Friday, April 15, 2011

Why write historical fiction when you can write history?

I have occasionally been asked why I have chosen historical fiction as a means by which to portray the people about whom I study. Why not write history instead?

I fully intended writing history when I embarked on a study of the Irish population of Ballarat in the second half of the nineteenth century for my Doctor of Philosophy degree, but when I was invited by the University of Ballarat's Professor Kevin Livingston to present my research in the form of a novel I jumped at the chance.

The Irish in ballarat were my people. My mother's ancestry was full of Irish names like O'Farrell, Daly and Dolan. Most were from Counties Cork or Clare and had left Ireland in the wake of the Great Potato Famine but were in Victoria before gold was discovered. They were probably tenant farmers for one of the two irish entrepreneurs granted special surveys of large tracts of rich volcanic soil in the Western District around Port fairy and Koroit.

The Irish in my father's family tree is less obvious among the English, Scots and German names, but it is there nevertheless. His English forebears were in Portland where the Henty family had established themselves in the 1830s, and were already established as grain and chaff merchants in Ballarat before the first sparks of rebellion began to fly in 1854. There is no record of them taking part in any of the protest meetings or of swearing allegiance to the Southern Cross. Perhaps they were onlookers or perhaps they kept right away on that fateful day.

Having been given permission to write about the people to whom my ancestors belonged I had to find a place to begin my research. More on that later.
To purchase The Liberator's Birthday


  1. Interesting post.
    My mom's people were from Iceland and we've traced our family back to 850--all were farmers.
    Researching my dad's side of the family (English, Welsh and Irish) has been more challenging. However, we were able discover that that the Cronleys lived in county Mayo.
    Thankfully, for me, others have invested much time and money in this search.
    Good luck with your research.

  2. Much of the research I have done about my own family has found its way into the fiction I write. The ghost in my famine novel Brigid was based on stories my mother told about her great aunt. Some of the characters drinking in the bar of the Globe Hotel in The Liberator's Birthday could have been my relatives. The rest came from the research I was doing about the Irish who followed the gold to Australia. I enjoy writing historical fiction as much as I enjoy writing history.