History as a Cast of Characters

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.

Book cover

Under the Colony’s Eye: Gentlemen and Convicts on Cockatoo Island 1839–1869, by Sue Castrique (Anchor Books Australia, 2014)

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.

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14 thoughts on “History as a Cast of Characters

  1. We are privileged to be able to observe you ‘at work’. Perhaps you will update us in a year’s time about how this approach to your task is working out.
    I have been packing up my father’s books but was disappointed to find nothing personal relating to his father’s service in France. Still, I’ve stored all the handwritten stuff where it won’t be thrown out and will go through it at my leisure.

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    • I am planning on giving updates on my work during the year. In fact while I was writing this comment I thought of another post I could write about how I am getting my material together.

      While the history of war is quite prominent now, it will not always be so. Letters and notes documenting every day life in the past as well as professional life are valuable. When I was researching the history of teaching reading I found teacher lesson plans and examples of students’ work very useful.

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  2. Thanks for an interesting and useful post as always. My husband is doing a PHD (in Health Policy) and I am a teacher and have always been interested in writing (for young adults) about the unsung women heroes of WW1, so your posts are most interesting. Good luck with your book.

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    • Have you read about World War I nurse, Kit McNaughton? If you haven’t I thoroughly recommend it. We don’t hear much about the French and Belgian women living just behind the front lines. For years they had to host soldiers while seeing their towns and homes wrecked by war. Australian soldiers commented on the large numbers of French women wearing black. Soldiers mention them in their diaries and letters but I have only come across one soldier who names a French woman who was hosting him. Those women would have endured so much and when the war ended they would have literally had to pick up the pieces.

      Are you working on a young adult book at the moment?

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  3. I read a review of a book about Kit McNaughton, (perhaps on your blog?) and it looked most interesting, I must go back to that one. No I haven’t started a book yet, but am looking at the women profiled in Susanna de Vries series Heroic Australian Women in War…where do you start!!
    I have made a vow to get to it this year!

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    • There are plenty of interesting Australian women in WWI to write about aren’t there? I find the biggest challenge in writing about people on the frontline is to portray them as the humans they were, not simplistic caricatures who are perfect. Everyone portrays themselves in the best light when recording their lives in letters and diaries. They skip the uncomfortable bits. I see the people who served in WWI as ordinary people each with their unique foibles, talents, personal background etc. The challenge is to find this in the source material and convey the stories of these historical characters to the reader.

      I only discussed a couple of points that Sue Castrique discussed in her talk. She shared a couple of insights relating to this aspect of writing which I also found helpful.

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      • Thanks for that info, I’ll go back and have read up on all you have said…I’m gradually getting a better picture of life for some of those women (and men).

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  4. Hi Yvonne
    Your approach to your work is always inspiring. Thank you. Given your current WW1 project, and your careful consideration of ways to write it, I suggest you take a look at ‘Brothers in Arms: The Great War Letters of Captain Nigel Boulton, RAMC & Lieut Stephen Boulton, AIF’. A bit of Googling will easily locate it. Readers tell me they couldn’t put it down, once they started it, because they began to identify with the characters in it.

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      • Well, that was easy then. Please accept that I wasn’t trying to flag my own name, as I didn’t write the letters, all I did was assemble them in a particular way. If you hadn’t seen them already, I thought you might find it interesting to see how these WW1 letters so inadvertently engaged a wider audience 100 years after they were written. Best regards, Louise

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      • I see – you are the editor of a collection of letters, not the author. I found a review of your book by Carol Roberts. Some of the men and women of WWI were engaging writers, as your great-uncles clearly were. As they were involved in extraordinary events they had amazing stories to tell. Over the last few weeks I have become thoroughly engrossed in a collection of over 150 unpublished letters written by someone working in a munitions factory. I never thought that a munitions factory could be interesting but his weekly letters of life in northern England were fascinating.

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      • Those munitions factory letters sound interesting. Are they published in a book, or held at the AWM? I ask because the Boulton brothers had a cousin, Harry Flockton (Hal) Clarke, an Australian chemist who worked in a munitions factory at Gretna Green and at Ockbrook in Derbyshire in WW1.

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      • The letters are from someone who worked in the north of England who was not a chemist. They are held at the State Library of Victoria though I could not see them in their catalogue. I am working on these letters with the family of the man.

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