Darry Fraser on loving the research for historical writing

Darry Fraser’s first novel, Daughter of the Murray (2016) is set on her beloved River Murray where she spent part of her childhood. Where The Murray River Runs (2017) is her second novel set in the same era, 1890s.

The Australian landscape is home and hearth – the rural, the coastal, the arid lands and the desert. The history, the hidden stories, the catalysts create the powerful connection between her characters and are the drivers in her stories. Apprenticed on a number of contemporary novels and novellas, she returned to writing Australian historical fiction, which is her favourite genre.
She lives and works on the beautiful Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia.

Her latest novel is a compulsively readable story of passion, adventure and a woman’s quest for independence set against the colourful backdrop of 19th century Bendigo and the goldfields of Ballarat.

Getting this story out into the world – from first word to final printed page – required a lot of rigorous historical research, but, as Darry writes below, she has a true passion for history…

When you’re a writer of historical fiction, you know at some stage you will have to do some research. So, you’re tapping away at the keyboard, the characters are behaving (or not), the plot holes are closing, the timeline’s been straightened out, and then the hero reaches for his morning tea that has been tucked into a paper bag.

Nothing unusual in that. Except if there weren’t paper bags in Australia in 1850.

After morning tea (a boiled egg and a mutton pie. Fruit cake wasn’t the go just then) he decides he’s got to go and clean up the crooks. So he reaches for his rifle … Wait a minute. What sort of rifle was available in Australia at that time? Oh, never mind, perhaps he’ll do that later. Maybe he’ll just wander down to the bank and get himself—hang on, what banks were around then, and where? So, he won’t go to the bank just yet. He’ll borrow an amount of cash from— Not so fast. What cash was around—coins? Notes? Was it Australian or English? Or perhaps he used only gold nuggets. Cheques … was there such a thing for the ordinary man in the street? Oh dear.

Not to worry. He’ll take it easy for a bit, toe off his boots and sit—what sort of boots? Pull ons? Button ups? Lace ups? And if he had a hole in the sole, who to take it to? A shoe-smith, of course. But the shoe-smith might be travelling, and not due in town for weeks.

As for researching life on the goldfields, particularly around the goldrush era in Australia, the 1850s, it became a joyful immersion. I studied newspapers in Trove, an online database of Australian historical documents, photos and I bought books by historians and emailed the authors, I visited the fabulous sites dealing with the Ballarat fields on—ahem—a research trip.

Almost every chapter in The Widow of Ballarat needed historical fact without making the work boggy. And for all the hours spent chasing down that elusive bit of truth, there might only be a word or two in the book. Love that research.




1854, Ballarat, Victoria

When Nell Amberton’s husband is shot dead by a bushranger, there are few who grieve his passing, and Nell least of all. How could she miss the monster who had abused her from the day they wed – the man who had already killed his innocent first wife? But his death triggers a chain of events that seem to revolve around the handsome bushranger who murdered him – a man to whom Nell, against her better judgement, is drawn.

But Nell has far more than a mysterious stranger to worry about. With a mess of complications around her late husband’s will, a vicious scoundrel of a father trying to sell her off in matrimony, and angry relatives pursuing her for her husband’s gold, she is more concerned with trying to ensure her safety and that of her friend, goldfields laundry woman Flora, than dealing with the kind of feelings that led her astray so catastrophically before.

After the violence on the goldfields, Nell’s fate also hangs in the balance. It seems that, after all, she might need to do the one thing she has avoided at all costs … ask for the help of a man.

Posted on November 23, 2018 by

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  • Kaye Tonzing says:

    I love your books, I have read Where the Murray runs and also The widow of Ballarat and really enjoyed both books. I have been looking for Daughter of the Murray I may have to try my local library. I too grew up as a child on the Murray living in Murrabit, my dad .used to work the bridge when the steam boots came through I remember he used a tractor to lift the draw bridge. My mother was born in Ballarat and all so spent a lot of time their visiting relatives. I look forward to read more of your books.

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