Why Write Historical Fiction

Well work is well and truly under way on my next book. Not to give much away but it will be another historical fiction novel, this time centering around a handful of battles which involved Australians in the Boer War, or more correctly the Anglo-Boer War.

The hardest part about historical fiction is getting the history right. In my opinion if the details are not accurate for the time, then all you’ve written is a novel set in a previous time and there is nothing historical about that. But that need for accuracy comes as at a price – first you have to find the detail.

Of course in many historical events the written record is vast and an author can just pick and choose the interesting bits and pieces according to how it all fits with the story they’re attempting to tell. But these events have more than likely been picked over many times before and their stories told in all sorts of different way. So because of this, and through some sort of masochistic desire to make life as hard as possible for myself, I like to seek out the lesser known stories, and unfortunately the records on these events can be hard to track down.

With my main area of interest being Australian military history, particularly our earlier involvement in foreign wars, there is an added complication. Up until mid 1918 Australian troops were considered to be a part of the British Army. This was the case also during the Boer War which erupted in 1899, two years before there was even a Federated Australia. The various colonies sent their own contingents over to South Africa and were absorbed into the British Army, fortunately keeping their own unit identity or tracking their exploits could prove near impossible. The problem with this arrangement is that the English chroniclers tended to cover all actions as being conducted by ‘British’ forces, when in fact they may have been undertaken by Australians, Canadians or Rhodesians. And so locating the right details can sometimes be frustrating.

So why do it? Why not just write fiction with no real base in fact?

Simply the truth is always more interesting than just straight fiction. Stories based on true events have more impact because the ‘that’s a bit far fetched’ factor that can creep into fiction is not there. It may sound far fetched, but it happened, and history is full of these moments. And it’s only through the research, the pouring through pages and pages of seemingly insignificant detail, that the true story emerges. There have been a few occasions when the direction I’ve had in mind for a particular character or story line has been changed by some small detail I’ve stumbled across and felt that I couldn’t possibly leave out.

And sometimes the best thing about writing historical fiction is the random events that the research can take you to yourself. A perfect example of that happened just this weekend. I had recently joined the Victoria Barracks Military History Society and asked them if they had any information relating to Queensland Units in the Boer War. Before I knew it I was contacted by Miles Farmer, former Commanding Officer of the 2/14 Queensland Mounted Infantry Regiment and a man with a deep passion for the Regiment, which had it’s genesis in the Qld Shearer’s Strike and served throughout the Boer War, and is still alive today in the form of 2/14 Lighthorse Regiment QMI. I got to spend a wonderful couple of hours with Miles and his wife Mavis, and he had prepared so much information for me to take away, from maps to photocopies of pages from the Official History and down to his own photos of visits to the area I’m particularly interested in for my next book. An absolute privilege for a bloke like me.

So in a nutshell that’s why I chose to write  historical fiction. The researching takes me through the lives of real people from history doing things which they probably didn’t think were particularly remarkable, but which I find fascinating. I learn so much about our history as well, which keeps driving me to find out even more. And best of all it allows me to meet some amazing people as I go.

Miles Farmer, a true gentleman and wealth of knowledge on Aussies in the Boer War
Miles Farmer, a true gentleman with a wealth of knowledge on Aussies in the Boer War