For general information "About Me" click here.
When did you start researching?
At high school we studied Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time and I was fascinated by Inspector Grant’s research into the story of King Richard III and the princes in the Tower. This was the era of books like Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, and true stories about the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle, and I realised that the research process intrigued me. But what did a 15 year-old start researching? Family history was the logical choice, particularly as it was becoming more and more popular. So I began researching my family history and quickly caught the genealogy bug. I soon decided thatI wanted a career in genealogy, although at that time there were few available. But I eventually proved lucky.
When did you begin your career in the genealogy industry?
After finishing university, I spent 16 months in the UK/Europe working and researching, particularly gathering information so I could complete a Diploma in Family Historical Studies through the Society of Australian Genealogists. A year after returning to Sydney I saw an advertisement for Project Officer for the Australian Biographical and Genealogical Record and applied. I was offered the job at the interview and, naturally, said YES!!! In that role I was the editor of six volumes of musters and other records (see Books). In the early 2000s, the ABGR transformed into the Biographical Database of Australia and I became the General Editor. I left that role in 2012.
When did you start writing?
As a genealogist, I soon worked out that the best way to process my search was to start writing biographies. I then began adding flesh to the biographies with background historical and social information. In 2000 I decided to write the story of my First Fleet ancestors for self-publication. I thought it would take six months but four years, 29 biographies, 380,000 words of prose and 100,000 words of source-references later ... While researching the family history, I discovered the wonderful true story of a political-sex scandal in New South Wales and decided to write it as popular history. It was only when that manuscript was accepted for publication that I realised I was actually a writer, not just a researcher, and had been for nearly 30 years.
How did you get published?
I was incredibly lucky! When the story that eventually became An Irresistible Temptation: the true story of Jane New and a colonial scandal was nearing completion, I decided to start approaching publishers. I had recently been given an Australian story to read and had noticed that it was published by Allen & Unwin. I then checked the Border’s bookshelves and saw that they published a lot of Australian history titles. Their website indicated that they were an Australian company (tick!), so I looked up their submission guidelines and saw that they accepted unsolicited manuscripts and took 3-6 months to respond. Even though the manuscript wasn’t finished, I decided to send the first 60 pages as specified as I figured that by the time I received the rejection slip the manuscript would be completed. Then I would try to find out what was wrong with it, rejig it and send it to another publisher, and continue doing so, one publisher at a time. I felt that it was a great story and that I was a good enough writer for someone to be interested. Good thing I had no idea how slim the odds were of being picked up from the slush pile! As it turned out, I didn’t receive a rejection slip. Instead I received a phone call two weeks later, asking me to come in for a meeting.
What is your favourite book of all time?
It would have to be Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne. What a fascinating, beautifully written story.
What are you favourite and least favourite things about researching and writing?
My favourite things are researching and writing. Its having to stop that I hate, particularly when it’s to do chores!
What inspired you to write Breaking the Bank?
One of the problems with writing a true story is finding one that hasn’t been done to death, that is also a ‘big’ enough story that it could be written as a book rather thansimply asan article, and that would be important enough for people to want to purchase. As I mentioned before, I discovered the story of the Jane New scandal while writing my family history. I discovered the story of Breaking the Bank, my second book, while researching Jane New’s story. Jane was a recidivist shoplifter and found herself in serious trouble with the colonial authorities. To improve her situation, according to some records I found, she revealed something about the ‘bank robbery’ but the records didn’t disclose anything more. I knew nothing about a bank robbery so I started to look into it, to see if I could determine the little minx’s involvement, and was astonished to discover that it was a really big robbery and that no one had previously told the story in full. I had found my second book.
What did you enjoy most about writing Breaking the Bank?
I loved every stage. I loved the research, the writing, the editing. I even loved the criticism. I believe that my publisher, editor, copy-editor and readers are all working with me to make a much better book. If they have a problem with a part of the book, then someone else will as well, so I change it. In fact my biggest problem is stopping work on it. I went to England for a month to research my next book and, purely by chance, discovered some information about one of the bank robbers, information that needed to be included in Breaking the Bank but the pages were already at the printers. Fortunately my editor had a few tiny changes to make, so I begged and pleaded and was able to slip the information in. Never again, I promised!
How long did it take you to write it?
It took me a couple of months to do all the research and about 9 or 10 months to write the book. However I seem to work differently to most people. I do some research then start dumping the information into a blank Word file, then do some more research and add it in, and the story builds up around the research. I call this the ‘dump’ stage. As soon as I have exhausted the research possibilities for a particular scene, I start crafting the prose. So I might actually have crafted the end before I’ve even finished researching the middle. In fact the first bit I crafted into prose for Breaking the Bank was the bank robbery itself. I found one newspaper article and wrote out all the details, then picked up another, read through it and added any details not reported in the first article and so on. I find this a much faster and more thorough way of tackling a story, particularly as it enables me to extract all the tiny details that help build up the story, and pursue research as I think of it. If I waited until I had done all the research, I would feel overwhelmed. Actually, I couldn’t wait, as I work out where to research next as I write up the information I’ve already found.
In what way was writing Breaking the Bank different to writing An Irresistible Temptation?
With An Irresistible Temptation I was feeling my way. I had never written anything like it before, I had no idea what the publishers would think, and when it was about to be published,I had no idea what the reviewers would think of my style of writing history. When the reviews were good, it gave me the freedom to continue along the path I had stepped onto. I want to tell history as if it is happening now, rather than as if it happened a long time ago. Many historians inspect and dissect history but I want readers to feel as if they are living it, as much as possible. Much of Breaking the Bank reads like a novel yet it isn't fictionalised history, it's true - even the dialogue, which comes from the original records.
What inspired you to write Captain Thunderbolt and his Lady?
My publisher at Allen & Unwin suggested that I find a really strong female character to write about. I mentioned that I had heard some people talking about a female bushranger at a talk I had given some months previously however, when I pricked up my ears, they immediately went quiet, saying that someone else was writing a book about her. "They've got their dibs on that," I concluded. My publisher said that no one has their dibs on anything and, anyway, they wouldn't write history like I do. So I googled female bushranger and there she was: Mary Ann Bugg, beautiful, intelligent, fiesty, part-Aboriginal and the lover of the gentlemen bushranger, Captain Thunderbolt. It was the perfect story!
What are your long-term goals as a writer?
Write a best-seller and make a fortune? It would be nice. Then I could pay someone to do my chores and write all the time! But I guess my long-term goals are to keep finding great stories and writing great stories and opening up the fascinating world of Australian history to those who were bored with the sort of history taught in schools but love a good story. Ultimately I would like to become the Australian author that readers immediately think of when ‘Australian popular history’ or ‘Australian true historical crime’ is mentioned.
What is the best advice you would give another writer?
Keep writing! I heard the most fascinating statistic some years ago, and have repeated it, ad nauseum, to my poor children. The difference between a solo ballerina and a member of the ensemble is 10,000 hours versus 7,000 hours. Until then I had thought it was extra talent, the X factor, and so on. Of course, we’ve all heard the old adage that “practice makes perfect”, but I would never have applied it to the creative arts, not at the top end, anyway. Clearly, so long as you have talent and of course a willingness to learn, you can achieve whatever you want. But you need to put in the time. If one person is writing for an hour a week, and another is writing for 10 hours a day, six days a week, who has the better chance of being published? So keep writing!