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A Trove of ideas: Historical sources as inspiration for fiction writers and poets

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Words by Bec Fleming, ACTWC Blogger in Residence

I’m indecisive. It’s almost always a curse. At conferences I’m usually the one hovering between two doors, frantically re-reading abstracts right before the session begins. In my university days I couldn’t decide between English and History as a major. In the end I stumbled my way into a compromise, English as an undergrad, History for my PhD. The two are very much connected, both are in essence about story. Despite these connections I don’t always link the two disciplines in my mind. I look at lots of sources for my historical research, but I don’t think of them as literary sources. Yet history offers such rich inspiration for writers of fiction and poetry. Some of my favourite novels are drawn from history, books like Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and Sara Knox’s The Orphan Gunner. It occurred to me recently that one of my favourite historical sources offers, well, a treasure trove, of potential story ideas for fiction writers and poets.

The National Library of Australia’s ‘Trove‘ website is one of my favourite haunts as an historian. Trove is an Australian resource database of images, manuscripts, newspapers, magazines, maps, books, archived websites, letters and diaries. Not all of the material is digitised, but the search results give information on where an item can be found. The amount of digitised material on the database is staggering and it increases every day. Trove is one of the reasons I am grateful to be an historian in the 21st Century, readily accessible primary sources available at all hours. Also, I am inept at wrangling microfilm. My explanation of the wonder that is Trove could never really do it justice, so if you aren’t familiar with it, you can find more information on their website.

My favourite feature of Trove is the digitised newspapers. You can search by keyword, across decades. This is something microfilm can’t do, allow the opportunity to search on a topic across papers, regions and decades and compare the results quickly. You can also search by paper and by day. This is where I see a lot of potential for writers, either by actively searching on topics of interest, or browsing digitised papers for story ideas. A found poem may emerge from the headlines of the 1860s Argus. The headlines offer rich sources for stories too. The front page of The Canberra Times for Saturday 8 February 1930 includes headlines such as, ‘Narrow escape from serious injury: Man falls under bus but swept clear’, ‘Hungary’s worst poison drama: The widow maker Budapest’ and ‘Missionary’s end: Murder by bandits’. Lots of potential stories ideas there!

So, my fellow fiction writers and poets, next time you are suffering writers block try browsing the digital delight that is the newspapers on Trove, you never know what stories might emerge. If you do find inspiration, feel free to share in the comments below, I’d love to see a found poem drawn from the headlines!

Bec Fleming
Bec Fleming
 is a Canberra based writer, historian and poet. She graduated with a PhD in history from the University of New England in 2010. She has spoken at the National Portrait Gallery, the Australian War Memorial and for the ABC program Now Hear This. Her poem ‘An untimely death’ was shortlisted for the 2013 Michael Thwaites poetry award. She has loved words for as long as she can remember and thinks it is a little bit magic when they line themselves up in just the right order.

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