What first gave you the idea for Scout?
The first spark for writing Scout came from a visit to Kangaroo Island when I stayed at some of the lighthouse keeper cottages. I thought I’d like to write a story about an English girl who came to live at a lighthouse on Kangaroo Island in the 1800s with her mother. The more I started to research the early days of Kangaroo Island the more I came to realise that the story was as much about the sea as the land. The story of how immigrants came here and what it was like to sail across the oceans on a wooden sailing ship in the 1800’s suddenly seemed much more interesting. I felt as though I had stumbled across a part of history that was exciting, inspiring and completely unknown to me. At school I’d learnt all about the convicts, the early settlement of Sydney, the gold rushes and the bushrangers but not much about early migration. I liked the idea that many early immigrants saw Australia as a place of opportunity. Many people took out loans to get here or their fare was paid by the government because Australia needed workers, especially women. Until I started researching I didn’t even know that the immigrant ships sailed to Australia across the Great Southern Ocean. I had thought they sailed down the Queensland coast from the north. This opened up a whole new world of learning for me –all about this great sea voyage. That was how Scout started. I had meant to write about the end of Kit’s voyage – when she arrives at the lighthouse but somehow or other I started at the beginning – when she first left England.
How did you go about doing your research?
I did a lot of reading about the history of sea passage to Australia. The best material was the letters and journals of young people who lived through the time. Reading their words I really felt I had an insight into what it was like to sail across the ocean to Australia all those years ago. I especially loved the journal of Mary Maclean who left Glasgow in November 1865 to sail from Liverpool to Sydney on board the Africana. She left Scotland after her father died because she had no immediate family left there. She sailed as a single young woman of 22 to New South Wales to join her brother Allan and his wife. Her brother paid the £4 for her fare. This is what Mary wrote when she first met the other women she would sail with.
“I Cried my Self Sick When I looked about me and Seen the caracters that I had to mix With and I remembered that I Would be Compelled to mingle in the throungs for between 3&4 months my Courage failed me a little.”
But by the end of the voyage Mary seemed to have made friends and was not frightened at all. At one stage she was on deck with other young women and they just laughed at the huge seas.
“We are like a lot of Sailors for that the more We Seen the Waves Coming in the more We laughed…”
It gave me a sense that things didn’t turn out quite as badly as she’d first thought. Her diary is just a treasure but it was only found in 1961 and by accident. A man was out hunting for rabbits in the bush in Hill End and he came across a derelict house and the journal was in a writing box inside.
Journals like Mary’s, written by women travelling in steerage (the cheapest class of passage available), were the most useful to me in my research. Their spelling and grammar may not have been perfect but I did feel they were being honest about the way things were. Sometimes the journals of the first-class passengers were a bit too proper and I’d have to read between the lines a bit to try to work out what was really going on. The journal of Eliza Randall who sailed as a cuddy passenger in first-class to Adelaide in 1845 was very interesting but sometimes I wasn’t too sure what was really going on. In one entry she wrote about coming across another ship in the middle of the ocean and, using flags or speaking trumpet, the captain of this other boat asked Eliza’s Captain if they had any women on board. Eliza wrote that her captain was disgusted by this question but she doesn’t say directly why. I had to presume it was because sometimes in the sea voyages of the early 1800s women were exploited for sex and I suppose traded on the high seas. In the early days it could be dangerous for young women, something they may not have realised when they first stepped aboard. Then people like Caroline Chisholm became so outraged at what was happening that they started to put matrons and constables on board to protect them. But there were plenty of stories of young girls doing everything they could to get away from the matrons and ‘chat’ with the sailors. There was a lovely story of a Captain taking a shine to a girl from steerage and he looked out for her for the entire voyage then promptly married her when they arrived in Australia. Now that is a true love story. These bits and pieces of research all combined into a melting pot out of which my story evolved.
Did you do any practical research?
I did lots and lots of hands-on research. With my family I’ve stayed at all the lighthouses on Kangaroo Island. My daughter even fired the cannon at Cape Borda, which was used to warn ships in heavy fog. I’ve sailed on tall ships that have survived from the 1800s, as well as replicas of ships that are now lost. I’ve travelled down the shipwreck coast from Adelaide to Melbourne and visited every maritime museum on the way. I love being near the sea and anything to do with the old wooden sailing ships so this research was more like a holiday. I can safely say that I did far more research than necessary.
