Well here it is, my latest novel—published last Thursday—Yay!
Unlike my previous two novels which were set in the Elizabethan period and peopled by fictional characters, Cold Blows the Wind begins in Hobart Town, Tasmania in 1878 and follows a period in the lives of my paternal great-great grandparents Sarah Ellen Thompson and Henry Watkins Woods. It is the culmination of over fifteen years genealogical research and, intermittently, ten years of writing.
For me, genealogical research is not a mad race to get the longest list of names and dates and dubious claims to descent from so-called great names. I want to know the stories, to get a sense of who these people who came before me were. As I uncovered the details of Ellen Thompson’s life, I realized just what an extraordinary woman she was. Cold Blows the Wind is my attempt to tell her story, and to a lesser degree that Harry Woods, over the period of seven years between 1878 and 1885. By the time I began to write the novel, I knew the whats and wheres of their lives. I had glimpses of their personalities from newspaper reports and their appearances in court. The novel is my attempt to understand the whys of what happened in their lives during this period.
In 1878, when the novel starts, Hobart was a vibrant town, a whaling port, drawing people from every corner of the earth. But, because of Tasmania’s recent history as a penal colony, many people were already trying to draw a veil over the past. But not all were willing to be shamed by the past. Ellen’s father William Thompson in particular was willing to talk about it. In 1901, aged around eighty, he was interviewed about his experiences as a convict by Hobart photographer John Watt Beattie1 and even had his photograph taken in an old convict uniform, complete with leg-irons.
Cold Blows the Wind is an attempt to realistically depict the lives of Ellen and her family. They belonged to the lower levels of society and, lacking money and influence, their lives were at times precarious and difficult in the extreme, and were often lived without much regard for the middle-class virtues we see as ‘Victorian’. The research into the conditions of those at the bottom of society was difficult—not just the problems of finding details of their daily lives such as housing, clothing and what they ate, or didn’t eat at times, but the distressing individual stories uncovered when searching though such sources as the notebooks of Mr William Witt, the Registrar of the Hobart Benevolent Society. But the novel is not just about what was endured, it is about how people rose above the poverty and struggles of their lives. They may not have ended their lives with grand houses, vast estates or money in the bank, but they left behind families, the most enduring of all legacies. Cold Blows the Wind is a story of hope and of the enduring strength of the human spirit.
The novel is written using some Australian idiom and the ‘colourful language’ that Australians were noted for. If you’d like to get a sense of the novel before you decide to read it, you can take a look at the first two chapters available here on my website, or an amazing eight chapters with the LookInside option on Amazon.
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Australia’s history will notice that there are no Tasmanian Aboriginal characters in the novel. The traditional owners of the land encompassing nipaluna/Hobart and kunanyi/Mount Wellington, where the story is set, are the muwinina people who, like the other Indigenous peoples of Tasmania and the rest of Australia, were subjected to dislocation, dispossession and genocide with the arrival of Europeans. Cold Blows the Wind is an intimate story of Ellen Thompson and Harry Woods and their families; the few characters who are fictional were created purely to aid in the telling of Ellen and Harry’s story. I felt that to create one of these functional minor characters as a Tasmanian Aboriginal person was both disrespectful and tokenistic. I believe, at this point in time, any Indigenous character needs a developed backstory that honestly acknowledges history. I feel even more strongly that for us to fully understand the pain of this part of our history, the stories need to be told from the inside, by the descendants of those who were here for tens of thousands of years before Europeans arrived. For anyone who wishes to read more of this history in Tasmania, Lyndall Ryan’s Tasmanian Aborigines: A History since 1803 is a good starting point.
Writing historical fiction is not a solitary occupation. I would not have been able to create this book without help from so many people including friends and colleagues who read and commented on the novel at the various stages in its development, the wonderful Tasmanian community of researchers and historians who were willing to share their knowledge both through their publications and also by personally answering my questions, as well as those people with expertise in various areas such as nineteenth century women’s clothing, pipe smoking or firing a blunderbuss. I hope I have mentioned you all in the Acknowledgements of the novel.
Several people deserve especial thanks for the help given to me. Vivienne Brereton, author of the wonderful Tudor series The House of the Red Duke not only read the novel, several times, and offered unique insights into the behaviour of my characters but has become a good friend through the process. I hope one day to repay you fully in kind, Vivienne. Immeasurable thanks go to Jenny Quinlan of Historical Editorial, who provided a range of detailed editorial help as well as designing the book’s beautiful cover. And, of course, my family who have not only assisted in the production of the novel in various ways, but who, over many years, have tolerated of my strange interests, my neglect of domestic responsibilities and my lengthy obsession with ‘these dead people’.
So here it is. I hope if you read Cold Blows the Wind you will come away glad to have done so.
1 The Career of William Thompson, Convict Edited by Julia Clark, Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority, 2009