes, I was a teensy bit hysterical, until they gave me an extension till mid-May.

The moral of the story is - DON'T choose a legend to write about. It's safer to choose a topic with plenty of material available. And when you do, don't forget to include some trivia, to make your character a child with a sense of humour, then let the story unfold through his eyes.

© Vashti Farrer


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