Over the last few weeks I have made great strides with my book and am now starting to write it. My book is about the beliefs of Australian men who fought in World War I. The book will focus on the interior lives of a number of men as recorded in diaries, letters and court martials. There will be mention of attendance of church services but I am more interested in the faith, the spiritual doubts and the religious exploration of men as they were exposed to lands, peoples and situations that they would never have experienced if they had remained in Australia.
I want to write more than a book that reveals things we did not know about the past. I want to write a book that is an engrossing read, that respects not only the men that wrote the sources I am relying on but those many men whose words have not travelled the temporal divide between us and the past. I want to write a book about World War I that the readers of this blog will be eager to read.
One of the problems I have been grappling with over the last two years is how to write the book. I have been dealing with this problem for a couple of years, but I have enough experience as a writer to be patient with myself. I have continued to research, to read, to write experimental chapter outlines and introductory paragraphs. One thing that has been important in this process is to attend conferences and listen to what other writers and researchers have to say.
There have been many aha! moments over the last couple of years. One of these was a talk given by historian, Sue Castrique last year at the fabulous Working History conference hosted by the Professional Historians Association of Victoria. Sue spoke about narrative history and how she tackled the writing of her award-winning book, Under the Colony’s Eye: Gentlemen and Convicts on Cockatoo Island 1839-1869.
Castrique spoke about her initial training as an historian in what she called “analytical history”, that is, historical ideas argued in a formal essay style. Analysis in that form is often prioritised over narrative. Certainly, when I was at university there were some negative things being said about the ‘grand narrative’ which lulls the reader into unthinkingly absorbing a particular point of view in the guise of a readable history. That is fair enough, but there was not much other discussion about narrative.
Castrique did a screenwriting course at the Australian Film and Television School after she left university which exposed her to a different and sophisticated understanding of narrative. “That was for me the start of a constant juggling act between drama and history that that I think is ultimately fruitful”, she said
In the process of writing her book, she grappled with how to incorporate historical analysis and a narrative in the same volume.
“I think we miss out when we pick out narrative against explanation as if they are opposites”, she said. “Narrative history is always trying to do two things – tell a story and make sense of the past.”
Castrique adopted the mantra of “no ideas except through character” in her book. There is a lot packed in that thought. Castrique saw the people that she was talking about in her book as ‘characters’ or people the reader could develop a relationship with as we do through fiction or film. These people from the past could not only convey ideas to the reader through their actions and dialogue, they generated ideas, were driven by them and grappled with them. Her characters, including convicts, were not helpless victims but active agents in their life stories.
I was struck by the dramaturgical approach that Castrique took to her history. She conceived the residents of Cockatoo Island as a cast of characters and the island as a stage with a character of its own. She has done this yet still adhered to rigorous standards of historical evidence. Castrique won the Kay Daniels Award for her book – an award judged by other historians.
I reflected on my own writing task. I am grappling with the words of a large number of men and how to thread them into an engaging narrative through which ideas about the past will be shared. Over the last few months Castrique’s talk has seeped into my thought processes and helped me to conceive the project as a coherent, multi-threaded narrative.
Some of the speakers at the Working History conference allowed videos of their talks to be placed online. I was delighted that Sue Castrique’s talk was one of them. I encourage you to listen to Sue Castrique’s talk via Youtube, and to read her book, Under the Colony’s Eye.
Check out the other videos of presentations at the Working History conference. I have written a blog post about my presentation, ‘You Can Do It Too‘ about historical research using simple digital tools.