History Fun

What is it about history that insists on slipping out of your mind (or out of my mind, at least)? History at school was never fun because of the stubborn way that only the most trivial information presented itself at times of crisis, such as during exams.  As a child, I consoled myself with the observation of Sellar (Aegrot: Oxon) and Yeatman (Failed M.A., etc. Oxon) that:

History is not what you thought. It is what you can remember.”*

Perhaps this is why we enjoy historical fiction so much—it helps bring the past alive in stories that stick. Some writers of historical fiction are so proud of their research that they desiccate their tales to the point where we might just as well read non-fiction (not mentioning any names).  Thankfully, some writers mix and bake their tales with the lightness of a soufflé and Jodi Taylor, author of the Chronicles of St Mary’s, is one such writer.


The St Mary’s series (nine novels and numerous short stories by 2018 and still going) is sometimes located within the science fiction genre but it has only one sci-fi premise: that time-travel is possible.  The only other general assumption is that, if anyone is going to do time-travel responsibly, then it’s an historian. The fun comes when we learn that the historians employed at St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research are entirely irresponsible in their all-consuming passion to find out what really happened. They specialise in exploring times that involve historical controversy, anywhere from the time of the dinosaur to recent World Wars. With just a soupçon of romance and sadness, these novels provide an easy way to become absorbed in the past.

They are available in hard and paperback as well as ebook and audiobook (which is how I became acquainted with them—great narration by Zara Ramm). The first of the series is titled, Just One Damned Thing After Another, although there is a short story prequel available, The Very First Damned Thing.



*If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading ‘1066 and all that: A memorable history of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates’ then I recommend the experience. Amazon has it available very cheaply and there are some free pdfs floating about the internet too.

Best audio books 2017

Redphones: Listening to music while waiting for a friend, Garry Knight, Flickr, CC2.0 licence with attribution.

While cleaning out my father’s flat after his death earlier this year, I came across the notebooks in which both my parents kept a listing of the books they had read each year. My own reading habits are not nearly as methodical.  However, new ways of consuming books do such cataloguing work for us.  I have become addicted to audio books as it allows me the chance to read and knit at the same time (unlike my mother who learned to do both simultaneously to defend herself from my grandmother’s accusations of ‘wasting her time reading’).  I subscribe to audible and they sent me a summary of my own (well-spent) 20,250 minutes of listening time this year. Apparently, my favourite genre was ‘crime & thrillers’— which suggests some new writing directions for me later.  I entirely agree with their analysis of my ratings that showed that my favourite author was Philip Pullman and my favourite narrator was Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (narrator for the delightful PC Grant detective series by Ben Aaronovitch, but I’m saving a review about that series for another post).

my top three audiobooks for 2017

 (in no particular order)

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

by Gail Honeyman (hard cover and paperback published 2017 by Harper Collins). Audio book released 2017, read by Cathleen McCarron.

Written in the first person, we are taken inside the character of a fascinating woman who leads a highly circumscribed life.  This is a novel about small moments and their effects. The narrator fully captures the tension between Eleanor’s self-awareness and her lack of insight. The newspaper reviews of the book are very positive but often contain spoilers, so if you like to know more about what’s ahead have a look at these: from the Guardian, or from the Washington Independent Review of Books. Reese Witherspoon’s production company has apparently optioned the book for a movie so you could wait till then or, best of all, just dive into the book and find the treasure there.

A Legacy of Spies

by John leCarré (hard cover and paperback published 2017 by Penguin Random House). Audio book released 2017, read by Tom Hollander.

Peter Guillam is called back by the Circus to account for the past Cold War operations of George Smiley.  The reviews of the book have been unanimous in their praise, see the review by the New York Times for example.

Actor Tom Hollander is exactly the right person to read it – a master of restraint in the context of overpowering emotions. (You may remember Tom Hollander from the TV mini-series ‘The Night Manager’, and the TV series ‘Rev’, amongst many other roles.)



