History’s Grist and Fiction’s Mill

Libraries are a valuable resource for any writer – and research libraries are vital for a writer of historical fiction. So imagine my delight at the news that I’ve been awarded the J.S. Battye Memorial Fellowship for 2015.


James Sykes Battye, Chief Librarian, State Library of Western Australia,1894-1954

The Battye Library, as many readers of this blog will know, comprises a wonderful assortment of archival riches within the State Library of Western Australia (SLWA). The purpose of the Battye Fellowship is to support projects that will enhance understanding of this State through research based on the Battye collections.

Over the next few months I’ll spend a lot of time happily immersed in those collections with the aim of producing a substantial piece of work on the process of writing historical fiction. I’ll present a public lecture on this topic, and the finished outcome – an illustrated essay – will eventually be published on the SLWA website and/or in print.

Fiction-writers who incorporate imaginary characters and episodes within a factual framework from times past are often asked what they are trying to achieve. This recurrent question incorporates others. What constraints, challenges and opportunities should such a writer recognise? Why include invented content anyway? Why not stick to facts? If a narrative goes beyond the discipline of pure history, what research protocols are necessary to convey a credible sense of authenticity?

In exploring such questions through this generous Fellowship, I hope to increase public awareness of how diverse and deep the Battye resources are, and how relevant they can be not just to history specialists but to a broader range of writers and readers as well. Many who use historical resources, or might be encouraged to use them, are not professional historians. I want to show how the Battye’s documentary and pictorial collections serve a wider literary community.


Various Battye collections are well known to me. As a writer specialising in stories about Western Australia’s past, I’ve made grateful use of the Library’s holdings of early photographs, newspapers, private archives, ephemera, maps and various official records. Some of these were especially useful in the groundwork for my forthcoming novel The Mind’s Own Place, which incorporates a range of events, places and personages from the colonial period in Western Australia.

My project’s title is ‘History’s Grist and Fiction’s Mill: researching and amplifying stories of Western Australia.’ This alludes to a paradigm case of blending archival research with creative writing: the Old Mill in South Perth, which figures substantially in The Mind’s Own Place. Using as a point of departure the Battye Library’s treasure trove of material on the Old Mill, I’ll develop an illustrated essay on the process of writing serious historical fiction. I’ll draw not only on my own experience but also on the work of several other novelists to discuss a range of examples of research-based historical fiction set in Western Australia, clarifying similarities and differences between pure and fictionalised history.

I can hardly wait to get on with it. And perhaps I’ll glimpse in some shadowy corner of the library a ghostly trace of its venerable namesake, James Sykes Battye, inaugural Chief Librarian, who began shepherding the State Library in the 19th century and continued in that role until the second half of the 20th. Now that’s a career of substance!

14 thoughts on “History’s Grist and Fiction’s Mill

  1. Congratulations Ian
    Super project! No doubt we can look forward to on-going reflections as you explore; a continuation of your always engaging ruminations.


  2. Congratulations, Ian. This is wonderful news – well deserved, too. And I look forward to reading more of your great work!

  3. Thanks very much, everyone, for your kind comments. I’m keen to make the most of this Fellowship opportunity – which will mean ensuring I’m not the only beneficiary. I have some thoughts about how other writers of historical fiction based in WA can get something out of this too. More in due course…

  4. Congratulations on your good news! I love the subject, too. The literary community of Literary Masters, i.e. book group members, is a big fan of historical fiction. (Personally, I am always aware that “pure history” is also a narrative written by a storyteller, but that’s a discussion for another day.) LM members love to learn about a time period and/or place with which we may not be familiar, and the literary devices of fiction enable us to do so in a thoroughly enjoyable manner.

    I am wondering: is it true that the definition of “historical fiction” is debated? Do scholars agree on what parameters define the genre?

    I will look forward to the launch of The Mind’s Own Place. Meanwhile, can you recommend a fabulous book for my LM members? Something that will perhaps transport us from American to Australia? Or beyond? What book, in your opinion, is a stellar example of the genre? Thanks so much!

  5. Good to get this response, Liz. Knowing the influential work you do with your US-based book club network, I’m pleased that historical fiction is figuring importantly in your lists. Certainly “historical fiction” can mean different things in different contexts, e.g. shelves with that label in an airport bookshop are usually full of costume romances about kings and queens, cavaliers and courtesans. And yes, there are scholarly debates about nuances of definition. Through my research fellowship with the Battye Library I’ll be engaging with those issues, so eventually some thoughts on the topic will emerge on my blog too.
    Meanwhile, to answer your request for a recommendation: while many fine Australian historical novels come to mind (and I’m immodest enough to hope The Mind’s Own Place may deserve to be put in that category), one “stellar example” for your purposes is Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. You’ll find out more about it from the Goodreads site. It has won awards, been turned into a play, and is now being filmed). As background for your Literary Masters members there is her “writing memoir” Searching for the Secret River, which gives interesting insights into the process of creating the novel. You may remember that I wrote a blog post on another of Grenville’s novels, The Idea of Perfection, but The Secret River is quite different in tone, setting etc.

  6. Well, I will look forward to your future posts about historical fiction! And thanks for the recommendation. Yes, I was interested in Kate Grenville from your post about The Idea of Perfection, so when I was perusing the library’s shelves recently, I picked up The Secret River! So, funnily enough, I am already reading your recommendation, and thoroughly enjoying it. I recently read The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig and within a few pages I literally relaxed and thought “I am in good hands. This author knows what he’s doing.” I get a similar feeling with The Secret River, but I’m only about 20% into it, so we’ll see. (So many books, so little time!)

  7. I hope you find The Secret River rewarding, Liz. And best wishes for the continuing development of Literary Masters.

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