How fiction/historical fiction can save historical fact

Barquentine City of Sydney – formerly steamer City-of-Sydney_SLV_Green, Source: State Library of Victoria Author: Allan C. Green 1878 – 1954

From oblivion is what I mean. One of my main aims in being a writer is to preserve little known facts and make them sing in my fiction. I might have touched on this before but there were two facts (above all others) that I wanted to preserve in Tomaree and that was to do with the US servicemen based in Australia. But let me start at the beginning.

Tomaree is inspired not just by a real life love story but by a fascinating time in Australian history when approximately half a million US serviceman were stationed in Australia during World War II. There are a lot of facts in Tomaree – details of the Fly Point camp, the way Nelson Bay used to be in 1942 (just a jumble of small shops) details of campaigns in the Pacific and much more. But the two facts, that may seem trivial, but I wanted to include are: 1. that the American serviceman hated all our loose change. They couldn’t abide it heavy and jingling in their pockets – the threepenny, halfpenny, pennies etc. As related to me by a Nelson Bay Resident, the soldiers would dig their hands in their pockets offer up the change to the nearest small child and say, “Here kid, buy yourself an icecream.”

No. 2 is that wherever the soldiers were stationed in Australia, it was common for local residents to send a small boy (never a girl from what I read in a history book on the subject) into the street looking for a Yank to invite him home to tea. My Amercan Signals Officer is approached by such a small boy but has to refuse because he already has a dinner invitation. I feel very privileged to have the means to keep these sort of little known but important facts alive for the reading public of today. It’s what motivates me to seek out historical fact (like many historical fiction authors I’m guessing) and weave it into my fiction.

In a strange way too, fiction also preserves historical facts for readers. For some time now I’ve been researching Sydney in the 1920s. There are actually not many non fiction books available on the subject. Frustrated, I turned my attention to fiction but wondered where all the female fiction writers were who were writing at that time. There didn’t seem to be many listed in anthologies and literary records. At first I thought there was simply no significant female authors writing during the first two decades of the last century. I have since read Dale Spender’s Writing a New World and discovered that is not the case. They have been deliberately left out of literary collections and reviews – but that’s another blog. In this one I want to highlight how I have found historical fact in fiction.

As mentioned I turned my attention to fiction to help me research the 1920s and luckily discovered Ethel Turner’s daughter Jean Curlewis. Last month I read her third novel Beach Beyond set near Palm Beach and written in 1923. This week I have just finished her first novel written in 1921 – The Ship That Never Set Sail. Here is what I have been looking for the last six months – a real, vibrant Sydney – the Sydney of 90 years ago!

Here she is writing about Darling Harbour:

“They were gazing right down on to the littered decks of ships – they could almost have dropped pebbles into the holds – they caught intimate glimpses of donkey-engines and capstans and flying bridges and fo’c’stle hatches at a proximity impossible at the Quay. The huge funnels towered up right beside them. They could count the cases and barrels and mysterious bulging sacks and great green clusters of bananas scattered on the wharves – gaze down into the dull green water, deep-hued as a peacock’s tail with a film of oil from some passing steamer. All the vast detail of the fifth port of the Empire was spread beneath their eyes: “the beauty and mystery of the ships”; all Darling Harbour stretching like a river between its vessel-teeming banks into the very heart of the city.” Marvellous and better than any history book!

There are also descriptions of White City, now long vanished, a ball on board a warship, something called a gypsy tea, the Blue Mountains when it was smaller and quieter with barely any cars on the road, and Pittwater. A wharf at Newport is mentioned and a pier “that ran out from a green garden full of white pigeons, scented verbena and mauve blue Love-in-a-Mist.” This is very near where I used to live but of course the garden is long gone. I’m so thankful to have found Jean Curlewis. Her words have been helping me to recreate in my mind another Sydney. I hope to track down more lost authors, to read, review and discover the Australia they lived in.

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16 thoughts on “How fiction/historical fiction can save historical fact

  1. When I set out to writing my trilogy, I knew two things: 1. I needed to know the facts and 2. I needed to know more than the facts 🙂

    I think the tricky part for us historical fiction writers is that we write our characters from the inside, that’s why fatcs aren’t enough for us. We need to know what people felt, not only what they did.
    So I did the same as you, I turned to era writers… and I am lucky enough that in my time periode (the 1920s too, but in America) there was the florishing of what’s known as the Harlem Renaissance, with many important African American authors writing about contemporary life and being published in that moment.
    It’s like a time machine, isn’t it? 🙂

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  2. That’s so interesting, Debbie. But how do we, the reader, get to appreciate that these are facts, and not just made up? When I read historical fiction I assume the writer has done the research, but imagination is always at play. I guess we all go with the flow and enjoy ‘the feel’!

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    • Go with the flow yes and imagination is at play too of course but there are simple things like the ships at harbour, a fun fair at white city, trams, types of clothes etc that we know are real and when they are all put together it really does give us a sense of the past don’t you think? Better than history books! It’s like looking at people in old photographs! You just want them to spring to life!

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  3. As a reader, I appreciate when an author has made the extra effort with accurate research and, believe me, it does show in the story they tell. There’s nothing so infuriating as being suddenly dragged out of a story by a glaring anomaly! On a positive note, I think I gain a far stronger understanding of a period and place through good historical fiction than from dry ‘real history’. For example, we recently visted Sagunt castle in Spain, site of Hannibal’s first attack. There’s no sign of his elephants(!), but I got a sense of the place from its ruins and am now trying to search out a good novel to fill in the gaps of the city’s story.

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    • Thanks so much Stephanie! I’m glad that you are aware when adequate research has been made. Sometimes I think why am I doing all this? Good to know it makes it all worthwhile . I hope you find a suitable book. Spain! I’m so envious!

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  4. Fascinating post Debbie. I had never defined myself as reading historical fiction. I think this is because as a teenager I eschewed writers like Georgette Heyer than my friends loved. But I’ve realised over the last decade that I read quite a lot of historical fiction – mostly though what I, suppose snobbishly, call literary historical fiction. I’m not a reader who gets very picky about fact in my historical fiction though because I recognise that I am reading fiction. What I’m usually looking for is an imaginative interpretation of the past – one particularly that might throw light on today or that makes us think differently about the past.

    But, I think that historical fiction writers feel obliged to get the “facts” right. Which facts though? (Besides overall flavour of the era, I mean). For example, what if you are exploring a “what if” scenario i.e. what if this character had done this instead of that? And then, what about facts that you can’t find. Where in, other words, do the facts end? And how important do you think it is for writers of historical fiction to provide information about their resources, about the “limits” to their facts in a foreword or afterword?

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    • So many good questions there! My brain is not in gear to answer them with this heat lol! In Tomaree I listed all my resources at the back and I intend to do the same for my manuscript doing the rounds at the moment The Grey Silk Purse.

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  5. Great post, Debbie! In my novels, I write about the time when I was young – the 1950s and 1960s. There is a lot I know from experience, but there is always research to be done to get the little things that will put the reader right there in the time.
    Great comments from others too, as well as your replies. 🙂

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    • Thanks so much Linda. I definitely felt that I was there in the late 1950s with your novel. I don’t remember a single thing that took me out of that time and that’s so important. Having trouble with the novel that I’m reading right now: Green fields in South England in February, Flappers in 1918 and wisteria flowering in January to name but a few really annoying things. It really does break the spell!

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  6. Pingback: Forgotten Australian women novelists | debbierobson

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