HISTORICAL FICTION: STORY, TIME AND PLACE
Historical Fiction is more than just stories set in the past. The heart of great historical fiction lies in identifying moments from the past that represent times of critical mass, great change, or cross-roads for human history. Such moments will invariably be those that generate the most dramatic pressure and the most engaging stories.
For me in writing The Scrimshaw Marionette the choice of period setting was about identifying a timethat embodied both an extreme low point for humanity - a time when society was broken and bottoming-out - and at the same time, a time of great transformation, the ending of one era and the start of something new. This combination of forces within a specific time period would generate a storyworld that encapsulated desperation and despair and yet also a kind of redemptive hope that things might be better and different in the future. To find that time period would be to find a history and a place that mirrored the character story I wanted to tell.
So, for The Scrimshaw Marionette, I became entranced by the Great Depression of the 1930's; not only because of the great dramatic pressure and struggle that stems from such an economic collapse, but also because the Depression comes in the inter-war period, a time that saw the shutting down of old industry and the birth of the new, the final fading of old colonial ideologies and a great transformation in the way communities defined themselves.
From that bigger picture came the specifics born of research and and reference that framed the Truth around which the Fiction would be woven.
The first impetus was a story told by my father-in-law about his father and uncle as young men desperate for work, leaving Sydney and setting out on foot to walk the hundred miles south to Wollongong. Their hope was employment in the shipping docks of Port Kembla. It was a road I had travelled many times, one that winds its way over a high escapement and through rough bush land. I couldn't imagine what it would have been like to walk all that way though such terrain on foot without modern roads. That image of a long journey in hope of something better far away from the world you know promoted me to work backwards to the push factors that would drive someone to take such an action. This line lead the specifics of life in the depression - the 'hungry mile' along the Sydney docks, the shanty towns of the homeless at La Perouse, and finally to the eviction riots and the battle waged by the Unemployed Workers Movement against the police eviction squads. From this I fell into a rich vein of reports, accounts and vibrant imagery that described the eviction riots of my own neighbourhood of Newtown in Sydney's inner-west in the 1930's.
It's here that ‘Trove’ (created by the National Library of Australia) proves to be one of the most valuable resources an historical fiction writer could wish for - an online archive of newspapers that is fully searchable and covers a wide number of publications and time periods. It didn't take long trawling through Trove to find vivid and varying accounts of the eviction riots from Glebe, Surry Hills and Newtown.
What particularly grabbed me was the imagery of the riots, of houses described as barricaded with 'sandbags and barbed wire'. A great many of the men who found themselves on the Hungry Mile and homeless in the depression were war veterans of the western front, and the idea of the imagery of the trenches, of dirty, hand-to-hand, fighting with improvised weapons, playing out in the streets of Sydney seemed utterly extraordinary. And in may ways that’s what great historical fiction does, it takes a factual past and presents it as ‘extra-ordinary’. A great article entitled ‘Anatomy of an Eviction Riot’ served as basis weaving a fictitious story through the factual accounts of the riots.
This collision of forces - the Depression, the eviction riots, the battles with police - drove my characters out of the city and onto that desperate walking path south that my father-in-law had told me about. And this brought them to the other fertile historical cross-roads I wanted to explore, the Whaling Industry and the last of the whalers.
Whaling had been a vibrant and economically rich part of the colony’s early decades. Up until the 1830’s whaling, sealing and fishing from coastal stations produced greater export earnings than agriculture. But by the 1930’s the boom was over and the numbers of humpback and southern right-whales had been so drastically depleted that the viability of the whaling stations was near exhausted.
And it’s at this moment, when an old tradition carried out by a dying generation is near its end, that it becomes a potent storyworld for historical fiction. When my character, William, arrives at the remote Whaling Station of Flukespade Island, he is arriving at a settlement that is all but dead. Broken, rusted, falling apart, the whalers are catching their last. But such men have no where else to go, they know no other life. And so they hunt the last whales they can find. And into that dying world comes a man who is running away from the Depression and his own personal demons. He is escaping into something that is already dying. The micro storyworld of a remote island whaling station that is the remains of a dying industry - one that has no place in the modern world, becomes the exciting re-imagined vehicle for a darkly Gothic narrative.
The classical crumbling, broken-down castle of traditional gothic fiction is here replaced by the rusted, crumbling and labyrinthine buildings of the whaling port. The old family trapped by the ghosts of their past in the castle estate, are transposed to the last sailors to hold out on the island. Just as classic Gothic fiction is set on the back of the Enlightenment, where superstition is giving way to enlightened and rational thinking - yet where old superstitions do not die easily - so to is that same friction playing out in the whaling port of the 1930’s.
For all the supernatural and horror mechanics in The Scrimshaw Marionette - possessed children's dolls that puppeteer the living into the sea, and apparitions of the dead haunting the living - it is the interplay of historical worlds that is the real core of the book. The time period and setting is not arbitrary, Historical Fiction should choose its history carefully.