La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust, Volume 1

by Philip Pullman (hard cover and paperback published 2017 in association with Penguin Random House). Audio book released 2017, read by Michael Sheen.

Philip Pulman takes us back to the very beginnings of Lyra’s life and the disturbance she brings, even as a baby, to the control exerted by The Magisterium. The heroes of the story are Malcolm and his daemon Asta who must save Lyra when the flooding of the Thames brings both corporeal and magical threats.

Actor Michael Sheen is a captivating narrator. (Michael Sheen was recently seen as Dr Masters in the TV series ‘Masters of Sex’, and you might remember him as David Frost in the film ‘Frost/Nixon’ back in 2008).


This is the first of three planned prequels to ‘His Dark Materials’. I, for one, will be lining up for the others. The reviews have welcomed the return to Lyra’s world, for example see the review in the Sydney Morning Herald. Like the reviewers, I look forward to the next instalment in this series.


Mission accomplished: 50K words in 30 days!


There is nothing like the behavioural reinforcement of posting your daily word count to maintain writing momentum. Thirty days after setting myself the NaNoWriMo challenge, I’ve hit 50,894 words and have a completely new way into my embryonic novel (NB: very long gestation period…but I won’t go there…just enjoying the moment).

Click on this link for a taster of where it’s all going:

Ferguson, A. (excerpt of work in progress at 20171130)



Just released: ‘A Gentleman’s Daughter’


“. .  the Destiny of my life was cast on seeing for the first time an ‘Apollo’ in the handsome Captain Cowin of the 73rd Regiment. Even at this long period I blush to make this romantic confession, nevertheless the age of 12 may offer an excuse. ”

Lady Dowling: Daguerreotype photo print of carte de visite, around 1860.

I was reading the memoir of Lady Dowling*, a very distant forebear of my husband. I was already intrigued, but this was the passage that captured me. Three years later, I have finished putting together a short biography of this flighty, restless woman (for details, see under Publications on this site). What I’ve learned in the process includes:

  • Never believe a memoirist (they leave out all the interesting parts),
  • Never trust a man who keeps a journal (they put in all the interesting parts), and
  • Never think your research won’t be contradicted by your next search of Trove.

I’ve also learned that I’m not alone in grappling with a million writing dilemmas. With this knowledge, I’m continuing to explore the border zones of creativity in the portrayal of historical people and events.


*Dowling, H. “Memoir of the Early Life of Harriott Mary Dowling Nee Blaxland: Or Sketches of India and Australia in Old Times.” In Dowling family papers 1767-1905: Manuscripts, Oral History & Pictures, State Library of New South Wales, Catalogue  DLMSQ 305, Item 5, 1875.

The Blank Page

Pantsers and Planners and the Blank Page

There I was — frozen — staring down a course requirement to produce a 30,000 word collection of short stories. The keyboard stared right back, as keyboards do, the indifferent sods. As the days till deadline diminished, my calculations generated predictions of having to generate 1,000 words a day, then 2,000 words, then 3,000. When the target of 5,000 was on the horizon, I panicked. I raced to find my lecturer. He wasn’t in his office, nor in the coffee queue.  Peering through the small window set in the door of the lecture room, I spied him. As he paused for breath, he glanced in my direction — perhaps it was something to do with the wild gesticulations of distress.

He came to the door and, opening it a crack, snapped, ‘What?’

I began to gabble about my plight.

‘Stop,’ he hissed. ‘Listen carefully. You will type the word the over and over again. I don’t care if there are 30,000 thes. If, perchance, you start to find the word the becomes boring, then do feel free to use some other words as they occur to you.’ He closed the door and turned back to his class.

It was novel advice and, desperate as I was, I followed it. It only took a paragraph of thes before I was so bored that I began to write.

