Writing Historical Fiction

People often ask how authors motivate themselves when working so much alone, particularly if they have no looming deadline. As a writer of historical fiction, one of my tactics is to read myself into motivation. In the early stages of a new book idea I don’t have the impetus of lots of words already written to get me going, so I turn to other authors’ words (usually nonfiction) to inspire my creativity. Prod it along, so to speak. Inevitably an idea strikes. In other words, for me reading = writing.

For me, reading = writing

Here is a stack of books I turned to when writing my latest novel The Secrets of Bridgewater Bay. Perhaps the titles will give you a few clues as to its setting. If you sense that the book covers quite a bit of territory, you’d be right. Set in the early twentieth century, it moves from a grand country house in Devon, England, to a homestead in rural Australia. Life in the English Country House and Historic Homesteads are both excellent pictorial references that helped me envisage these settings. And Servants was an excellent resource to understand the relationship between ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ at that time.

Along the way, the characters travel by ship through the Suez Canal, sailing via Colombo, Sri Lanka, before reaching Australia. Two Happy Years in Ceylon is a reprinted travelogue from the late nineteenth-century, and a treasure trove of description about Sri Lanka at that time from an English traveller’s perspective.

And although the novel isn’t set on the battlefields of World War One, the characters’ lives are impacted by these events. Hence, Vera Brittain’s must-read Testament of Youth, Juliet Nicholson’s The Great Silence and several wonderful and moving collections of letters and diaries by Australian soldiers, which helped give an authentic voice to some of the passages in the novel.

There were many more books, of course, plus a myriad of online sources. But these were a few that really helped me through some rough patches in the writing process.

Road Trip Two

Strange encounters of the feathered kind…

In a previous post I alluded to the feral goats I encountered on a road trip to North Devon, while researching my novel The Secrets of Bridgewater Bay. A further trip to south west Victoria, a region I have visited often in the past, brought a strange encounter with a very large, feathered opportunist.

As parts of the novel are set on a farming property in this volcanic region I wanted to refresh my memory of the countryside. The volcanic soils make it perfect for farming and it is famed for its wool, dairy and wheat. The old cones of dormant volcanoes speckle the rich farmlands, many of them with lake-filled craters. For example, Lake Purrumbete, near Camperdown, is one of the world’s largest crater lakes at 2.8 kilometres across.

The basalt rocks that once spewed from these volcanoes are ubiquitous as building materials throughout the area. Dry stone fences, woolsheds and homesteads are all constructed of this dark blue/grey stone, including the fictional homestead ‘Wuurnong’ of my novel. As a young woman I lived for a year on a 5000-acre sheep and wheat property in this region and I remember its magnificent bluestone woolshed. I think I was more impressed by the woolshed than the grand bluestone homestead.

The dogs escorted Brian and Molly across the paddocks to inspect the bluestone woolshed in all its utilitarian grandeur, barking at a couple of wood ducks on the dam

The Secrets of Bridgewater Bay

Anyway, a refresher trip was called for and a pitstop on that journey was one of my favourite picnic and walking spots near Warrnambool — Tower Hill. Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve sits in a volcanic crater at the heart of a cone shaped hill, partly filled by a lake. It is part of the Aboriginal cultural landscape and visitors can join a walk through the reserve with a guide from the local Worn Gundidj people. Another interesting fact about Tower Hill is that the land was degraded by pastoral activities but in the 1960s volunteer groups began replanting the crater using a 1855 painting by colonial painter Eugene von Gerard as a guide.

Looking at the Tower Hill crater from the rim of the cone

Tower Hill is renowned for its wildlife, with 150 species of birds, grey kangaroos, koalas and… emus. I had encountered the emus of Tower Hill before. One tried to steal an ice cream from my son on a previous trip. (At a winery picnic an emu stole one of those hard umbrella-shaped lollies on a stick from a friend’s child and we watched in horror the lollie’s progress down that poor emu’s very, very long neck).

This time my husband and I looked on fascinated as the emu in the photograph strode over to a tradie taking time out to eat lunch in his ute with the window open. As the emu approached, the sensible man quickly closed his window. Then we all watched in amusement as it knocked on the window with its beak for about a minute before walking away in disgust when the man refused to wind down the window and offer it his sandwich.

The rangers ask that you don’t feed the animals. But I think they forgot to tell the emus.

Nan’s Cottage

When I decided to set the first chapter of The Secrets of Bridgewater Bay in a Victorian coastal town, Port Fairy came to mind immediately. It’s a popular holiday town but also one of the oldest European settlements in Victoria. On the banks of the Moyne River, adjacent to a small historic island that is home to a colony of shearwaters and with a great surf beach, Port Fairy has plenty of atmosphere. It’s also a fishing port and its streets are lined with early colonial architecture.

She listened to the water lapping at the pylons and fancied it beckoning softly to all those who would venture out into unknown seas.

The Secrets of Bridgewater Bay

The Secrets of Bridgewater Bay is a dual-time novel and my contemporary protagonist’s family hail from this region of Australia. I decided I needed to find her grandmother a suitable house in Port Fairy. The house where she discovers that first clue to the disappearance of her great-grandmother Rose.

There are numerous simple stone cottages in Port Fairy, mostly built in the first half of the nineteenth century. Many are built from the local basalt, a volcanic rock found throughout the area. South-west Victoria is pockmarked with 400 volcanoes, now long dormant, but they have left behind craters filled with lakes. More of that in another post.

For the moment, imagine my character Molly sifting through the contents of her dead grandmother’s home and wandering along the boardwalk by the river, haunted by the ghosts of her own past.

The boardwalk along the Moyne River, Port Fairy