Were there real people from history that made their way into the book?
No real person made their way into the book though some elements of the historical people I researched did influence some of my characters. I certainly did include real events I read about. The bird shooting scene for example was based on an entry in the journal of Eliza Randall. Eliza wrote about one morning when the captain of her ship and some men shot birds that were flying around the ship for hours. She thought it was a ‘cruel sport’. I thought so too and I included a similar scene in Scout.
I also read lots of reports of passengers doing their washing on board in salt water and the clothes being stiff as boards to wear afterwards. I think these accounts influenced all the washing Clarissa does on the Scout. Mary Maclean wrote in her journal that she was embarrassed to dry her washing in front of the men and I thought Kit might be embarrassed in the same circumstances. Mary wrote:
“this is a very Warm Day and I have been Washing and got to young men to hang up my Cloths for me I thought my face Would Burn of me But thay are Suposed to pay no notice to What has to be Done on Board Ship But I Would rather Despence With Thair Services (Mary Maclean, 19 Jan. 1866)”
Another real event inspired the contents of Kit’s chest. There was a young woman who died on Mary Maclean’s ship named Ann McGovern. Mary wrote that she was going to join her sister in Australia. After she died they made an inventory of the contents of her chest. I thought it so sad that this was all she had: 1 pocket handkerchief, 5 petticoats, 3 shifts, 2 night shifts, 3 sheets, 4 towels, 4 pairs of stockings, 2 caps, 1 shawl, 1 woollen dress, 1 cotton dress, 2 brushes, 2 collars, 1 photograph album, 2 pair boots, 1 bag, 1 bonnet, strip of ribbon. Ann also had a sovereign apparently, which I think is about $250-300 in today’s money but no trace of it could be found after her death. The matron was implicated but nothing could be proved. I felt sorry for Ann and sorry for her sister who would have been waiting for her in Australia.
Were sea voyages to Australia really as eventful as Scout?
You were more in danger of dying of boredom on most sea voyages to Australia, if the food didn’t kill you first. James Robertson who sailed to Melbourne in 1852 didn’t seem to enjoy his time on board:
“By this time, two months at sea, salt junk and idleness had so deteriorated the bearing and mental character of the passengers that they had sunk into milksops, and found languid amusement in small practical jokes that a child would be ashamed to be diverted at … this lethargy … would not have been so enervating if a man could have settled himself composedly, without disturbance, to read or study, or to cheat his neighbour and fly the country. None of these devices could have been pursued successfully.” (Charlwood 192)
Most people would have hoped to reach Australia safe and sound so the more boring the passage the better. But I didn’t want to write about the most boring trip on earth so I used the most interesting bits of research (well the bits I found interesting at least).
How did you become a writer?
I always wanted to be a writer. I used to write bits and pieces when I was at school just for myself or sometimes I might ask my friends to read them to see what they thought, which was quite scary in case they laughed (they never did). I loved reading and that helped me to write because I learnt how stories are put together and the way language could be used. When I finished school I did an Arts/Law degree mainly because I got the marks to get in, which is a crazy way to go about choosing a career. For about 7 years I was working as a lawyer and writing at night and on the weekends. Eventually I had a book, then it was published, then I threw in my job and I’ve been writing ever since.
Where and when do you write?
I write at my desk, which is actually my grandparent’s old dining table. At the moment it is in the family living room so I have to learn to deal with distractions. But when everyone else is at school or work I have lots of quiet time to write. My only distraction then is our cat, Sam who is very demanding and always hungry.
What is your best time for writing?
My best time for writing is after I’ve been writing for about three hours. I seem to get in the groove then and I have enough of the story in my head to get stuck into it. I also love to write early morning with a really strong cup of coffee – bliss!
What are you working on now?
I felt the need for a break from all the research I did for Hope Bay and Scout so I’m working on a book that needs no research at all. It’s a contemporary story for teenagers. I can just write whatever I want because I’m making it up and I’m the boss. It’s such a relief.
Charlwood, Don, ed. The Long Farewell. Ringwood, Victoria: Allen Lane, 1981.
Hassam, Andrew. No Privacy for Writing : Shipboard Diaries, 1852-1879. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1995.
Randall, Eliza. And the Dog Came Too: Being an Account of a Voyage from London to South Australia on the Ship Templar in 1845. Adelaide: The Libraries Board of South Australia, 2001.
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