Tag Archives: Battye Fellowship

“Polluting the well of history”? Writing fiction about times past

In a preface to his historical novel Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott wondered whether purists might have misgivings about this kind of writing. Would it raise a concern that by “intermingling fiction with truth, I am polluting the well of history with modern inventions, and impressing upon the rising generation false ideas of the age which I describe”?

Scott wasn’t seriously anxious about this, but two centuries later the genre of historical fiction still troubles some historians. Paul Lay, editor of the magazine History Today, declares sternly that it’s “no substitute for the real thing.” He adds this dismissive harrumph:

There’s no great harm in reading historical novels, nor writing them, but if anyone wishes to understand history, in all its complexity, they should read ‘real’ history and then they should write it.

I’d like to think – but of course I would, wouldn’t I? – that my own fiction does reveal some of the complexity of ‘real’ history. However, I recognise that certain questions shouldn’t be brushed aside. Do novelists have a right to modify facts drawn from times past? If real people and events are involved, shouldn’t there be constraints on the freedom to invent? What is a writer of historical fiction trying to achieve anyway? Is there a presumptuous intention to surpass the work of scholars and offer a superior kind of truth about the past?

Old Mill

The Old Mill c. 1890, showing Satan Browne’s renovations

Exploring issues such as those was one aim of the research project on “History’s Grist and Fiction’s Mill”, for which the State Library appointed me the 2015 J.S. Battye Memorial Fellow.

During my tenure of the Fellowship I’ve dug around in various archival materials (including sources for some works-in-progress), read various Western Australian publications, and reflected on the processes of writing historical fiction – my own (The Mind’s Own Place in particular) as well as that of several other authors.

One outcome of the project has been an illustrated public lecture, now available on the website of the literary magazine Westerly. This version doesn’t include the lively panel discussion with Amanda Curtin, Jenny Gregory and Davis Whish-Wilson, which followed my presentation; but you can access the text of the talk, with a selection of accompanying images, here.

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!