NSW Writers Centre Interview

THE NSW Writer’s Centre interviewed me for the course I ran recently – these are my words that appeared in the NSW Writers’ CENTRE Weekly E-Newsletter; April 5, 2010

Chris Cheng is the author of several historical novels, including The Melting Pot and New Gold Mountain, set during the Lambing Flat riots.
This week the NSW Writers’ Centre chats to him about writing and researching historical novels and treading the line between fact and fiction. Catch his course Writing History on Sunday 18 April.

Why history?
…When at primary school I loved finding out about our past and the stories of the explorers etc – yet when I hit high school all it seemed to be was dates and facts, and not the story behind. And it is FASCINATING … who wouldn’t be fascinated by the ingenuity and the bravery and the sheer determination of some of the great folks of our historical past. What boy isn’t amazed by the Chinese traders who fertilised their greens with poo water and then sold the green veges (that no one else could grow) to the miners!

Do you go looking for stories or do they come to you?
I think they have come looking for me … especially stories on the Chinese Diaspora. Even though my family wasn’t here during the mining times the culture, and where my family has roots attached, is part of the story. And then as the research into the facts grew and grew more stories that had to be told appeared.

How do you tread the balance between historical accuracy and telling a good story?
Yes it is a fine balance, but I think that you can still write a story filled with historical facts and make it a riveting read … I contacted the bureau of meteorology for the weather conditions in one of my HF books and used those exact conditions throughout;… if it said it rained … it did! I try and gather as much factual material as I can before I start writing the story and as I am gathering the material as the story is developing too. Of course the historical story you are telling has to be worth telling – if the story is worth telling the accuracy won’t be a hindrance.

How do you describe a time and place that you’ve never been to?
That I guess is part of the fictional / imaginative process. After copious amounts of research I have a very vivid picture of the environment and the people. They have lived with me for months and months so it is not hard … but that is the same for any other fiction book … even picture books I write!

What are some resources writers can use to research Australian historical novels?
The wonderful librarians at the MITCHELL library in Sydney. They are a glorious help – if they know you are truly researching! The bureau of meteorology, the immigration department, we have wonderful files stored at the National Archives, museum curators! Newspapers … oh and did I mention libraries!

What’s three things you wished someone told you at the start of your first history book?
How to stop researching – there’s always more information to gather.
That there is NO right way to record your notes … you just have to record your notes YOUR way!
There is a lot more to uncover and write about!

With your last three dollars you would … ?
Take my wife up the street to share a gelato and, if I can convince them, a latte thrown in – we are good customers!!

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