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Author: Margaret Healey
A researcher and writer currently completing the 2018 'Finish Your Book' course with Hazel Edwards at the Victorian Archives Centre.
And then the research went sideways. I’m sure there are lots of people to whom this happens. An unexpected result in a report, evidence that contradicts all previous opinions or the presence of a stray relative you never heard of can throw a project into a whole new direction and produce results you completely failed to anticipate.
For me just such a twist occurred in Hazel Edwards’ “Complete your book in a year” class held at the Victorian Archives Centre. I have been working on the effects of the first world war on our district and the individuals who enlisted. Some of the material is upsetting; some illuminates current situations.
The records I was looking at were the National Archives of Australia records of the soldiers of the first world war, and the records belonging to the War Memorial. Further information came from the newspaper archive at TROVE, and from Births, Deaths and Marriages. Public Record Office Victoria's records of probates and rates fleshed out the later years of the soldiers' lives and provided some background information about the community. Local history societies have also been great sources of information. I also accessed information on Camel Corps from several military history websites and articles written by military historians and enthusiasts.
All of this research is complex and, when writing it into a book, it can be difficult to be sensitive to the people affected by the past, while being true to the experiences of the time.
In one class Hazel suggested that a new perspective on the work could be obtained by writing an aspect of the project as if it were being written for children. I felt that the last thing I could write would be a children’s version of any of the stories I had uncovered. Most had overtones of horror, misery and hardship. Yet, I began writing and in the ten minutes allowed for the exercise – only TEN minutes - I produced a short draft of a story about the Camel Corps.
I could hear the voice of a child asking questions about camels and why someone from a farming community in rural Victoria would ever end up riding one. Writing and re-writing the story was easy given the amount of research I had done. I could answer all those ‘childish’ questions forming in my head. The story was there in the material just waiting for me to look at it from a different perspective – sideways. I felt a shift in focus when I could imagine an audience who wanted information that was simple rather than having many aspects to it. Most useful, it made my position, in relation to the past, clearer.
The story I wrote developed the slightly complicated title of Grandma’s Grandad’s Camel because that reflects the position of grandparents today. They are the ‘midway’ generation between the war and today’s children. Working with an artist friend who illustrated the story has turned my one project into two projects. I have my original work and the one that took a right hand turn, when the research went sideways!