I’ve never heard anyone else prescribe similar measures but the experience meant that I am intrigued by the distinction that is often drawn between pantsers and planners. Both terms describe ways in which writers tend to go about the writing process.

The term pantsers is said to come from the expression ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ which originally arose to describe a pilot flying without instruments. Pantsers write their first draft in a flow of ideas, possibly guided by some overarching theme or end-point. Pantsers are open to following new thoughts and directions as they arise during the writing process. Stephen King, in his fascinating book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, describes a similar drafting process he calls ‘writing with the door closed’, i.e. getting the ideas down while leaving your inner critic outside (the inner critic is allowed inside the door when re-drafting). The advantages of this approach include that it’s a faster way to get the ideas out from between the ears and on the page.

Artist: Serena Snowfield (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/serena_snowfield/32230739846/in/pool-600501@N20

Planners (or plotters) prepare detailed outlines for the overall structure and individual sections of the work ahead before they begin. Planners tend to build their first draft in layers, i.e. outline, more detailed outline, even more detailed outline, and then the writing within each section. The advantages of this approach include that you know what’s ahead. When planners get a new idea, they down tools and test the potential new direction by revising their outline before they proceed.

Public Domain CC0 http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/Leave-Hand-Marker-Mark-Production-Planning-Control-516278

Both pantsers and planners extoll the virtues of their processes in reducing anxiety in facing down the blank page, which probably tells you more about the mental health challenges of writing than the relative efficacy of either approach. However, as for most false dichotomies, there need be no opposition between the two approaches. No doubt, many of us adopt these processes at different stages and for different works. For example, author, Victoria Strauss, describes her transition toward a hybrid approach in her blog — ‘Pantser to Planner: How I changed my writing style.

Luckily for me, while I’m by nature closer at the planner end of the continuum, so far I haven’t had to resort to the the strategy again.

Playing cards

Playing cards was never my forté. The trick-taking game of 500 was THE obsession for my schoolmates, but my reputation for reneging (failing to follow suit) meant that anyone unfortunate enough to have me as their partner instantly bid misere. Unfortunately, for someone interested in historical times and pastimes, it turns out that card playing has been a major socialising force over the centuries.

Twopenny Whist (Public domain)

During colonial times, the games of choice for the ‘genteel’ included the following nightmares for me to learn.

  • Whist
  • Vingt et Un (21, the forerunner of Blackjack)
  • Écarté – a two-player game, similar to Euchre
  • Loo (Lanterloo; somewhat like All Fours), which was a trick-taking game similar to Euchre

Betting was often associated with these games, and the stress involved could easily threaten the social veneer of polite society. For example, whiling away the tedium of a lengthy voyage by playing cards could threaten friendships and pockets:

At Loo we were all very much annoyed at Gardiner’s conduct, he turned up a card whilst dealing and refused to put his Loo in. I had myself a turn over a few minutes before. He, however, chose the excuse of the wind from the skylight above blowing if over and left the table without paying. We are all determined not to play again with him till he has – and apologized to the table for his conduct.” (Marsh, 28th May 1847)*


This evening at Loo, Seymour retired from the table determining to lose no more. The night before he was in great rage because the Dr could not play, and remarked that it was a great shame that he as a winner did not give him a chance to recover his losing £6. The Dr has now declared that he will not play anymore, he says he is winner of about £5, but I think he must have won at least 10. I have lost up to today 3. Davies paid me 10/- I won from him, this being the day when he saw the Mail would be divided.” (Marsh, 9th June 1847)*

As a chronic loser in any card game, I’m not entirely sure where my sympathies lie…

* Source: Marsh, J.A.M. “Diary of John Augustus Milbourne Marsh (1819-1891): 1847 (Transcribed from Betty Harrison Family Archives, by Michael Heath-Caldwell, Brisbane 2009).”  http://www.jjhc.info/marshjohnaugustusmilbourne1891diary1847.htm

List of Illustrations?

