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August 2019

True Crime Writing Part 4

By | News, True Crime

True Crime by Ted Bassingthwaighte

The best . . .

Now that you are prepared for it let’s talk about what’s good. I am passionate about stories in book form in particular. I don’t deride digital versions of true crime. True crime podcasts are arguably the fastest growing medium in the genre. But is listening as engaging or enriching as the book. Not for me, but I’m old fashioned I suppose.

There are so many diverse, interesting and stimulating stories on the market. Too many to soak them all up so I spend my reading time on only those stories that grab me from the start and are expertly written. I intentionally avoid the bad ones so I can’t let you in on the crap ones. You’ll have to find out for yourself.

I seek out the books that enrich my reading experience and value add to my knowledge and fascination of all the genre has to offer. In true crime the world is your oyster. I feel it is near impossible to consume it all coupled with my poor concentration so I’m content concentrating on the stories that interest and excite me.

Of course, we all have our favourite writers and themes. I suggest you keep an open mind about all that is on offer in the genre. Try a lot until you find that theme or those authors who bring you the most joy.

When you buckle up to stand at the shoulder of monsters you have to relish the experience. Hairs standing erect on the back of your neck, heart fist pumping in your chest, churning stomach at the grotesque, bug-eyed amazement at the surreal and teeth clenching anger at the cruelty and injustice are all part of the true crime slalom.

In the beginning I went to a safe place, reading police procedurals highlighting great detective work and successful prosecutions. It’s what I did for a job. Was it a vindication of my personal successes and failures? Maybe. Silly me! I soon found mind food in the whole gamut of true crime: police procedurals, journalistic exposes, biographies, memoir, and narrative non-fiction to name a few.

If you want to start somewhere, I suggest these three world class tomes. You will not be disappointed:

  1. Truman Capote – In Cold Blood (Vintage)

Author and journalist, Tom Wolfe said, “The book is neither a who-done-it nor a will-they-be-caught, since the answers to both questions are known from the outset . . . Instead, the book’s suspense is based largely on a totally new idea in detective stories: the promise of gory details, and the withholding of them until the end.” (Pornoviolence in Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1976))

  1. Helen Garner – Joe Cinque’s Consolation (Picador)

Garner wrote in her journal: “Joe Cinque’s murder wasn’t a series of facts that I could be professional about, that I could seize and manipulate with my mind. I was helpless in the face of it. It billowed like a dark curtain on every breeze that blew. It seeped into everything I did. It was a stricken land to which my imagination had been exiled. I couldn’t find a place to get back across the border. The only way was to write about it. But I was paralysed.” (Brennan, Bernadette (2017). A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work. Text Publishing)

  1. Norman Mailer – The Executioner Song (Little, Brown)

Mailer won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for this true crime novel that tells the story of double murderer, Gary Mark Gilmore who demanded his own execution by firing squad in 1977 overturning earlier death penalty statutes that deemed the death penalty as ‘cruel and unusual.’

What’s on my bedside table? Check out these three new releases covering nearly 100 years of bad people doing evil across a range of cultures, occupations and responsibilities.

  1. https://www.hachette.com.au/leigh-straw/lillian-armfield-how-australias-first-female-detective-took-on-tilly-devine-and-the-razor-gangs-and-changed-the-face-of-the-force/
  2. https://www.simonandschuster.com.au/books/The-Matriarch/Adrian-Tame/9781760852191
  3. https://www.penguin.com.au/books/the-fine-cotton-fiasco-9780143793700

 

Over the past 15 years I’ve read and reviewed dozens of true crime books. I remain loyal to the Australian true crime market. There is a plethora of quality international true crime stories both in print, podcast and blog so don’t limit your adventure. I just know what I like and I’m comfortable with that.

Without bias, I highly recommend publishers Allen & Unwin, Big Sky Publishing and Penguin Australia for the variety, quality of story and writing of some of my favoured writers.

Here are but a few to consider:

Allen & Unwin

https://allenandunwin.com/browse/books/other-books/Eggshell-Skull-Bri-Lee-9781760295776

https://allenandunwin.com/browse/books/general-books/true-crime/Fallen-Lucie-Morris-Marr-9781760876050

https://allenandunwin.com/browse/books/general-books/true-crime/Abandoned-Geesche-Jacobsen-9781743310571

 

 

Ted Bassingthwaighte is a retired NSW police detective living in Newcastle with his wife and dog. Since his retirement in 2009 he has been writing. He reviews books for the NSW Police news magazine, has entered HWC short story competitions, winning a prize in the HWC 2014 Grieve competition. He is a member of the HWC and participates regularly in HWC events. He hopes to have his true crime manuscript ‘Bloody Odyssey’ edited and ready for publication in 2019.

