Chrissie Michaels – breathing life into history

Chrissie MichaelsIt was while researching the French explorer Nicolas Baudin that Australian children’s author, Chrissie Michaels came across one of those gems that every writer loves to find. It was the story of a young convict girl, who was transported to New South Wales for theft and ended up as a passenger on Baudin’s ship as he mapped Australia’s southern coastline.

Snippets of nineteenth century journals provided a glimpse of Mary Beckwith’s extraordinary life. From there, Chrissie Michaels filled in the gaps to offer an insight into conditions in the early convict days and the role of French explorers in Australia’s history. Convict Girl: The Diary of Mary Beckwith and Chrissie Michaels’ other intriguing story – Voyage to Botany Bay, are part of the My Australian Story series (Scholastic Australia).

Chrissie joins me today to chat about resuscitating characters from history.

You have two books in the My Australian Story series. I’m particularly intrigued by Mary Beckwith. Can you tell us a bit of the background to Convict Girl: The Diary of Mary Beckwith?

Convict Girl: The Diary of Mary Beckwith is my second novel in the My Australian Story series published by Scholastic Australia. It was while researching the French explorer Nicolas Baudin and his voyage of discovery that I came upon the story of Mary Beckwith. She sailed with Baudin when he left Port Jackson (Sydney) and is acknowledged as the first European woman to set foot in South Australia, at Kangaroo Island.

my-australian-storyConvict girlThe novel is written as a diary from Mary’s point of view and covers the times she lived through after she and her mother were transported to New South Wales for stealing some cloth.

Much of Mary Beckwith’s life remains a mystery. Apart from the Old Bailey trial, and the convict list giving her transportation details, there are only brief remarks made about her in some of the journals from the Baudin expedition. As well there is a reference to her in Matthew Flinders’ diary, made while he was a prisoner in Mauritius. We also know that Mary’s mother later married the colony’s Judge Advocate, Richard Atkins. This gave me great scope to breathe life into her character.

What appeals to you about historical fiction?

I have a thirst for knowledge about the past. Once I go down the road, I have to know what is going on. I turn every corner. You could say I am insatiably curious.

The novels I have written for Scholastic’s My Australian Story series draw upon a particular passion of mine for French history. Both novels feature a French navigator. In Convict Girl Baudin, his scientists and his officers made a wonderful contribution to world knowledge through their magnificent natural history collection. Voyage to Botany Bay similarly traces the earlier expedition of Lapérouse (aka La Pérouse) which touched on the shores of Botany Bay at the same time as the First Fleet arrived. I am pleased to think that my books may help to further our understanding and appreciation of the role that French navigators played in Australia’s history.

Where do find a voice for your characters?

When it comes to finding a character’s voice I think my right brain works better than my left! I tend to carry the character around in my head for quite a while, rather than make character profiles or lists. The characters themselves are shaped by the story, which these days always seem to come from a historical event that has piqued my interest. I try to walk in their shoes during the specific historical period; try to solve their problems for them as they come along.

In Lonnie's ShadowOnce I discover a character’s voice the writing definitely comes more easily. The characters begin to take on a life of their own. I like to see them grow, become more independent, not always accept what is happening to them. Perhaps that is why my choice is to have characters who often live on the edge of the law. I have to make some decisive value judgements about their actions. Take Lonnie McGuinness, who appears in my YA novel, In Lonnie’s Shadow (Ford Street Publishing). He was always going to be a larrikin. However, I knew he would stand apart from gangs like the Push, and the Glass and Bottle, who loitered around the Little Lon lanes and alleyways in 1890 Melbourne. Lonnie always wanted to be his own man. He was never going to be a follower. Like any modern day hero he tried to right the wrongs around him. He looked after his mates, even if how he did this was sometimes questionable.

How much research goes into building authentic characters?

I try to immerse myself in the era that I am researching. Because I tend to approach writing about people who have already lived with a sense of caution, I spend a lot of time cross-checking details. My coffee table collection is pretty impressive! And I spend a lot of time doing initial research via the Web.

There is always an opportunity to network and call on expert help! During my writing of Voyage To Botany Bay I was able to have an on-going correspondence with representatives from the Musée de Lapérouse in Albi, as well as with the late Mr Reece Discombe who was the rediscoverer of the Lapérouse shipwrecks in the 1960s. They clarified lots of details for me about landscape and place as well.

My research for In Lonnie’s Shadow began with a visit to the Melbourne Museum and grew from there. The artifacts from the archaeological dig at Little Lon, shown as part of their Melbourne Story exhibition inspired the narrative structure. Each chapter title is an artifact with literal or metaphorical significance to the storyline. It is only a short walk across town from the museum to the State Library. I spent many an hour immersed in ephemera and trawling through microfiche records of the period (pre TROVE).

my-australian-story-voyage-to-botany-bayThere is much relief in having others validate the accuracy of your own research. I can’t tell you how pleased I was when Martine Marin of the Association of Friends of Nicolas Baudin in France (Les Amis de Nicolas Baudin) recently wrote to me, referring to my latest novel Convict Girl as ‘very well documented’. She also devoted a page to Convict Girl in the association’s latest newsletter and gave it a strong recommendation to readers.

What’s next for you – more historical fiction?

Yes, I am currently researching and writing another historical novel based on an event I came across whilst researching Convict Girl. I hope to have the manuscript completed by early next year.

I also write teacher texts for primary and secondary English and History, and have a few things on the go in this area as well.

Thank you for visiting, Chrissie. Good luck with your next project. 

For further information about Chrissie Michaels’ novels and for teachers’ notes, visit Chrissie’s website.

Visit my blog again soon, or you call follow me on Facebook and Twitter at the addresses below.

Happy reading,

Julie Fison