She couldn’t tell a story straight if she tried – there’s my epitaph. That is, all charges of tall tale-telling blarney aside, I can’t write historical fiction in neatly episodic chunks of third-person, past tense, plain-English prose.
I love language too much, for a start: I love falling down magical rabbit holes of etymology, to wonder at the way language changes across time, and from person to person. I love every quirk of the vernacular – every skerrick of slang, every blessed curse word, and that way Australians have with inventing new ones – like ‘wowser’ and ‘flummox’ and ‘maggoty’, whole dictionaries full of them. I love to wonder at every influence upon our Strine: the Irish, the Americans, the Germans, the many First Nations languages spoken across the continent. Our language is constantly changing, and those fine-detail changes can tell us a lot about our history, who we are and where we’ve come from.
But what I love best is the utterly unique idiom we each carry around inside our heads. Each of us has a distinct way of speaking; and we each have at least two different speaking versions of ourselves: the one we use when we’re actually talking, and the one we use when we’re talking to ourselves. Our actual talking voice is also split into at least two versions: a more formal one for use with strangers; and a more relaxed one we use with our friends – a language often laced with code, the beautiful, secret language shared by those who hold each other dear.
Obviously, this is why writing in the first person – writing in character – is a very natural way for me to explore story, and to explore Australian history. But of course, novel-writing is more than talking, and more than the nuts and bolts of story, too. Novels, generally, are about people, and those people must step from the page and into readers’ imaginations immediately and truthfully for readers to want to follow them anywhere at all. Constructing character then – dreaming up a living, breathing, believable person – is the happy challenge that entwines itself around the voices in my head, and it’s right here, in the meeting of voice and character, that I find the beginnings of every new novel.
And a great deal of research goes into all that dreaming up, too. The first glimmers of my new novel, Lady Bird & The Fox, came to me in the form of Annie Bird’s voice. She virtually shouted at me, she arrived so wholly, and her first words were: ‘This is a disaster!’ Who was she, and where did she come from? A combination of reading about gold rush Australia and puzzling over the scant traces left of the life of Australia’s probably one and only female Aboriginal bushranger, Mary Ann Bugg; as well, I carried voices with me of the strong and forthright Aboriginal women of La Perouse who peopled my childhood; I also carried with me the voice of one of my oldest and most cherished friends – the strong and forthright daughter of one of those women.
I saw Annie raise her hand to shield her eyes from the rising sun, and I saw not only the warm, deep brown of her skin: I saw the shape of her wrist, her long slim fingers and the fineness of her bones.
And then followed the delight of getting to know her, this woman of great conviction, who is stubborn and funny, both soulfully compassionate and rip-you-to-shreds critical. What did she wear? What did she love to do in quiet moments alone? What were her prized possessions? What was her favourite food? What was her favourite drink?
In answering these kinds of questions for any character, I hit the newspapers of the year – in this case, 1868. And when it came to Annie’s preferred cold beverage on a hot day, it took a while for me find the one that really was hers. Lemonade? No – too common. Soda water? No – too plain. Beer? No – she was always too busy for alcohol. Iced tea? Wasn’t invented yet in the far flung outer reaches of mid-Victorian Sydney.
Then I came across an ad for a public house outlining its basic provisions, and one of them was raspberry vinegar. I had no idea what that might be – and that was intriguing enough in itself for me. Best of all, the combination of sweet and tart it suggested made it perfect for Annie. She is lovely and sharp at once.
But while I soon discovered raspberry vinegar was a popular cordial of the day, for the life of me I couldn’t find a recipe. It was so annoying that I couldn’t quite taste this drink that Annie loved.
That was, until dinner with friends a few years later, when Lady Bird & The Fox was at the typesetter, pretty much done and dusted. My lovely real-life friend, for reasons I can’t now remember, produced one of her mother’s beautifully handwritten recipe books, dating back to the 1930s – and there within its pages lay Annie’s raspberry vinegar.
When serendipity strikes like this – especially in such a way that makes the world feel wonderfully small and bright – it strikes with a thrill that makes me tearful, and grateful, and intensely aware that we are all somehow connected through soul-threads of love.
As soon as I could, I made up the recipe, tweaking it for a little less sugar, and we enjoyed it with a splash of vodka, soda and mint.
Chin chin then, Annie Bird. Not just a voice, not just a character, but a friend. I might never be able to tell a story straight, but I – or rather we – will always tell them true.
Oh, and by the way, Annie’s favourite word is ‘collop’, but you’ll have to read the story to find out why, and what it really means – to her.