The start of a brand new week and time to chat to a fellow historical fiction writer. Look at Rosemary Noble’s impressive array of work.
Rosemary has written the Currency Girls trilogy, an entertaining an edifying series of novels set in Australia and the UK. Search for the Light is the first and follows Nora, transported to Van Diemen’s Land in 1820. The same family (incidentally, the author’s husband’s relations), appear again in The Digger’s Daughter and my favourite, Sadie’s Wars , is the latest addition, set in England and Australia during both World Wars. Check out Ranter’s Wharf too: gritty socio-historical fiction covering the rights of ordinary people, rebellion and the rise of non-conformism in Lincolnshire, in the early 19th century.
I asked Rosemary if she ever massages the truth when she writes her books. I am particularly interested in this relationship between truth and fiction in historical novels.
“What is truth in fiction? My stories are based on real people, but the story still has to be one people want to read. As an author, I am constantly massaging the truth about my characters because I wasn’t there. I can only put myself in their shoes at the time they lived. If you are asking if I massage known facts about the period, I try not to. I might put my own spin and interpretation on to them. For example, in The Digger’s Daughter, I was pulled up for criticising Peter Lalor, who is seen as a hero of the Eureka Rebellion, but his later actions showed he was no true friend of the working man. Did power corrupt him? Most probably.”
Interesting, Rosemary. It’s a fine balance, between truth and fiction. We don’t always know what is true and we have to judge how far we can embellish facts. A good story, however, is paramount.
Personally, I enjoy researching for my books. I’m lucky that I speak Italian fluently and live in Italy for half the year, so I can access documents and primary sources. I asked Rosemary what sources she uses.
“Newspapers especially the Trove Australian newspaper database – it is the most amazing free resource and I have to give credit to the government for giving them the funds to put all their newspapers online. I have spent many happy hours researching and correcting it. I have also had some snippets of memories from family members. Sometimes I suspect they may have become garbled or changed over the years and generations, so I have to be selective about using them. Sometimes a tiny nugget will take me off in a new direction, adding depth and my own imagination to run riot.”
How do you know when to stop researching?
“Never – is the answer. You are always finding new snippets. Oh, if only I had known that before, could be a constant refrain. It doesn’t mean that you would add it into the book in any meaningful way, but sometimes it helps. One of the advantages of books being on Kindle is that you can reedit at no cost if something vital emerges. For example, I will be visiting Australia again this autumn. I will be attending the Female Convicts Research Group Seminar at the Orphan School. One of my characters attended that school briefly. Will I find out something that will change the emphasis of a previous book? Maybe, I have to be prepared for it.”
Indeed, adding “new snippets” to your book once it is published, is another advantage of being an indie author. Rosemary, can you give an example of a historical blunder you almost included in your story?
“In Ranter’s Wharf, I was perplexed about where the steam packet from Grimsby landed in Hull. I pored over old maps of the docks and worked out that it must have gone into the new docks which had been opened a few years before 1819, when my character travelled there. I went to Hull to check on some other things to do with steam travel and the old town, visited the Hull Maritime Museum and saw a painting which showed the packet tied up at a jetty. The penny dropped with a veritable clang. It was the exact place where the Humber Ferry used to dock. The ferry I had travelled on numerous times as a child. It was on the Humber itself, at the edge of the city. I had known the answer all along, just not recognised it.”
It’s hard to say goodbye to your characters once you’ve written THE END. Which character did you most enjoy writing?
“Strangely the one who wasn’t real. That must say something, I hope it doesn’t. In Search for the Light, I needed a character who would be a friend on the voyage. Sarah came to me, she chose me because she wrote her own story. She is the only one who speaks in the first person. I had no idea where she would take me, what would happen to her, whether she would survive or die on the voyage. She is the one who readers love and cry over. I would love to find another character like Sarah.”
I love it when the character you’ve conjured does that: takes you by the hand and shows you the way. It’s magical!
What would be your number one tip for writers of historical fiction?
“No piece of historical fact is worth detracting from the flow of the story. Everything must be worked into how the characters experience what is happening to them. For that reason, you will discard at least 80% of your research.”
Absolutely agree. We have to be really careful not to pull the narrative out of shape by too much obvious research. I would put the discarding as high as 90% – as painful as it might feel.
I’d reinforce that we should never forget the story is an entertainment. We need to find a way to animate our historical characters and not deliver a history lesson. Look for gaps in spaces in history where we don’t know where they were and feel free to create imaginary situations in these gaps. I was listening recently to the wonderful Sebastian Faulks talking about his latest book, “Paris Echo”, and he said (in so many words) that history isn’t a pageant that happened to somebody else. Our characters should resonate with the modern reader, whilst remaining true to their era.
I asked Rosemary for a 250-word extract from my favourite of her novels, “Sadie’s Wars”.
