Discovery through Story

by Sulari Gentill,

Part 1: The illumination of fact

Humanity is a storytelling species. Storytelling is the way in which we order, understand, remember and explore both the world and ourselves. We communicate with the exchange of stories, some functionary and mundane, others obscure reflections of reality, and still others, epics, which speak to the nature of being. Tales told in reminiscence, in aspiration, with pride or malice. Stories nonetheless.

Emma Taylor

Both the most frivolous and thoughtful expression of the human condition, stories are the diet on which we nurture the thinking of our children, and the way in which we will be eulogised on passing. They are an expression not only of what we know and think, but of what we want to know, what we wish to discover.

The novel, in this context, may be considered as an implement of examination: a microscope under which we scrutinise, learn and experiment, the ship in which we sail to discover unknown lands. Through the novel we seek.

A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it.
–Edward P. Morgan

I suspect the explorative aspect of the novel holds regardless of genre, but I will speak with particular reference to the genres in which I can claim at least a little authorial experience. To date, my body of published work has been historical or crime fiction, or both. In this first post I intend to consider the novel as an illuminator of the record, a lens through which fact may, most effectively, be represented and viewed. The second and third posts will look respectively at character and plot as discoverable. And finally, I will consider the impact of the novel on the author’s discovery and definition of self.

So, here goes.

I began writing the first book of the Rowland Sinclair Mysteries in 2008. A Few Right Thinking Men introduced gentleman artist, Rowland Sinclair, and was set around the actual events of 1932 in NSW. Until I embarked on the series, I had neither knowledge of nor interest in the era. My decision to set a story in the 1930s was in many respects purely practical. I had come only recently to writing and consumed by the discovery of the worlds within my own head, I was want to disappear there for long periods. The practice, whilst perfectly pleasant for me, was hard on my husband, who was faced with a partner who was increasingly not present. The problem for writers is often not writing itself, but stopping, participating in the real world when the imagined beckons. My solution to this dilemma was not to come out of my head but to attempt to bring my partner into it. Michael is an historian with a particular interest in the extreme right wing social and political movements of NSW in the interwar period. And so I set a story in his era, ensuring the person with whom I spent the most time in the real world was invested in my imagined one. This choice of setting also guaranteed that I had an invaluable source of information and a guide to the era close at hand, as well as that most prized writer’s asset—a captive editor.

In the first instance, Michael directed me to the plural scholarly works of Andrew Moore[i], Keith Amos[ii], Drew Cottle[iii] and Michael Cathcart[iv] as well as Eric Campbell’s own, somewhat biased account of the rise of the New Guard[v]. In addition to security files, diaries and memoirs, I read notes on interviews my husband conducted in the early 90s with people who’d been at the rallies, who’d endured the Great Depression, and joined one or another of the many proto-Fascist movements that called NSW home. I came to know the 30s, not just the facts and events, but something perhaps more important for the novelist. I came to understand the passions at play, the sense of disenfranchisement and desperation, the changing loyalties, the political awakening of a young Federation. And I had questions. I found holes, small gaps in the historical record.

It’s possibly here that the paths of historian and historical novelist diverge.   For the historian, spaces in the record are a failure which must be remedied with objective facts and evidentially supported theories.   For the novelist, these breaks in what is known absolutely are a holy grail. They are openings more than gaps, in and out of which the novelist weaves her story. With no recorded fact to contradict her, the storyteller is free then to “make stuff up”.

If the writer has applied her craft successfully the factual and fictional aspects of the novel should be seamless and indistinguishable to all but experts in the field. There is an argument that this, in and of itself, is counterproductive to the understanding of history (or science, law, procedure etc.), that readers are duped by fiction writers into believing a plausible fallacy at the expense of fact.

However, it is my experience that readers are quite alarmingly informed and sceptical. Increasingly they have the ability to easily check the veracity of what they read. Storytellers are in some respects, conjurors. We deal in illusion. The moment we are contradicted by objective fact or implausibility, the spell is broken and we lose the trust of the reader. The art of the novelist is convincing the reader that it might have happened as you wrote it. Improbable scenarios, obvious inconsistencies or departures from recorded history will not help your cause.

