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June 2019 Newsletter

By | News, Newsletter, Newsletters

Live Readings

 

microphone

New time, new space

Cash Prizes – $50, $100

We are thrilled to present our monthly live readings from July to November

at Newcastle Art Gallery

Join us July 2nd from 3pm

share your stories, poems, songs, scripts in response to James Drinkwater’s exhibition 

the sea calls me by name

 

HWC Workshops

July

Speculative Fiction Writing with Marianne de Pierres

Saturday 6th July, Wickham

de Pierres - author

Self Publishing – an online course
Nigel George is offering a half-price special to all HWC members for his new self-publishing course.
Visit the Indie Publishing Machine course page, select the Australian Version, and enter the code HWCJULY50 at the checkout to save yourself nearly $100.
You’d better hurry though – the discount is only available until the end of July!
 

person's hand holding an iphone showing rows of books

HWC Blog

Susan Francis , blogger, member of HWC

 

Thank you to our members who have blogged for us through March, April and May.

Read the following Literary topics

Speculative Fiction
- Our Spec Fic writers
Australian Literature 
- Susan Francis
Writing History 
- Christine Bramble
Crime Fiction 
- Megan Buxton

Graham Davidson, author

Christine Bramble - staff member and blogger

HWC Member News

 

HWC Member – Gail Hennessy

Gail’s book ‘The M Word’ is published by Girls on Key Press. It is available from the Poetry Portal Bookshop  

The M Word’ is a book of poetry that recalls my experience of postnatal psychosis and recovery. It was written to help break down the stigma associated with mental illness and provide hope for recovery.  It is available through the Poetry Portal of Girls on Key along with ‘Written on Water’.- Hennessy

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The M Word - memoir by Gail Hennessy

 

HWC Member and Board Chair – Adrienne Lindsay

Adrienne Lindsay is the chair of Hunter Writers Centre. She has recently launched her business Cloudberry Writing

She provides fundraising advice, editing services and professional writing services.

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Adrienne Lindsay, chair of HWC

 

HWC & Board Member, Wendy Haynes

Wendy was a founding member of Port Writers Inc. as both Treasurer and President. She is a copywriter and her website outlines the various services and advice she offers

Wendy Haynes - HWC Board member

Heart Open event

Heart Open

Hunter Writers Centre funds the artists of Heart Open – literature, dance, fashion, art

The Heart Open Event 2019 at the Hunter Innovation Festival was a great success

Writing Opportunities and Events

Odyssey House Victoria Annual Short Story Competition

1st prize $1000.

www.odyssey.org.au

Closes Friday November 1st

Max 1,500 words and follow the theme ‘Family’ and make reference to alcohol and other drugs

The money raised from this competition will go towards the work of Odyssey House, Victoria, offering a supportive drug-free environment for people and their families affected by problems associated with drugs, including alcohol. 

 

HWC Facebook Groups

Exclusive facebook writing groups:

Hunter Writers Centre – celebrating literature in the Hunter

The Story Hunters – our Spec Fic writers keeping in touch between meet ups

HWC Poets – where our poetry groups gather online

HWC Writing Groups

Attendance is free as part of your HWC Membership

Newcastle, Belmont, Teralba and more…

See the whole list in the Members Area

Applications Open for KSP’s 2020 Residency Program

The KSP Writers’ Centre in the beautiful Perth Hills region of Western Australia is calling for Australian and international writers to apply to its 2020 residency program. The program offers paid annual positions to Established, Emerging and Next Gen (under 25 years) writers. The residencies include a two-week block to develop a manuscript at the inspiring KSP property, which is the former home of notable Australian author, Katharine Susannah Prichard.

