Saturday, 15 June 2013

The Buzz About History

A little nerd tells me that many of us get a buzz from history - we are excited by this topic. And some of us are able to communicate passion for history in a charming and entertaining fashion.

I discovered two such communicators at a session organised by the Australian Society of Authors on Wednesday 12th June, a cold and wet winter's evening in Melbourne. Their recently-published books about two remarkable Australian women have received rave reviews.

Dr Janet Butler, an Honorary Associate in the History Program at La Trobe Uni, has just published her first book, 'Kitty's War', a non-fiction work based on the WW1 diaries of the Australian nurse Kitty McNaughton. Kitty and Janet share the same home town of Little River, near Melbourne, although they have no other personal connection.

Janet's book documents the hitherto untold story of the significant contribution made by Australian nurses in WW1. I look forward to reading it, as I've recently read (and briefly reviewed on Goodreads) a very moving and well-researched romance novel on this same subject - 'A Rose in No-Man's Land', by Melbourne author Margaret Tanner. The WW1 diaries of my great-uncle Lieut Stephen Boulton, killed on the Western Front in 1918, make many references to the nurses who tended him after 1915's Gallipoli campaign.

Journalist Phil Kafacaloudes, his name very familiar to ABC listeners and viewers, has just published his novel 'Someone Else's War', the incredible tale of his brave grandmother Olga. (Note - the book's Greek language version is entitled 'Olga's War'). Olga travelled from Australia to Greece at an inopportune time, was caught there by the outbreak of WW2, and became a spy for the British, à la Nancy Wake. I'm attuned to this subject matter by the non-fiction books of my family member Peter Prineas, OAM, a Sydney-based writer keen to explore aspects of his Greek-Australian heritage.

Janet and Phil spoke engagingly about
a) their subject women
b) the dilemmas faced during the research process
c) the thrills of personal contact with each woman's family, friends & associates
d) the ethical issues of fact versus fiction
e) the intellectual challenge of dealing with a mass of information and
f) the author's task of writing about history in a way which engages the reader.

A constant theme of the evening was integrity. 'Just tell the truth as we find it - don't lie about our discoveries or embellish them in a way which distorts'. This should be our guiding principle as writers of history, regardless of whether we tell our story as a novel or as non-fiction.

And we should write so that others can follow our tracks. Janet was happy for editors to make any number of changes, but she was adamant that ALL of her footnotes had to stay in her final manuscript. Not that most readers would ever need to consult them, said Janet, but they were there to help anyone wishing to build upon her ground-breaking research.

Questions from the floor included the perennial 'When do you call a halt to your research?'. Put another way, when is enough enough? This is the burning question for all researchers. Janet passed on the advice of one of her old professors - 'it's all about the law of diminishing returns'. Janet elaborated - when your research is consistently confirming what you already know and understand, then it's time to stop looking, consolidate your findings and proceed to the publishing stage.

Being a writer myself, constantly grappling with these issues, my evening was well spent absorbing two hours of good advice.