In terms of the understanding of history, the novelist can bring knowledge to an audience reluctant to plough through textbooks or academic papers devoted to the period. Stories can translate historical insight into a gentler more accessible form. In some ways they educate by stealth. Those who read my novels, for example, don’t do so in order to learn about the political and social upheaval which occurred in the 1930s, but, in the process of following Rowland Sinclair’s investigations and misadventures, they will most likely absorb that knowledge anyway. Indeed, I’m convinced that those things we pick up collaterally when our focus is directed elsewhere—towards the solving of a murder or an escape from danger or the like—are more easily retained and understood. In this way the novel offers an access that eludes more academic histories.

Moreover fiction is particularly well poised to mitigate the sensibilities, understandings and prejudices of the contemporary reader in a way that a faithful adherence to historical fact cannot. Ironically, fiction is sometimes able to convey a more accurate impression. The best way I can explain this is through the example of dialogue. The Australian accent in the early thirties was not what we currently know it to be. Most middle and upper middle class Australians spoke with what we would now consider an English accent and the establishment spoke with a carefully cultivated inflection that we would today ascribe only to elderly members of the royal family. In writing the dialogue of Rowland Sinclair, I was then faced with a dilemma. If I were faithful to the manner in which a man of his background would most likely have spoken, he would have seemed to the modern reader, archaic or even camp. And yet the man I was writing was for his time exceedingly progressive and masculine. As a fiction writer I was able to make the decision that it was more important to create an accurate impression of Rowland Sinclair as a man than to reproduce exactly the diction of an educated and wealthy gentleman of the 1930s. I was able to modify the register of his dialogue so the modern reader would conjure the impression of a refined but modern man and thus a contextual accuracy and voice would be maintained.

Interestingly, in terms of plausibility, actual events can be more of a challenge than fiction. Often the more far-fetched aspects of my own novels are not the parts I made up. Consider for example the existence in Sydney of a violent vigilante organisation called the Fascist Legion, made up of respectable members of suburbia, who dressed in black Ku Klux Klanesque hoods and gowns and identified themselves with playing cards. The strength of fiction is its ability to allow the reader to view extreme events and organisations through the eyes of a character with whom they can identify but who subscribes to the knowledge, the prejudices and the mores of the era. Of course some things, like the Fascist Legion, were bizarre even in 1932.

source: Australian Archives

Finally fiction has the ability to integrate different aspects of the record into a single coherent story arc in a manner that contextualises facts which may otherwise be studied in isolation. Through this we can pick metathemes and patterns, and understand how each aspect (class, wealth, politics, status, location, family, education, media depiction, morality, luck, integrity etc.) influenced the other. Plot and character are the tools of fiction and they are particularly powerful when drawing together and unravelling the threads of actual events, figures and motivations.

Of course, the well-researched novel is not an alternative to the factual record. The former relies on the latter for its existence. Fiction can, however, offer a singular insight through the reader’s investment in the life of a protagonist, bringing to the discovery an emotional engagement that may be difficult to achieve with simply the factual record. Through the protagonist, the novel allows us to speculate on what we might have done, where we might have failed or triumphed. Readers can empathise with or revile imagined characters, compare themselves and understand history through the passions, shortcomings and heroism of the human condition. We can discover fact through the palatable and familiar vehicle of story.


[i] Moore, A., “The Old Guard and ‘Countrymindedness’ during the Great Depression”, Journal of Australian Studies, No. 27, November 1990

Moore, A., “Who Bashed Jock Garden? A Body Blow to the New Guard”, Bowyang, Vol 4, No. 1

Moore, A., The Secret Army and the Premier: Conservative Paramilitary Organisations in New South Wales 1930-1932, New South Wales University Press, Sydney, 1989

[ii] Amos, K.W., The New Guard Movement 1931-1935, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1976

[iii] Cottle, D., “The Rich in the Depression”, Bowyang, Vol.1, No.1

Cottle, D., “The Sydney Rich in the Great Depression”, Bowyang, Vol. 2, No. 1

[iv] Cathcart, M., Defending the National Tuckshop: Australia’s secret army intrigue of 1931, McPhee Gribble/Penguin, Melbourne, 1986.

[v] Campbell, E., The Rallying Point: My Story of the New Guard, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1985