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April 2019

NSSA 2019 Cover

2019 Newcastle Short Story Award

By | News, Short Story Writing

NSSA 2019 Cover

 

Hunter Writers Centre was thrilled to present the 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award prize ceremony on 5th April. Annabel Smith, judge, flew in from Perth to talk about her judging experience, her own writing journey and gave tips to writers about entering competitions, coping with rejection and explaining the stand out features of a great short story.

Click here to see the list of prize winners

Listen to Annabel discuss writing, entering competitions and maintaining your confidence as a writer:

Annabel Smith, judge of 2019 NSSA

Annabel Smith at the prize ceremony

NSSA winner Ellen Vickerman, Annabel Smith and Paul Egglestone

2019 NSSA Winner, Ellen Vickerman, Annabel Smith, Prof Paul Egglestone, University of Newcastle, sponsor

2nd place winner, Imbi Neem with Cr Carol Duncan, Annabel Smith and Prof Egglestone

L to R: Cr Carol Duncan, City of Newcastle (sponsor of 2nd prize), Annabel Smith, NSSA judge, Imbi Neem, 2nd prize winner, Prof Paul Egglestone, University of Newcastle

NSSA Winner Ellen Vickerman collects her award

2019 NSSA Winner, Ellen Vickerman, from Queensland, collects her award.

Patrick Cullen, Alison Ferguson, Jonathan Godwin and Ned Stephenson - local award winners NSSA 2019

Local Award winners (L to R): Patrick Cullen, Alison Ferguson, Jonathan Godwin, Ned Stephenson

Annabel Smith, NSSA judge, with Sally Davies, Newcastle Law Society (sponsor)

Annabel Smith, judge of NSSA and Sally Davies, Newcastle Law Society (sponsor)
train at station

Writing History Part 1

By | News, Writing History

Carriage ‘B’ of the northbound CountryLink at 1.50pm

Writing Historical Non-Fiction with Christine Bramble

I’ve spent most of my working life writing – but for someone else!  Study notes, exhibition guides, newsletters, council reports, strategic plans, you name it: schools, a museum and the planning departments of local government.  It used to irritate me that I wasn’t writing for myself.  But, hey, you have to earn a living.

I’ve said goodbye to all that and I’m now onto my second work of historical non-fiction and have a slightly different perspective on those years – it was great practice and I was getting paid to do something that I enjoyed.  I am without any doubt a better writer as a result of those years of writing for someone else. My message to those of you who bemoan the writing you may have to do at work: regard it as an opportunity to hone your style.

There were unforeseen consequences. For example, I gained a reputation for writing readable reports that didn’t need redrafting all the way up the line to the General Manager.  Nervous first-time report writers would bribe me with the promise of drinks on Friday arvo if I would cast my eyes over their work.  I’m hopeless at saying no to a drink . . .

So how do I now find myself working on the biography of a woman who experienced the horrors of the Great War from the wards of a military hospital? Strange to say, poetry was the catalyst.  I relished reading poetry from an early age, encouraged by Mum who often gave me books of poetry for birthdays and Christmas. So, it was a revelation to me when, in my final year school exams, one of the set texts was the work of the war poet Wilfred Owen.  I was in awe of his work, then shocked and fascinated when I started to delve into historians’ accounts of the war and its impact on global events. So began my understanding of and interest in how literature and art reflect and influence the story of humankind.  Poems like Owen’s Futility certainly influenced my choice of History for study and my political leanings.

Fast forward twenty-five years to my job at Newcastle Regional Museum. Research for an exhibition on Hunter stories of the Great War, that included the mock-up of a trench complete with soundtrack, introduced me to the war service of Hunter nurses who joined the Australian army and, a smaller number, the British army.  But one who slipped through the cracks in the telling of her story was Matron Ida Greaves RRC, a graduate of Newcastle Hospital who happened to be in England in August 1914 at the outbreak of war.  She joined a voluntary hospital that went to France within weeks but the story is not well-known today.

I accumulated more information about Ida and realised she was a remarkable woman who deserves to be better known – part of the first contingent of Australians on the Western Front and one of the first Australian women to be awarded the Royal Red Cross in that conflict.