In addition to the salary and space to write, writers receive a welcome platter to share with co-resident writers, transport assistance, breakfast supplies, networking opportunities, promotion, CV credit, complimentary writing group sessions and access to a thriving literary community, library services, mentoring, social events, and heritage walking trails. As part of the residency, writers are asked to present a workshop on a topic of their specialty and perform readings at a literary dinner hosted in their honour. Deadlines are 30 June, 28 July, 25 August for the various categories. Visit the KSP website for eligibility, selection criteria and more details about the program: https://www.kspwriterscentre.com/residency-program

2019 Aspiring Writers Mentorship Program

CBCA NSW Branch is pleased to announce that entries are open for the 2019 Aspiring Writers Mentorship Program (AWMP), sponsored by Scholastic Australia. The aim of this national award is to foster the talent of an unpublished author of children’s literature.  In 2019 the AWMP is open to picture book and junior fiction manuscripts. The Winner of the AWMP will receive the Charlotte Waring Barton Award and a mentorship with Scholastic Australia, to include two three-hour mentoring sessions with an author selected by Scholastic Australia, and a one-hour mentoring session with each of the following Scholastic Australia employees: an editor, a marketing communications manager and a publisher.

Entries close on Wednesday 31 July 2019.

Authors whose careers have been launched by this award include the best-selling/award winning Michelle Cooper, Kirsty Eager, Jacqueline Harvey and Oliver Phommavanh

for love alone Christina Stead

Australian Literature Part 2

By | Australian Literature, News

Something Novel – Australian Novelists

In my mid-twenties I formed an attachment to an extremely astute young man: a poet who would invite me ice skating in Prince Alfred Park on Friday nights. Skating in the dark, beneath strings of fairy lights hung from the gum trees – there was nothing more magical. The swish of the blades cutting across the ice, the warmth of my hand held in his, it was all impossibly romantic. So, when the boy took pains to explain to me that he’d noticed every novel on my bookshelf was written by a woman, I experienced an epiphany of sorts. I remember trailing my finger along the spines: Stead, Lohrey and Lette. Ruth Park and Shirley Hazzard. Baynton and Bedford. Grenville and Franklin. There, too, the non-Australian fiction of Atkinson, the Brontes and French. Woolf, Lee and Lessing.

So when someone these days asks me that impossible question: what’s your favourite Australian novel, I make sure to mention Tim Winton. The lyrical descriptions of the Australian landscape discovered in Peter Temple’s crime fiction. Christopher Koch and the evocative picture he painted of Jakarta. I talk about Martin Boyd who has a favoured place stacked beside Peter Carey. There is Stow and Maitland and McGahan. These days my bookshelves hold a more even gender mix. But one thing still holds true; maybe a dirty secret of sorts? For an Australian novel to make it onto my top twenty, somewhere amongst the pages I like to recognise a reflection of a world I know or an individual who strikes a chord. I read Australian fiction to be assured I’m not the only player on the stage.

What’s your favourite Australian novel? I’m reluctant to alight on any one text because the range of Australian fiction is vast. The list is as long as our country is wide. And each work positively enunciates our poignant flaws. And I love that! Australian fiction informs so much about who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going. But, if pressed, I admit, it is to Christina Stead’s novel, For Love Alone, that I always return.

Written in 1944, I studied this broad, brown land of a book for my Masters degree, drawn by Stead’s particular understanding of what it means to be an Australian woman. The book was panned by any number of academics for its introspectiveness and realist style. Many preferred the magic realism of The Man Who Loved Children. But when I read this book for the first time, I fell in love with the determined and homely Teresa. The link formed between this character and Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife was due to the values held by both: a shared focus on getting on with things and a singular toughness; a determination to make sense of the world around them. Hazel Rowley wrote in her biography: ” . . . Stead’s earliest memories were all associated with a sense of rejection, which she attributed to her physical unattractiveness. In all her stories about her childhood, she is acutely conscious of personal appearance . . .” And this, of course, is another reason I am so captivated by the book.

Melbourne University Publishing reissued the novel in 2011 and maintain: For Love Alone is the story of the intelligent and determined Teresa Hawkins, who believes in passionate love and yearns to experience it . . . [Stead] superbly evoking life in Sydney and London in the 1930s. 

 Soon, in 2020, my own book will be published. Yet another story of a plain, single-minded Australian woman who gives up everything to travel overseas, following the love of her life. And despite the tragedies and the awful revelations my journey revealed, there is a pattern I like here, a pattern I have only recently identified by revisiting Stead’s work. Independent, brave, raw. A little gauche. The Australian female protagonist who travels far to discover herself. She is a reflection of the landscape from where she originates. A reflection of her nation’s blunt, unattractive prejudices. A protagonist decided to succeed.