“She paced the jetty, unaware that her wild eyes and tear-streaked cheeks were drawing looks. Her beloved Papa’s face. Would she ever forget how his eyes streamed with tears to watch his grandchildren’s terror, knowing all hope was lost? His life’s work in ruins, his reputation sullied, his children thrown onto the scrapheap.
A woman stepped towards her, a gloved hand outstretched, almost touching her arm. Her kindly eyes showed alarm; she looked motherly, concerned. Sadie’s heart screamed in silence. Was the horror of the morning written so plainly on her face? She attempted a smile to reassure the woman, nodded as the woman withdrew her arm, eyes flickering in relief.
Sadie slowed her pacing, drawing her collar around her face to hide her anguish from the curious. Stay calm, think it through. Her hand strayed to her hair, the dark bob beneath her cloche hat felt strange – a recent act of independence. No, she would never give in, never let the bleakness in her heart take over. She must learn to be a lioness when it came to her boys. They needed her, only her and she would do anything to protect them. At the end of the jetty, Sadie stared at the ocean as though its inky depths would answer her lurking questions.
Far out on the horizon, a band of sunshine highlighted the cumulus clouds, a kingdom of snowy peaks, dark hills, even a crenellated castle. Another land; mysterious, unobtainable. The light drew her in, calming her. Her pounding heart began to quieten; she counted the wheeling gulls, anything to still her nerves. The guilt weighed in on her. All she could think to do was to run, run far away from the memories.”
Very moving. Why did you choose this particular passage?
“This extract was almost in chapter one but is now near the end of the book. Sadie is about to leave Australia for a new life in England. The big question in the book is why did she have to leave? What event was so traumatic that it forced her into that decision? It helped me to write it early on because I knew how distressed she was and how it coloured the rest of the book.”
Thank you for chatting to me today and I wish you all the very best with your writing. Here is my review of Sadie’s Wars.
I always enjoy Rosemary Noble’s books – she is a passionate historian and I learn from her pages. But Sadie’s Wars has taken her writing to another level. I was swept away by the narrative this time. She has obviously done her research, but the story is paramount.
Sadie is always at the centre of two periods. The First World War, as experienced from Australia, where war seemed distant. I’ve never visited this continent, but I enjoyed the descriptions, “the harsh beauty” of this place: “rose-winged galahs amongst rustling river gums”; the battle with the land of kangaroos and pepper trees. The author has a deep respect for these new arrivals – in fact the story is largely based on fact; recounting her own husband’s family’s past. Towards the end of the book, when Sadie faces a difficult decision to return to England, she feels she is almost betraying these courageous settlers:
“She imagined their feelings as they left the ship and set foot on the strange land… While they faced an uncertain future building a home and a life in this hostile environment, she was contemplating abandoning their endeavour”.
Sadie’s life back in Cleethorpes is also beautifully written, with great attention to detail. This time, the Second World War is very real, with bombing raids, rationing and loss of life. “This was war her husband and brothers had faced… Before, it was words, written in the newspapers, or images in films. Now it was real, her reality too.”
There are moments in the book that are deeply moving and there is passion. Sadie’s passionate nature is almost another of her wars. She feels and loves deeply, and I felt Rosemary’s writing opening up. She seems to have grown into it: “… his eyes kissed every inch of her before his mouth even touched her skin.”; “… sometimes she felt like an overripe peach, hanging by a whisker from a tree. A small breath from Rob on her cheek would send her tumbling down to burst open on the ground.” After she suffers abuse from a man she thought she loved, she walks to the sea and “…pleaded silently with the seagulls to swallow her up, fly out to the sea and spit him out to sink and drown.”
So, a story about the settlers in Australia, about two world wars, wrapped up in a powerful love story. Quite an achievement. Congratulations, Rosemary Noble! More, please!
Rosemary Noble lives in West Sussex and worked as an education librarian. Books have been her life, ever since she walked into a library at five-years-old and found a treasure trove. Her other love is social history. She got hooked on family history before retirement and discovered so many stories that deserved to be told.
Her first book, Search for the Light, tells the story of three young girls transported to Australia in 1824. Friendship sustains them through the horrors of the journey, and their enforced service in Tasmania. The Digger’s Daughter tells of the next generation of gold-diggers and a pioneering woman who lives almost through the first hundred years in Victoria. The third in the trilogy, Sadie’s Wars takes the reader to the fourth generation and into the twentieth century. The trilogy is based on the author’s family. It tells of secrecy and lies, of determination and grit and how all can be done or undone by luck.
Rosemary is a member of CHINDI independent authors and is involved in literary events in and around Chichester. She also loves to travel, especially to Australia and Europe and not least, she loves spending time with her grandchildren, one of whom is a budding author herself.
To find out more about Rosemary, follow these links: