Recently, while trawling Trove, I found the following advertisement in the classifieds:
It is a perfect example of why I write historical fiction. I read this and all I see are the the people. The individuals and their stories. The way this ship would have been laden with so much hope and misery and desperation and fear and excitement. In typical academic writing this event would have been swallowed up as part of a broad narrative about the ‘waves of immigration’ or the ‘lack of workers’ or ‘the means by which Western Australia grew and developed’. These are important things to understand. They provide context. But they aren’t about people.
In family history, the advertisement at the top is about an arrival date for an ancestor and gives clues as to their reason for leaving their home. This is important too, but only for that family and it also becomes swallowed up in a list of names and dates. I love my own family history, don’t get me wrong, but I know it is only interesting to me.
I read this advertisement and a cast of characters rush into my head. A widow bringing her teenage boys and hoping they’ll all find work. Young women who’ve been friends since birth escaping a dull-looking future. A young boy, unwanted by his extended family, sent away. A husband and father, looking for work and a place to bring his family. A brother and sister hoping they’ll find work together. A man, sick of his ‘white collar’ work, looking for adventure. A woman escaping her impending unwanted marriage. A woman and her baby looking to make a new story about their lives. A husband and wife wanting a better future. There are nine potential novel ideas right there!
But there are also stories of this arrival for those who live here already: a family who will lose their land if they can’t get help for harvest, a young man about to meet the love of his life and another about to meet the one who ruins it, a father waiting to see his family after three years apart, a rich man about to get richer and a poor man about to become poorer, a woman who will finally find a husband, another who will meet a tragic end and another whose business will boom…honestly the possibilities are endless.
Sometimes I fear looking at the digitised papers, going to museums and browsing images distracts me from my current project. The new and shiny often looks more promising than the quagmire of my novel. Sometimes it is just a good escape. And, importantly, sometimes it helps me develop rounded and developed minor characters with stories and lives and desires all their own.
Will the ship’s arrival make it into my novel? I’m not sure yet but it is a distinct possibility!
Okay, but why write fiction?
I am an historian and have worked in that field but when I did I was often frustrated by the lack of interest in the tiny stories of history, the way I couldn’t get close enough to those people’s lives to really understand them, the way so many of them were ignored or forgotten.
When I used to write reports for heritage assessments it was expected that the architect, the owner, the government department, the seller, the buyer and perhaps the builder were included but I always wanted to know about the person who moulded the plaster cornice or the labourer who laid the stone step or the woman who swept out the dust once the builders had gone or the children chased away from the building site each afternoon.
Then I’d think about who was making the bricks, who cut down the trees for the timbers, who used to walk across the site hunting or laughing or travelling.
The assessment of a building, while important, did not satisfy me or excite me. I wanted to know more.
I write historical fiction because the characters I see in these historical documents are clamouring to be heard, are demanding their voice.
I write historical fiction because I want to hear what they have to say.
And I read historical fiction for the same reason.
Note: if you know anything about WA history you will recognise the name at the bottom of the advertisement. There is a lot to be said about this man but I’m not going to say it here, only to acknowledge that he was responsible, is responsible for thousands of people’s suffering and pain.