Australia has a vast interior, with great tracts of land opened up by resilient settlers. Not only were these settlers embarking on new lives, starting new businesses and learning to live with the difficulties of an isolated frontier; they also had to build their homes with raw, locally sourced materials. And it is this idea of cutting a swathe through the bush, of literally carving out a home and a business for yourself and your family in a new world, is what I wanted to examine when I first began writing historical novels set in the Australian outback.
My interest in Australian history stems from my own association with the Australian bush. As a fourth generation grazier co-managing a property first selected by my great-grandfather in 1893 I have a strong emotional connection to the land. It is an incredibly humbling and all-encompassing feeling to know that your ancestors have lived on and worked the same land before you, so writing historical novels set in the outback is a little like peeling back a layer on my own family history albeit fictitiously.
The stories I write seem to resonate with contemporary readers and the reason for their appeal is undoubtedly varied. Certainly there is a disconnect between city and country and combined with the ‘throw-away’ society we now inhabit there appears to be a renewed interest in a more grounded way of life. However historical works of fiction set in the Australian outback also provide a window into another world, a world filled with marvellous characters.
Although traditionally only a small portion of Australia’s population have lived outside the major cities, many of our most distinctive stories and indeed legends originate in the outback. Our vast landscape is home to an array of characters that include; drovers and squatters, farmers and graziers, generational landholders, store-owners and new settlers. Indeed, with such descriptions, one could be talking about rural Australia today or taking a snapshot of agrarian life in the 1850s. It is difficult to deny the opportunity that our vast country provides in terms beauty and hardship when it comes to storytelling.
One of the benefits of being a descendant of a generational grazing family is the large amount of archival material that I’m able to draw on when researching my novels. Knowledge and description are vital in historical works and if combined with an authentic voice can make a novel compelling reading. I have spent many an hour digging through family archives and have used information from these sources in all my works to date. Old paddock books and station diaries from the late 1800s, mail order catalogues and magazines from the 1920s and family oral history have all provided a wealth of material.
The idea for the narrative of Absolution Creek came from a story my grandfather told my father in the 1940s. While crossing the Garah plains, an area some forty kilometres to the south-east of our property in north-west NSW, a young child travelling with family, fell from the back of a wagon in the late 1800s and was never found. Unfortunately such events were not uncommon in the bush at a time when roads were barely formed tracks and travelling was often undertaken at dawn or dusk due to the distances involved.
One example of material used in Absolution Creek is a 1920s Anthony Hordern’s mail order catalogue which my grandparents ordered from. A cross between Bunnings and David Jones in it you can find items ranging from saddlery items, foodstuffs and kerosene lamps to horsehair couches, clothing and fine jewellery. However bringing the 1920s to life required added research and when I decided to start Absolution Creek in Sydney in the 1920s I found myself ensconced in the NSW State Library researching the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. This little known yet brutal chapter in Sydney’s history led to many family homes and businesses being resumed by the government – for a pittance – with residents on both the north and south sides of the harbour forced out in order to make way for the construction of the bridges approaches.
My current work-in-progress, Sunset Ridge is set during The Great War and I am incredibly fortunate to have my grandfather’s experiences to draw on as well as magazines such as the Illustrated London News and other primary source material. I have ‘lost’ many hours researching yet remain a dedicated collector of detail and anecdote, the threads of which must be woven into my stories. Finding the right balance between fact and fiction is one of my greatest challenges however I try and ensure that any factual information does not impede the natural flow of the story. It should assist it providing a reconstruction of a specific period. It should add colour and depth and interest. Most importantly it should make your story shine.
Nicole Alexander author site: www.nicolealexander.com.au
The Australian Literature Review