Recognising that woman, recognising myself, makes For Love Alone one of my favourite Australian novels.

Susan Francis’ memoir is to be published by Allen and Unwin and will be available early next year. She discussed a brief part of this book on ABC Conversations. You can listen to that here:

https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/conversations/susan-francis-rpt/10467926

Susan has been published in various anthologies, most recently The Newcastle Short Story Award 2019. Her work has been short and long listed for competitions around Australia, including the E.J. Brady Award and the Margaret River competition. Susan has a Masters Degree in Australian Literature and a half finished PhD sitting in her garage. She is a former High School English teacher. Susan is currently working on her second book.

Susan Francis , blogger, member of HWC
book cover of Seven Little Australians

Australian Literature Part 1

By | Australian Literature, News

Pages of Us – Introduction 

Australian Literature. Does such a thing exist? That was the response from my Head Teacher at the UK school where I taught English. ‘Christina Stead . . .’ , I began to respond but, in the face of her hoots of incredulity, I stopped. Any feelings of inadequacy I may have been experiencing, in the face of teaching the English canon to the English, did not require further reinforcement.

Smarting as I was, my passion and my curiosity for our national literature never dimmed. To this day, I still become excited introducing Garner or Harrison or Winton to the students I tutor. My words speed up, my hands fly in front of my face because it is ‘us’. Us on the page. Us in the images. Us in the colloquial. ‘So what?’ they ask me. So what?

Growing up as a teenager in the 1970s in Newcastle was an uneasy time for me. Overweight and still wearing the cat’s eye glasses on trend at the time (there were no other options) my fit on the wide sandy plains of Nobby’s Beach was not organic. I don’t think I ever ‘fitted’. But I did find acceptance of myself in the books I read. There, between the pages, existed other plain girls, other girls who liked to read and found it difficult to make friends. I discovered my ‘unfitted self’ amongst the personalities and, therefore, I was. I was George in The Famous Five, I was Judy from Seven Little Australians, Laura from The Getting of Wisdom and Jo from Little Women. While these novels were chosen from various western cultures, the point is, through the reflection of my own character in those texts, I determined I wasn’t the only one who preferred a library to a netball court. And this of course is not an uncommon experience.

I draw the same analogy about our sunburnt nation. Our identity developed from and alongside the literature that reflected our unique environment, our vernacular and our irrepressible character. Charles Harpur, our first genuine Australian poet, who lived for more than a decade in the Hunter Valley, is renowned for being the earliest writer creating images inspired by the Australian landscape. John Miller writes he was ‘the only poet of the time who achieves an original Australian voice’. While other poets imagined nymphs and the green rolling hills of the old country, Harpur deliberately wrote what he saw.

The other legend to whom I believe we owe so much is Henry Lawson. Perhaps now out of fashion, he is undoubtedly the poet who, for me, best tries to capture the spirit of the early settlers. His beautiful and profound depiction of the resilient drover’s wife, who alone ‘rode nineteen miles for assistance, carrying [her] dead child’, still quietens the 21st century noise around me. Reading Lawson’s work reminds me of how tough it was in Australia not long ago and from where our empathy for the underdog originates. But more than that, these early Australian writers placed us on the page and provided every European Australian the opportunity to be. The magnificent aspect of reading is that, as F. Scott Fitzgerald says, ‘you discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.’ So, for a country as isolated as we are, our own literature is profoundly important.

Of course I cannot finish without stating that the mirror Australian literature holds up for me is different to the First Australians’ experience or the experience of those living with a disability or the LGBTQIA experience. And I do not attempt to represent that experience. But I can begin to hope that, for all Australians, our literature starts to reflect more varied experiences because accepting oneself partly requires recognising oneself on the page.

Identity is linked inextricably to Australian literature.