True Crime Writing Part 3

By | News, True Crime

True Crime by Ted Bassingthwaighte

The whole crime scene!

So, you are ‘standing at the shoulder of monsters’ and what do you expect to see or hear or feel? Are you just a curious observer? Do you feel slightly voyeuristic? Or do you want to ride that imagination train into the deepest, darkest, scariest tunnel of criminal intent? Whatever you chose you’ll be free to return to the safety of your humdrum life either a little scared or hyper alert of your surroundings. If you are like me, you will repeatedly step back into the criminal mire . . . simply because it is fascinating.

The best true crime stories are not always those with the most blood and guts. Sure, the gruesome crime scene is tantalising but not always necessary. The back story fleshes out the characters in a way that you invest in them, even identifying with some. The real-life experiences of others mirror our own lives in their mundanity or tragedy.

Of course, the central character or characters in the story are the ones we most want to understand and hopefully disassemble. And if the story includes a detailed police investigation and follow-up court appearances with a guilty outcome you feel a kind of satisfaction.

But what if the crook is unpunished or even worse undetected? You can empathise with the victim. But can you feel their pain and grief and that of their family who never recover from that moment of malevolence in their normal lives?

One recent story that has stained my memory is Denis Ryan and Peter Hoysted’s Unholy Trinity The Hunt for the Paedophile Priest Monsignor John Day – Allen & Unwin https://www.booktopia.com.au/unholy-trinity-peter-hoysted/prod9781760529628.html

As a former NSW police detective and Child Sexual Assault investigator, I immediately connected with Denis Ryan, a former Victorian police officer who tried for decades to get paedophile priest, Monsignor John Day before a Court to face multiple allegations of his child abuse across country Victoria over many years.

Day was protected by a church that, up until recently, never took responsibility for the criminal behaviour of its priests. Ryan’s determination also ran afoul of his own police bureaucracy whose intransigence to the problem further compounded the angst and hurt of many of Day’s victims. Unholy Trinity is an emotional and at times infuriating read as one wonders in a civilised society such as ours how evil like this can occur, persist and go unpunished.

Conversely, one of my favourite Australian authors is Tom Gilling. Gilling, with retired NSW detective Clive Small, wrote the police insiders story of the hunt for serial killer Ivan Milat https://allenandunwin.com/browse/books/general-books/true-crime/Milat-Clive-Small-and-Tom-Gilling-9781760293307

The police procedural true crime story does not get much better than this book. Gilling and Small allow the reader inside the police organisation and don’t hold back on all the intricacies and obstacles surmounted in the pursuit of Milat. Of course, the subject, a psychopathic serial killer, is pretty alluring as well.

Close your eyes for a minute. It’s daylight, summer. You are in the bush and birds chatter, a slight breeze whispers through the treetops. A battered Toyota four-wheel drive crashes off a hardly noticeable fire trail into a bush clearing. One man, possibly two, climb out and without talking or looking at each other, they open the rear door. On the floor lay two human shaped sacks bound head to toe wriggling in defiance. A German accented female voice cries out, ‘Please, please, please let us go!’ The ancient Belanglo forest watches, powerless to stop evil and ready to succour more innocents after evil is done with them.

I was fortunate or unfortunate enough, depending on your moral compass, to be in the Glebe Morgue participating in an autopsy of my own when I saw the headless skeleton of one of Milat’s victims, the 20-year-old German backpacker Anja Habschied. She lay on a stainless-steel autopsy table next to her friend Gabor Neugebauer, 21. Both innocents were discovered in bush just off a disused fire trail in the Belanglo forest almost 12 months after disappearing from Kings Cross in December 1991.

The image of the gaping holes Milat’s frenzied knife attack inflicted on their skeletons left an indelible stain on my memory. A testament to the violence and suffering this wicked man inflicted on his victims.

On reflection I realise now how important books like this are to society. As difficult and as distasteful it is to read about the behaviour of evil-doers we need to know what happens so as to understand it and prepare for it. Who knows if it will ever visit any of us?

 

Next week:   The best . . . 