I had created a blog for ‘my’ Great War nurses, listing their names and a summary of what I knew about their service.  One day I was contacted by a descendent of Ida Greaves.  We corresponded over a few months and in 2013 he called me to say he would be visiting a relative in Victoria who had ‘stuff’ in her garage that might interest me. I was to wait on Broadmeadow Station, alongside carriage ‘B’ of the northbound CountryLink at 1.50pm on the day of his return.  An elderly gentleman briefly stepped out of the carriage to shake hands, handed me a briefcase and then continued on his way.

The briefcase contained a treasure trove of over 300 photos and documents and I was on my way with turning Ida’s story into a book.  A friend once told me that a good biography takes seven years.  I plan to have A Matron and A Hospital in print in 2020.  It will have taken seven years and I aim for it to be my best writing yet.

Christine has been a teacher of History, a museum education officer and a cultural planner. She assists Lake Macquarie libraries with the planning of the History Illuminated Festival each year during History Week – September.

Christine Bramble - staff member and blogger

Writing History Part 2

By | News, Writing History

‘You can’t change the date of the Battle of Waterloo’

Writing Historical Non-Fiction with Christine Bramble

Some years ago I attended a workshop on Creative Non-Fiction.  When I mentioned this to a friend who, like me, was working on a biography, she looked puzzled.  How can nonfiction be creative? Doesn’t “creative” imply “imaginative” and therefore not factual?  The friend who, also like me, sometimes struggles with the fact that citing references is actually more time consuming than the writing itself, commented tongue-in-cheek that her project would be so much easier if she could occasionally just make it up!

Put at its simplest creative nonfiction is a good story well told – generally about people and events so not a genre that suits a thesis on a technical subject.  It uses the same literary techniques as writing fiction, eg, lyrical style, arranging a story other than chronologically, highlighting the dramatic or the amusing.  But it must always be factually accurate and its characters and places must be real.

The authenticity of the story is paramount.  Writing the story of a family member might be your first foray into nonfiction after years of writing poetry or short stories.  You want the family at the very least and possibly others to enjoy reading your efforts so aim at making your work a piece of creative nonfiction rather than a list of events and dates.  Perhaps you have started with some family papers that have been gathering dust in someone’s garage since a great grandparent died – letters, certificates, photographs, even shopping lists. Yes, such apparently inconsequential bits of paper may get saved by accident but hint at what people were buying a hundred years ago.   You can then supplement these with research on the individual from official sources such as Births, Deaths and Marriages.  Don’t take what is in front of you for granted. A caption on the reverse of a photograph could have been added later by someone who wasn’t on the scene – here it’s useful to identify samples of handwriting from family members, although this can be tricky – the teaching of handwriting in the past could produce a class of students with very similar styles.  I have come across this in my own research and sometimes have difficulty distinguishing one sibling from another.

Even official documents may not reflect the truth.  I came across this in researching the story of Matron Ida Greaves.  Her application form to join the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve 1916 (pictured, and thank goodness it gets abbreviated to QA) gave her date of birth as 1878.   I knew this wasn’t right. Sure enough, I confirmed that her birth was registered in February 1875 and baptismal records showed that she was baptised in March 1875.  The “mistake” in the application form was almost certainly deliberate as she would otherwise have been too old to join. But I cannot say for certain – the previous sentence is a supposition, not a fact. So if you have a theory but no proof, you need to say so.  You also need to research the context – the time and place that the documents were created. What were the important local, national and global events of the time? How did people eat, dress, travel, work, learn? Library and museum collections are great resources to get a feel for these things – local libraries has online material from the region, Newcastle Historical Collections and Lake Macquarie Libraries to name just two.  The Victoria and Albert Museum in the UK is great for a sense of the global picture.

What about the relationship between the historical novel you might be working on and historical fact?  In some ways this is a tricky one – you have the liberty to create your own imaginary characters and places but the best historical fiction is deeply researched in the facts and the background and just like writing your family history, this takes time if you want to create a really credible world for your characters.  One reason I love reading Winston Graham’s Poldark series is that the world he creates has indeed been deeply researched to create credibility.  I have often been heard to say in connection with historical novels, ‘You can’t change the date of the Battle of Waterloo’, ie something so very easy to check.   Next time I’ll talk a bit more about this and about planning your historical nonfiction.

Christine has been a teacher of History, a museum education officer and a cultural planner. She assists Lake Macquarie libraries with the planning of the History Illuminated Festival each year during History Week – September.

