I am not a 101-year-old woman.
But an early review of my soon-to-be published debut novel The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge contained this gem of a quote:
Authenticity is one of those terms that can be applied to just about anything – craft beer, shabby chic, a lifestyle; and tends to be invoked when something conforms with an image or expectation of whatever is ideal or pure or true.
If a time machine chucked them out in 1932 in Dongara, a sleepy coastal town on the mid-west coast of Western Australia – the setting of The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge – I hope my readers, such as Jeannette, expect the place, with its small-town mentalities, ‘founding’ families, and furtive secrets, to appear just as they experienced it through my novel.
As an historical fiction writer, I cannot think of higher praise than to have created a setting so immersive it reads as though lived experience.
The yardstick by which the historical fiction genre is measured, and with which it is cudgelled, is this notion of authenticity. What feels real to one reader may be cause to one-star the book to another – “As if the 1932 Hillman Hunter could drive on sand, everyone knows its tread was…” (a review I’m fully expecting to receive on publication).
One wrong detail can throw the reader out of the world of the story. But it is often debated that details, such as the clothes, food, and colour of the wallpaper, are not as important in creating a sense of authenticity, as the social attitudes and mindsets of the time. Researching the former is easier, especially from the twentieth century. I found many of these details in digitised newspaper advertisements, artefacts in local museums, and photographs of Dongara in the 1930s. But how could I imagine what was going on inside the heads of my four main characters: Lily, her husband Ernie, her brother Tommy, and her daughter Girlie?
There was only so much I could research from my desk in Brisbane. I had to go to Dongara if I wanted to write how my characters saw their world. As a fortieth birthday present to myself, I broke free from my kids for a week and relived my youth, a Kia Cerato for my Delorean, roadtripping four hours from Perth up the coast, past snow-white beaches, pink lakes, turquoise seas and cornflower skies. It was a ‘journey back in time’ in many ways. I am originally from Western Australia, and misspent my youth on those beaches, underappreciated the sunsets over the ocean, and had my first child in Geraldton half an hour away from Dongara.
I was to go further back in my own personal history during that research trip. When I arrived in town, I was an unpublished writer seeking people’s time to answer my pages of questions about life in 1932. I could not expect anyone to care. But when I mentioned that my great grandfather George Frederick Otto Wetters had once lived in Dongara, doors were flung open and I was taken from house to house and down the main street, being introduced as the ‘Wetters girl’. Dongara is that sort of town, where a forty-year-old is a girl.
Under the guise of doing ‘family history research’ into my Wetters ancestry, I shared meals and anecdotes of elderly residents’ lives in the town in the 1940s – about how the girls would ride to dances on the bench in the back of the ute that carried the nightsoil, the shenanigans that happened after country football games, and the discovery of Aboriginal children by the river bank who couldn’t go to the same school as them. This last anecdote shaped the mindset of my fictional town.
I continually met with being told I was ten years too late.
Fortunately, Dongara (pictured) has a local oral historian who generously shared her project with me. Within the transcripts of her oral history interviews, I found values espoused by the town stalwarts in the 1930s, glimpsed the hardships and privation of the Depression years, and began to ‘hear’ the voices of yesterfolk. I picked up expressions such as ‘to batch’ and ‘cocky’s joy’, which I wove into the speech of my characters.
I tested the walking journey a character makes from the main town to the beach settlement. Following the river bank through the sedges, the goat track soon petered out, and I couldn’t even see the way I’d come. Scratchy dune vegetation rose past my waist, and below my feet I imagined all sorts of creepy crawlies. In the distance I could see the spit of sand that was my destination, and cars travelling past on the roads. But I was helplessly trapped.
An historical mindset and social attitudes, is essential in creating a sense that the story could have happened as it is written. But to my mind, writing the senses, through a character’s bodily experience of the climate, the built environment, and the landscape, brings the story to life. Being in the town and seeing the stones that Aboriginal people hewed to build their own cell at the back of the police station, with the same sun beating down on my head; experiencing the cool relief of the huge shady fig trees down the main street; sifting the tiny white shells glinting in the soil at the cemetery through my fingers – our senses connect us to the lived experience of past peoples. Every building in my novel existed in 1932. I knew how wide the rooms were, how low the doorways, how thick the walls.
My next book is set in Fortitude Valley in the 1940s-1960s. Little exists of this landscape. But like a palimpsest, there are layers to a place that can be revealed if I dig deep enough, through photographs, anecdotes of former residents, or contemporary newspapers. Whichever method of research I choose, I’ll never stop hoping to fool the reader I’m a 101-year-old.
Kali Napier is a Master of Philosophy candidate in creative writing at The University of Queensland. Her debut novel, The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge, will be published by Hachette Australia on 30 January 2018. The book will be launched at Avid Reader Bookshop, West End, on the 8 February, and all are welcome. Please register here.