Ted Bassingthwaighte, member of HWC

 

Ted Bassingthwaighte is a retired NSW police detective living in Newcastle with his wife and dog. Since his retirement in 2009 he has been writing. He reviews books for the NSW Police news magazine, has entered HWC short story competitions, winning a prize in the HWC 2014 Grieve competition. He is a member of the HWC and participates regularly in HWC events. He hopes to have his true crime manuscript ‘Bloody Odyssey’ edited and ready for publication in 2019.

picture of a footprint in the sand

True Crime Writing Part 2

By | News, True Crime

Why Do We Love True Crime?

Mark Lawson in this article in The Guardian  said,

“Humans are fascinated by evil,” says bestselling crime writer Ian Rankin. “We wonder where it comes from and whether we ourselves could ever carry out such an act. Some readers turn to crime fiction for answers, while others prefer true crime. Of course, there is a vicarious frisson for the fan of either – the reader stands at the shoulder of monsters without being endangered.”

Trisha Jackson, who specialises in crime books as an editorial director at Pan Macmillan, believes stories of criminality “create a psychologically safe space that lets us dare to wrap our minds around otherwise unfathomable emotion. Unlike cinema, whether it’s fact or fiction, books allow the reader more control over what they are exposed to, as we can simply close the book.”

Is Ian Rankin, right? Are you comfortable standing at a monster’s shoulder and know you are safe from their evil intent? I assume some of you are. And good luck to you if you find enjoyment and learning in what you read or observe.

But what of true crime creating a ‘psychologically safe place where you wrap your mind around those unfathomable emotions?’ Because isn’t that the gist of your interest in true crime … all care and no responsibility? Or is it just plain old voyeuristic curiosity?

True crime for me was a paid job that I would have done without pay if I had to. Today I remain fascinated by the complex number of ways humans behave badly towards each other and themselves. But why are so many others drawn to the genre?

Of course, the genre is not just serial killers and cruel psychopaths. One cannot avoid reading stories of paedophiles, rapists, sadists, domestic violence murderers and organised crime gangs such as the Organised Motor Cycle Gangs (OMCG).  The business model of the OMCGs is predicated on the manufacture, sale and importation of illicit drugs, extortion, fraud and stand-over violence.

There is also a plethora of books that try to unravel, in some way, the mysteries of cold cases but rarely provide an accused nor a conviction. The unsolved Bowraville murder of three young Aboriginal children on the NSW north coast is a very good example

But Why?

Normal, you say! What’s normal about Ivan Milat, serial killer and sadist?  Or Sef Gonzales, who thought he was a gangster. He stabbed to death his father, Teddy, mother Mary, and sister Clodine, aged 18 in their Sydney NSW home to hide his bad University results. How not normal was Monsignor John Day who died in 1978 and may have been the worst paedophile priest in Australia?

  • Is it because we cannot look away from a train wreck about to happen?

I’ll confess. I am a voyeur when it comes to the crime scene. Of the hundreds of dead people, I met over my career I can safely say I remember each face, the circumstances of their death and the investigation outcome. Not only is this because of my professional approach to my police work but it was intrinsically akin to my compassion and voyeuristic curiosity about mystery, death and evil.

Truman Capote in his seminal true crime book In Cold Blood wrote: ‘Imagination, of course, can open any door – turn the key and let terror walk right in.’  That terror or voyeuristic curiosity is the very reason we cannot look away as trains packed with innocent victims hurtle towards each other.

  • Does knowing what evil is and evil does help us feel prepared?

Megan Boorsma , J.D. Elon University Law School , Greensboro, North Carolina writes about the implications of an American audience obsessed with  true crime. One premise of this very interesting treatise is that, ‘a majority of people in the United States receive much of their impressions and knowledge of the criminal justice system through the media.’ If that includes true crime books, blogs, podcasts and television one can see how the genre may make one feel prepared.

  • It gives us an adrenalin rush! It triggers fear in us.

Scott Bonn, criminology professor at Drew University, New Jersey USA, author of Why We Love Serial Killers writes:

‘People … receive a jolt of adrenaline as a reward for witnessing terrible deeds. Adrenaline … produces a powerful, stimulating, … addictive effect on the human brain. If you doubt the addictive power of adrenaline, think of the thrill-seeking child who will ride a roller coaster over and over until he or she becomes physically ill. The euphoric effect of true crime on human emotions is similar to that of roller coasters or natural disasters.’

So,  why do you love true crime?  That’s for you to know and others to wonder about.

Next week:   The whole crime scene!