My Quandary

How to make a list of illustrations that is separate from the contents page, but which keeps updating page numbers when other changes are made in the document?

Illustrated catalogue of the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company (1886) – Public domain

It turns out that, for my auto-updating list of illustrations with page numbers, what I needed was to learn how to ‘Create a table of figures’.

The key steps to follow were:

  • Preparation
    • Locate the ‘References’ tab along the top of document
    • Insert Caption under each of illustration in document
  • Creating the list in the document
    • Go to the spot in the document where you want the list
    • Locate the ‘References’ tab along the top of document
    • Insert Table of Figures
  • Updating the list
    • Go to the list
    • Locate the ‘References’ tab along the top of document
    • Update Table (whenever needed later).

Of course, within each of these steps there are other options to try out to finesse the formatting but, in essentials, once the captions are done, the rest was rapid and (best of all) accurate.

(*I’m using Word 2016, Windows 10, on a PC)

Adventures in Word Processing

Back in the day…

I learned to type on a clackety old manual typewriter in an after-school class at Seaforth Tech. At the time, my parents told me that, all else failing, I ‘could always get a job as a typist’. It was impossible to foresee that, within the next two decades, we’d all be multi-skilled and tapping away at keyboards that were connected to word processing technology with more memory than we could possibly fill.

Not much had changed by the 70s. (Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 2855, public domain)

However, the trouble with learning to light fires by rubbing sticks together is that you can wilfully ignore the many automated features of new developments such as butane lighters, declaring that ‘it’s quicker if I just do it the way I usually do’.  Recently, I hit this internal wall with a thud during my preparations of a manuscript for self-publication (more about that elsewhere!).

Yes, it needed a list of footnotes and a bibliography.

Yes, it needed a list of illustrations with page numbers that automatically updated when other changes were made in the manuscript.

Yes, it needed an index that similarly updated itself. I was fortunate enough to have my references and bibliography already formatted using 21st century technology (software Endnote), through having to use it in my work.

It was the list of illustrations and the index that I had persevered ‘doing it my way’: i.e., the very, very, very SLOW way. One week later, I am a born-again aficionado of the capacity of Word to create these. Dr Google threw up a lot of fellow-searchers, many of whom were asking questions about things a little to the side my exact needs, so I ended up at the Microsoft Office Support pages more often than not.*

Of course, many people are across this stuff and are technologically expert but, just in case you find you have similar blind-spot, I’ve done some other posts to that provide a potted summary.

(*I’m using Word 2016, Windows 10, on a PC, so my apologies to MAC users for any PC-centricism)

The Letters of Rachel Henning


Cover of Henning, R. The Letters of Rachel Henning (Edited by David Adams, with a Foreword and Pen Drawings by Norman Lindsay). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1969. First published by the Bulletin 1951-2.

Years ago, I was fortunate to find amongst my mother’s many books a copy of “The Letters of Rachel Henning”. Rachel Henning wrote the letters during the period between 1853 and 1882 as she came to terms with life in colonial Australia. As a teenage reader, I was struck in particular by her letter to her sister Annie describing her trip by coach across the Blue Mountains in 1856.

I should have enjoyed it more, also, though I am no great coward, if we had not been going at a hard trot down that steep hill with an unguarded precipice on the left down which a coach was upset some time ago, and eleven passengers either killed or maimed.” (April 7th, 1856)

The picture she painted of the descent down Mt Victoria Pass still resonates each time I travel the same route with my foot wearing out my brake pads.

Apparently, the editing for the original publication of the letters in the Bulletin (1850-52) was rather free and loose (here’s a link to a quick summary ‘Have we been conned?’).  However, the original letters are available to the public in the State Library of New South Wales (catalogue MLMSS 342/ Volumes 1-3, Folder 4X).  Even more exciting is the free online availability of the letters via a number of sources, including Project Gutenberg, the Trove collection of the National Library of Australia, and as in ebook from the library of the University of Adelaide.