Christine Bramble - staff member and blogger
Red Cross nurses WW1

Writing History Part 3

By | News, Writing History

Thomas Keaneally’s Error

In my last post I referred to the writerly error of “changing the date of the Battle of Waterloo”, i.e., getting the facts wrong in relation to a topic that’s easy to check.  I was disappointed when I read Thomas Keneally’s Daughters of Mars, a novel of military nursing in the Great War. The Great War is my specialist subject, specifically the stories of the hospitals, nurses and doctors who did their best to patch up horribly wounded men.  On the one hand Daughters of Mars is undeniably a page-turner, just as you would expect of a writer of Keneally’s stature, enjoyed by millions of readers.

But the novel contains a fundamental error.  Keneally’s novel uses the name of an actual hospital – The Australian Voluntary Hospital – and draws inspiration from some aspects of its story.  On the one hand this might be perfectly acceptable. But the real hospital opened in 1914 not 1916, thus the novel undermines its significance as the first Australian unit in France in the Great War. It would have been so easy just to give the hospital a different name.  On a more positive note, I revel in the novels of Winston Graham (and not because the actor who plays Ross Poldark in the TV series is so gorgeous!).  He doesn’t change the date of the Battle of Waterloo, an event that features in one of the novels in the Poldark series, and does paint a credible picture of English society in the period of the Napoleonic Wars.

But back to historical non-fiction.  If you are venturing into writing the history of your street, suburb or family it is important to first write a plan, not a book – the book comes later.

You need to create a reading list. Here are some terms used by historians: History is based on sources and sources come in two flavours (pun intended) – primary and secondary.  The primary sources are original documents from the period you are researching – a birth certificate is a primary source.  Official documents, personal letters, diaries, headstones, books written at the time, newspaper articles (caution – do you believe everything you read in the papers?) – are examples of primary sources.  You find them in libraries, museums and archives or on their websites.  Start by talking to your Local Studies librarian. The task is made easier – and cheaper! – these days because of the amount of original material on-line.  Military service records on the National Archives of Australia website is one example – a trip to Canberra can be an expensive exercise.  That said, there is nothing quite like reverently holding in your hands an ancient dog-eared, musty-smelling piece of paper.

Secondary sources are written after the event, based on primary sources – history books and articles that will help you build a picture of the local, national and global background.  As a rule of thumb, start with the more recent publications as you would expect these to reflect the most recent research on a topic.  Here again, your librarian can point you in the right direction.

I alluded in an earlier blog to “supposition” as opposed to fact.  Sometimes when researching primary sources you come across something that hints intriguingly at an amusing story or a mystery. Just because you don’t know exactly what happened doesn’t mean you can’t use this, but you need to make it clear in your writing that you don’t know. I’ll finish with an example of this from my book Sisters of the Valley – First World War Nurses from Newcastle and the Hunter (2011):

Red Cross nurses WW1

World War 1 Red Cross nurses, photo courtesy of Time

On Christmas Day 1918 an accident occurred at a military hospital in Salonika.  The accident was, luckily, slight in its consequences but could have been much more serious and would surely have resulted in a telegram to Walter Godfrey in East Maitland to notify him that his daughter, Staff Nurse Leila Godfrey, had been injured.    The injury was nothing to do with enemy action.  In filling out the Report of Accidental or Self-Inflicted Injuries Leila stated that “at Christmas dinner while off duty I was burnt on the face, slightly, by blazing spirit which fell from the plum pudding.”  Christmas dinner in 1918 held a special significance for everyone involved in the conflict.  An Armistice was now in force and there was reason to hope the fighting was over and that next Christmas they would all be back home.  Perhaps the celebrations got a little boisterous.  We can imagine Leila making a grand entrance to the brightly decorated Sisters’ Mess. She is carrying the pudding aloft, ablaze with the burning brandy, perhaps a little careless in her excitement, perhaps even affected by a tipple from the brandy bottle!  In the commanding officer’s opinion no one was to blame and a commission of enquiry was not necessary.  Leila was lucky that the burns were not more serious.

Christine has been a teacher of History, a museum education officer and a cultural planner. She assists Lake Macquarie libraries with the planning of the History Illuminated Festival each year during History Week – September.

Christine Bramble - staff member and blogger