Ted Bassingthwaighte is a retired NSW police detective living in Newcastle with his wife and dog. Since his retirement in 2009 he has been writing. He reviews books for the NSW Police news magazine, has entered HWC short story competitions, winning a prize in the HWC 2014 Grieve competition. He is a member of the HWC and participates regularly in HWC events. He hopes to have his true crime manuscript ‘Bloody Odyssey’ edited and ready for publication in 2019.

Ted Bassingthwaighte, member of HWC

True Crime Writing Part 1

By | News, True Crime

True Crime by Ted Bassingthwaighte

See It, Touch It, Smell It, Taste It

True crime was my passion and occupation for 22 years. I joined the NSW Police Force on May 18th 1987. In the first 12 months of my probationary period at Wyong police station on the NSW Central Coast I experienced the dark side of life on a daily basis. The first deceased person I met was an infant female child who I believed at the time was a victim of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. (SIDS). I knew nothing about how to question witnesses or develop an alternate hypothesis to the version of events given to me during the interview. My inexperience and the stark, cold horror of the next day handling her body at autopsy, always left me wondering if that child died of natural causes or was she murdered by her desperately poor, uneducated parents. I’ll never know.

When I see news about the convicted child killer Kathleen Megan Folbigg images and odours of my first dead child investigation way back in 1987 flood from my memory and it makes my heart sink.

But what that death did do was to spark my ambition to become a detective. A detective who would have the skills, the time and the organisational support to properly investigate crimes . . . or so I thought.

That child, whose name I remembered for years but now cannot, was not the first dead body I ever handled. I was a registered nurse before joining the cops and had watched people die in A&E and had participated in an autopsy as part of my training.

So, I wasn’t shocked. In actual fact I was fascinated. A fascination that holds true today even after I succumbed to chronic PTSD as a result of seeing too many dead people and from investigating too many child sexual assault matters.

I suppose in some way I’m ‘lucky’ to have experienced death and crime firsthand. By lucky, I mean the experience, I feel, was a privilege. How many others with an interest in true crime can actually smell, taste, and touch it?

But that is not to say the avid fan of true crime is not able to envelope themselves wholly in the stories they read in books or blogs or listen to in podcasts or watch on television or online because today there is so much true crime available, encompassing all types of nefarious behaviour, it seems endless.

Crime scene at 75 Barnhill Rd, Terrigal. Credit: Daily Telegraph

On Tuesday October 27, 1992 at about 9pm Malcolm George Baker started a murder spree stretching from Terrigal to Bateau Bay to North Wyong, that would only end after six unarmed and defenceless men and a woman were dead. I knew Baker and some of his victims. I was part of the large team of detectives to investigate the murders.

My interest in the case and labyrinthine motivations of Baker and his victims stayed with me all my career and beyond. After 27 years of that case fermenting in my mind I have completed a manuscript titled, Bloody Odyssey, a story of domestic violence, jealousy, greed and fear. Here is a short extract.

He moved with purpose across the road and down the slight incline of the front yard, avoiding the glare of a street light at the end of the driveway. A large evergreen tree near the footpath shadowed a vacant plot of land on the left of the house and gave him perfect cover.

Pic 2: Malcolm George Baker Credit: Daily Telegraph/Baker family

Upstairs in the two-storey brick house a television screen flickers in a darkened lounge room. The empty stairs inviting Baker forward. He slivered up the steps and onto the long, wrought iron fenced balcony protecting the front of the house. In an instant he stood at the closed timber front door, the first obstacle to his progress. He looks through a small coloured glass window in the door. Listening. Waiting.

Inside a large round cane chair with bright red and yellow pillows dominates the middle of the lounge room. A brown velour modular couch fills the whole left side of the room. Two fish tanks full of tropical fish and a dozing canary in a cage stand along the wall to the right. The noise and light of the TV fills the room. Voices. Mumbling. A human shape moves about at the back of the room.

Crunch!! Baker raises his foot and kicks the door. It flies open and crashes into the plaster wall behind it as the door jamb splinters from the hinges. Baker steps through the door, a loaded Remington 12-gauge double barrel shotgun at the ready on his hip.

Next week: Why do people love true crime?

 

Ted Bassingthwaighte is a retired NSW police detective living in Newcastle with his wife and dog. Since his retirement in 2009 he has been writing. He reviews books for the NSW Police news magazine, has entered HWC short story competitions, winning a prize in the HWC 2014 Grieve competition. He plans to have his true crime manuscript ‘Bloody Odyssey’ edited and ready for publication in 2019.

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

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
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