Monday, May 12, 2014

Why I love writing history by Pamela Rushby

I write a lot of things. But historical fiction ("faction") is absolutely, absolutely my favourite.

Why? I call it the WOW! factor. That moment when I come across an incredible historical incident or event that makes me go WOW! can that really be true?

Usually, it is true. Because the best, the strangest, the most riveting, heart-breaking, laugh-out-loud stories aren't fiction. They're real. They come from history.

I'm constantly amazed, overwhelmed, when I come across one of these couldn't-possibly-be-true-but-they-actually-are stories. Stories that make me immediately desperate to put my own characters in the middle of the action and explore what could happen IF …

I've had around 20 historical novels for children and young adults published, in Australia and overseas. They're set in historical periods ranging from: ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, the British Iron Age, the swinging Sixties, World War 1. And my characters are involved in events like: the destruction of Pompeii, migrating to America in the 1800s, ritual sacrifices in Iron Age bogs, entertaining the troops with song-and-dance routines in Vietnam, charging Beersheba on horseback in the last great cavalry charge in history, the Black Death in 1600s England, and (just for a change!) the Black Death in Australia in 1900.

Each one of these stories began with a WOW! moment for me.

And I don't have to go actively looking for stories. The stories find me. History's so full of them, I just trip over them. I've found them:
  • Standing in the middle of a replica of a Neolithic stone circle in Glen Innes. 
  • Seeing a 1900 photograph of a ratcatcher and his dogs – and a pile of dead rats. 
  • Reading a non-fiction book about the 1000 Australian women who were in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. 
  • Seeing a photograph of an operating room set up in the ticket office of a fun park in Cairo in 1915. 
  • Watching people put red roses – today – on the tomb of a heroine of the plague in the 1600s. 
  • Hearing an archaeologist explain why you should always, always, say the name of an Egyptian mummy out loud.
How could you not want to write about things like that?

But that's the history I want to write about. How do you find what you'd like to write about?

A great place to start is right in your own family. Your grandparents and great-parents have lived through some amazing times. Many Australian families, for instance, have a Lighthorseman somewhere in the family. He'll have a story. But so will his family, who stayed behind. What happened to them? Maybe you have a convict in your family tree. Or a woman who was a suffragette. Or a girl who went overseas as a nurse during a war.

Pick any dramatic historical event you like – the Eureka Stockade, the Shearers' Strike, the horses that went overseas in World War 1 – and there were people involved in it. You can write about those people, and what happened to them when they became caught up in history.

The best part is, you can make up your character to fit the facts you have. For example, when I wanted to write about the Black Death in Australia in 1900, I wanted to put in facts about people being forced into quarantine, how ratcatchers worked, how doctors treated the disease, burial practices.

How to get all that in? Easy! Create a character who's involved in all that. So my heroine, Issy, works as a maid in an Undertaking Establishment, has a father who's a part-time ratcatcher, a sister who works for a doctor – and they just happen to live right next door to the first victim of the plague, so they're all thrown into quarantine.

To write faction, you do have to do your research. Which means visiting libraries, archives, searching around online. This, for me, is the best part of the process. It's like a treasure hunt. Every time I open an old book, or document, or newspaper, I find strange little bits of information that just have to be worked, somehow, into the story – and which make it all the richer. Sometimes, they change the story entirely. For example, I had to find out how ratcatchers train and work their dogs. I'd meant to describe Issy's father at work. But the more I found out about catching and trapping rats, the more I wanted to put Issy in that position. So I did. Then I thought, wouldn't it be even more fun if Issy absolutely loathed rats, to the point where they made her physically sick? And what if she wasn't too keen on dogs, either? The story just galloped along from there.

So, you do your research. Your story already has a framework: the historical event that inspired it. But you get to do the fun part, to add the character and their reactions to the events unfolding around them.

It's even more fun if you're able to visit the locations where your story takes place. Travel isn't compulsory, but it can be tremendously helpful. You gather the atmosphere of a place, absorb the feel of it. Stand on the desert where the Charge of Beersheba took place. Feel the unsteady rocks under your feet. Look at the dangerous, half-hidden gullies and washouts. Feel the sun beating down.

Or walk around Saigon, checking out the lovely old French buildings that still stand there, feeling the sweat slide down your face and trickle down your back. Or stand in the middle of a Neolithic stone circle in the far north of Scotland, at midnight. And watch the sun not set.

You can use all this: if you've felt it, you can really write about it. And I hope you do. And I hope you find many, many historical events that make you go WOW!

About the Author

Pamela Rushby is the author of over 200 books for children and young adults, as well as children's TV scripts, documentaries, short stories and freelance journalism. 

Pam has been an advertising copywriter, pre-school teacher, and producer of educational TV, audio and multimedia. She's won several awards, including the NSW Premier's Ethel Turner prize, two CBCA Notable Books – and a bag of gold coins at a film festival in Iran!

Books I liked when I was a kid included the Anne of Green Gables books and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. And Antonia Forest's Marlowe family stories. 

Books I've read lately and loved: Catherine Jinks' trilogy about Bogles in Victorian London, and Karen Foxlee's Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy.

Find out more at Pam's website:


  1. Thank you Pam. A good insight into the art of writing historical fiction.

    I particularly like your description of standing in the desert and feeling the battle that had taken place. And I'd really like to know why that archeologist said that you must always say the name of Egyptian mummies out loud!

    1. Because the Egyptians wanted to be remembered - that was how, they believed, they lived on in the after-life. One way to do that was written on their coffins: "Say my name, remember me". Their name was also written on the coffin. So, when you see a mummy in a museum, its name will often be on a notice describing the exhibit. If you say their name aloud, you're doing what they wanted, "say my name, remember me", and for that moment, they live again. And you're reaching out and touching someone from the past ...