Susan Francis , blogger, member of HWC

Susan Francis’ memoir is to be published by Allen and Unwin and will be available early next year. She discussed a brief part of this book on ABC Conversations. You an listen to that here:  https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/conversations/susan-francis-rpt/10467926

Susan has been published in various anthologies, most recently The Newcastle Short Story Award 2019. Her work has been short and long listed for competitions around Australia, including the E.J. Brady Award and the Margaret River competition. Susan has a Masters Degree in Australian Literature and a half finished PhD sitting in her garage. She is a former High School English teacher. Susan is currently working on her second book.

person's hand holding an iphone showing rows of books

Spec Fic Writing Pt 4

By | News, Speculative Fiction

SpecFic for Fun and Profit

I’ve never bought into the genre writing vs. literary writing argument, because it doesn’t take too much research to find out which side makes most of the money.

You can’t eat accolades after all.

If you want to make a living from your writing, you have always had a better chance as a genre writer. But, until a few years ago, it was still only a slim chance.

If you are still pursuing the traditional publishing avenue, that slim chance is now next-to-no chance, as the sheer volume of work being submitted to the gatekeepers (publishers and agents) has got to the point that even high quality work doesn’t make it through the slush pile.

Yet the reports say that speculative fiction (SpecFic), especially science fiction and fantasy, are experiencing a renaissance; that more SpecFic writers are making a decent living than ever before.

So why the contradiction – why is it even harder to get published, but more and more authors are making a good living?

There isn’t a contradiction in my view – the renaissance is merely the traditional publishing world finally recognising what has been going on for about 10 years now – independent publishers have not only stolen the keys to the kingdom, but they have run away with the crown jewels too!

For clarity, an independent publisher, or indie, is a professional who self publishes their books either under their own name or through a publishing business they own. Not to be confused with the myriad small publishers who publish the work of multiple authors.

Indies account for half of all online book sales. In 2017 that added up to 113 million unit sales of digital books (eBooks) in North America alone. The so-called Big 5 (Random House et al.) were a distant second with 26% of total unit sales.

Of all the authors who debuted in the last five years, four out of every five authors making a decent living from their writing are indies.

Why is this?

The top reason is the difference in profit. Because indies cut out all the middlemen and sell direct to readers, royalties are much higher. In the science fiction and fantasy genre in 2018, the Big 5 publishers were ahead of the indies in terms of total dollar sales (41% vs. 35%), but the indies were taking home a whopping 3 – 4 times as much money as their traditionally published brothers and sisters.

Money isn’t everything, of course, your writing still has to be fun.

This is where I believe the true renaissance is. SpecFic writers have always explored the boundaries of the known (science fiction), dug deep into our psyches (horror and supernatural) and taken off into the realms of the impossible (fantasy).

Traditional publishing has always struggled with SpecFic, because much of the really good stuff is very hard to massage into a financial spreadsheet.

Indies have no such constraint. We can fly the depths of our imaginations without fear of what a publisher might think – we only have to care about what readers like. We don’t have to worry about shifting 10,000 units in the first week to cover our massive overheads, we just upload our book and start the next one. We don’t see numbers on a royalty statement every three months, we get to chat to real people every day; readers who are as passionate about our writing as we are. We get to make a living, and our readers get to read what they love.

We get to have fun.

And we all profit.

 

BIO:

Nigel George is a traditionally published author turned successful indie publisher. He splits his time between writing and self-publishing fiction and non-fiction books and teaching other authors how to become successful indie publishers. You can find him at indiepublishingmachine.com

picture of dragon

Spec Fic Writing Pt 3

By | News, Speculative Fiction

Writing mythic spec fic: 6 tips

You’re setting off on an epic quest. You plan to slash through jungles, slay monsters, summon storms, and conquer civilisations. But how do you get your readers to follow you? With a powerful story to capture and sustain their interest, they’ll happily share your journey. To help you pack, here are my favourite tips.

  • Sharpen your archetypes

Fantasy and folk tales buzz with magical archetypes that reflect common values (like angels) and taboos (like devils). Most readers instantly recognise a little girl in a red cloak wandering through a forest as vulnerable.

Universal symbols like towers, swords, and magic beans can trigger emotions and tie a story’s themes together. They can also serve as prompts for your plot, setting, and characters.

  • Careful where you aim that thing

Weaving archetypal themes and motifs into my writing adds oomph, right?

Well, yes, but don’t get heavy-handed. Loaded weapons are risky, and most potent when waved around vaguely as a threat, not fired gung-ho. So apply your archetypes sparingly. Add your own unique spin. And don’t mix your metaphors (I admit, this one’s tricky). 

  • Morph your monsters

Warning! In the treasure-house of symbolism lurks the monster cliché. Hackneyed themes and overused archetypes must be challenged. Keep your creatures quirky.

Sometimes all it takes to invert a well-known trope is a little twist, a refreshing slice of lemon in your story spritzer, like the trickster lioness in my Leo zodiac story Safari Blonde. Other times, extensive changes to the trope are necessary. Either way, upending the story makes it far more interesting.

  • Play God

Should I retell an old myth, or write a new one?

Rewriting might be simpler but call for more research. World-building from scratch might be more fun, but ground it in reality. I’m finding the eco-religion in my novel-in-progress doesn’t work without referencing real religions. I guess even God needs source material!

Mythology opens windows to the past. Writing alternate history allows huge creative license as long as you stay in factual boundaries. Skating these windowsills requires balance, but it sparks infinite possibilities.

  • Pull up your pantheons

I think of gods and goddesses as personified archetypes, each with a character and backstory. The sheer diversity of world deities and pantheons means options galore. My newest story involves the Celtic goddess Brigantia, who later became Saint Brigid.

One way to liven things up is to set a traditional myth or deity in a contemporary world, à la popular superhero movie. In my story The Halo Effect, the Greek god Morpheus and the Morpheus character from The Matrix help a drug dealer change his ways.

  • Plant the magic beans

Spec fic writers are uniquely placed to tackle big questions through myth and allegory, point out social inequalities, explore the past or future, and find magic in the mundane.

Embed an archetype in your plot, character, or setting, and watch your story grow into something fresh. When mythology, history, romance, adventure, and spirituality sprout a lush tale, that’s my idea of fiction heaven. What more could a reader ask for?

Nicole Sellers received a gold star from her primary school principal for a one-page sci-fi story about an underwater city. She went on to study creative writing at UOW, majoring in poetry. While raising children she earned a living as a tarot reader, massage therapist, herbalist, and yoga instructor, and continued to write. Nicole’s poems and articles have appeared in Plumwood Mountain, Spiral Nature, International Light, the anthology Grieve 6, and elsewhere. Her novella was recently shortlisted for publication in Aussie Speculative Fiction’s Drowned Earth series. Patchwork Raven will release her zodiac-themed story as an illuminated manuscript in August, and she is a contributor to the forthcoming Story Hunters speculative fiction anthology. Nicole facilitates the HWC Belmont creative writing group. To find out more about her work, visit https://www.nicolerainsellers.com/

Nicole Sellers, HWC member
Book cover First In the Veins

Spec Fic Writing Pt 2

By | News, Speculative Fiction

Putting the characters in the driver’s seat by Graham Davidson

Why be a control freak when you can let your characters drive the story for you? 

Put a group of Spec fiction writers together and they’ll often get caught up in the Pantsers versus Plotters debate. For those unfamiliar with the argument, Pantsers generally start with a setting and some basic characters, then make up the story as they go with no idea how it will end till they get there. Plotters on the other hand will meticulously plan their story, with a clear picture of the story’s conclusion before they put pen to paper. Both methods are as valid as each other, and both have their advantages and disadvantages. Yet one thing I’ve found most Pantsers and Plotters agree on is that their characters should have free rein to drive the story.

So, why is this one area where two such diametrically opposed approaches find common ground?

The answer is simple. Getting to know your characters is like getting to know people in the real world. No matter how much you analyse them beforehand, it’s not until you see them interact with others and face difficult situations that you know how they’ll react. For me, discovering how characters are going to react to a given situation, and what little secrets they may have hidden, is one of the great joys in writing. An example that comes to mind from my recent Witches of the Cross-worlds middle grade novel, Hunter, is a gravedigger named Sean O’Malley. After a pauper’s funeral presided over by one of the novel’s central characters, the Reverend Alfred Casey, the priest rides off leaving O’Malley to fill the grave. As soon as the priest is out of sight O’Malley jumps into the grave and steals the dead man’s shoes, something I hadn’t planned or expected… it just seemed to happen. O’Malley went on to become one of the central characters in the book; a portrait of self-serving, evil intent.

When sitting at the keyboard it’s as though I’m observing and chronicling an unfolding story. At the start of a scene I’ll play the director; making sure everyone’s where they should be, and that the mood is right. I might put words into one character’s mouth to begin with, but after that it’s time to sit back and let the imagination run free with how the characters respond to situations and interact with each other. Meanwhile, I madly try to write it down while it remains fresh in the mind’s eye. When writing dialogue, this means skipping all attribution until the conversation is finished. You can always add tags where needed later.

The rewards are many when characters do or say something unexpected… like O’Malley stealing the dead man’s shoes. This is often when I’ll decide to end the scene, even if my original intention had been to carry it on for longer.

When a character’s actions or words take the writer by surprise, you can feel confident it will do the same for the reader. And that will keep them turning the pages to see what other surprises may lie in wait for them.

spaceship

Spec Fic Writing Pt 1

By | News, Speculative Fiction

Take Us To Your Reader by Michael Tippett

Let’s address the oliphaunt in the room, shall we?

Speculative fiction is finally getting the respect it deserves.

Not too long ago there was a stigma attached to being a genre writer—more so if you huddled under the ‘spec-fic’ umbrella of horror, fantasy, and science fiction.

Thankfully, all this is changing. Speculative fiction is pushing into the mainstream.

Some would argue it’s been doing so for years.

Long before a certain boy wizard came out of a cupboard under the stairs, Shakespeare was writing about ghosts, fairies, and witches. Shelley penned the nightmare vision of her modern Prometheus over two centuries ago. Then there was Kafka, Huxley, Orwell, and—in recent times—the likes of Atwood and McCarthy. All these literary giants have lent their weight to genres that some would proclaim as escapist fiction.

I get that change doesn’t always come easy. No doubt there are still readers who regard speculative fiction as nothing more than cheap entertainment; just as there are those who deem literary fiction to be pretentious or elitist. Personally, I’ve never bought into this tired debate.

But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t considered ditching elves and orcs in pursuit of literary esteem. I tried it during last year’s NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge.

After two stages of intense competition, those of us who made it through to the final round had just 24 hours to write our crowning piece. Unlike previous rounds where random genres were assigned, we now had the freedom to choose our own. I decided to do my homework.

Reading through the winning stories from previous years, it became obvious that most of the pieces had a literary bent. I can do literary, I remember thinking. Something poignant, profound. Perhaps a dysfunctional family saga with a metaphorical title?

I had a solid game plan. But when Round 3 started, I was feeling uninspired and miserable. This lasted for the first few hours until, in a fit of frustration, I ditched the literary angle and went with a story I wanted to tell: a horror piece set during an alien invasion. It felt liberating to go this way, even though I was bummed that I had blown any chance of placing in the competition. So, imagine my utter disbelief when I was later informed that I had taken first place.

I learned a great deal from this. It was recognition. Validation. Not just for me as a writer, but also for the genres I love. For the tales of rocket ships and strange planets. For monsters lurking under our beds or inside our hearts. For post-apocalyptic landscapes ravaged by zombies / robots / plague / climate change.

Speculative fiction has earned its seat at the adult table. Yes, it can be cheap entertainment (don’t make that sound like a bad thing), but I also believe it has the power to explore the human condition as deeply as any literature…even if the characters themselves happen to be somewhat more—or less—than human.

Michael’s short story, Cherub, won the Hunter Writers Centre Members’ Prize and People’s Choice Award in the 2015 Grieve Project. He was also a top ten finalist in NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2017 and winner of NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2018.

Michael Tippett, writer
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”, ie 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):

nurses WW1

World War 1 Red Cross nurses, photo courtesy of Time: http://time.com/5450885/wwi-nurses/

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