Guest Post: Putting Words in Their Mouths - Writing Historical Fiction Based on Real Lives by Catherine Meyrick

 Putting Words in Their Mouths - Writing Historical Fiction Based on Real Lives.

1 – At the Springs, Mount Wellinggton c1880.
To the left of the door are Harry Woods’ parents and Ellen Thompson holding her eldest daughter Jane.
Photo courtesy of Libraries Tasmania Online Collection

It is said that all we owe the dead is the truth. But when we write historical fiction how do we do this, especially when we attempt to imagine the lives of those who left only faint traces in the records.

My latest novel, Cold Blows the Wind, is based on a period in the lives of my great-great-grandparents, Sarah Ellen Thompson and Henry Watkins Woods, Ellen and Harry. It is set in Hobart Town, Tasmania between the years 1878 and 1885 and grew out of my genealogical research.

Both Ellen and Harry were the children of people transported to Australia from the British Isles. Their parents were not among those who made good and went on to live of comfort. They were what is described today as the working poor—living conditions were basic; pay was low for men, lower for women; life was precarious and illness, an accident or death could tip a family into dire poverty. They had few resources to fall back on in times of trouble and they left little behind to mark that they had been here other than the greatest legacy, their children.

I knew, early in my research that I wanted to write about Ellen, a woman who faced more in those few years between 1878 and 1885 than any person should in the whole of her life. I could have written Ellen’s story as non-fiction but it would have been filled with a lot of ifs and buts and ‘women like Ellen did this so she probably did too’ – a most unsatisfying style of biography. By contrast, fiction allows us to walk in a character’s shoes, to see the world through her eyes, to feel her heartbreak and her joy.

By the time I sat down to write, I knew the shape of Ellen’s life and had a framework of known facts on which to base the novel: births, marriages, deaths, children, court appearances. But there were still periods where nothing is known, and there were people in Ellen’s life who had disappeared from the record. For fiction to work well, those gaps needed to be filled. I had to bring Ellen and those around her to life and put words in their mouths to make my story believable and compelling.

One important step was to do what every writer of historical fiction does – to create a verisimilitude of that past world. This is the element we all love – searching archives, reading books and journal articles, trawling the internet, reading newspapers, poring over maps and photographs, visiting the places where our characters lived and walked, understanding the institutions they interacted with. I hoped by understanding the world of Ellen and Harry and their families, I would gain insight into their reactions to it and their motivations.

It is here that my greatest challenges lay. In imagining their motivations, I needed to make sure that I was true to what I knew of their lives and to treat these people of the past with honour, not as chess pieces to be moved around the board in service of what I thought would be a good story. Neither Ellen nor Harry could write, though they might have been able to read at a basic level, so I could gain no insight through memoirs or letters (and they, when they do exist, may not be truthful). I did not imagine that the portions of their DNA that I carried offered me any special insight into them. Perhaps, though, my sense of them as family might have made me far more diligent in my search for understanding.

From the beginning I had a strong sense of who Ellen was through the incidents in her life, her reported reactions to them, and her appearances in the newspapers and the court records across her whole life. An incident that, for me, encapsulated the strength of her protectiveness and sense of family came three years after the period the novel covers. Ellen was in court for assaulting another woman, Alice Baynton, in the street. Ellen had walked up to Alice and punched her between the eyes. A few days earlier Ellen had seen John Jackson, her sister Jane’s husband, get into a cab with Alice. Several years before, Alice and John had been living together in house Ellen was renting. Ellen imagined the worst and was having none of it. She was defending her sister Jane ferociously and warning Alice off. No one messed with a Thompson! In court the case descended to a shouting match between Ellen and Alice to the point where the magistrate had to yell above the din to bring the court back to order.

I found it harder to get a sense of Harry. He had lived a quieter life before his arrival in Hobart Town in 1878 and made no appearances in court or the newspapers that I have discovered so far. I had no clear photographs of either Ellen or Harry, so there was no opportunity to stare into their faces and gain a sense of who they were by the way they confronted the camera. Eyes often tell a story – are they sad or hard? Is there a twinkle of mischief there despite the rigidly held pose? The photograph I have of Ellen is small and I cannot see her features clearly. She is sitting beside Harry’s parents outside the cottage at the Springs on Mount Wellington where they lived for several years, holding her eldest daughter. I realized quite late that I had a copy of another even more indistinct photograph taken at that time. Ellen is not in it, but there is a man to the right of the photo, apart from the group of visitors and the rest of the family. You can tell a lot about a person and his character by his physical demeanor. This man’s posture and his dress are different from the others in the photograph. There is a confident physicality and an assurance about him. I am sure it is Harry. (Is that my DNA kicking in or just wishful thinking?) I drew my sense of Harry from what I saw of him in the photograph and it fitted with what I knew of his behaviour.

The problem of trying to imagine the personality of someone who has not left a clear imprint behind was something I had not faced before as my first two novels, set in Elizabethan England, followed entirely fictional characters. Although elements and incidents in those novels drew inspiration from the lives of known people, I could imagine what I wanted within reason. The common wisdom with historical fiction is that where there are gaps it is acceptable to fill them with plausible and informed imaginings, in keeping with the period in which they lived. I filled them with what I thought most likely, given my understanding of their characters.

I was deeply aware that my characters should never give the appearance of modern people in historical dress. Yet there is much in the behaviour of Ellen and her family that seems quite modern and a rejection of the mores of Victorian society. I needed to ensure that the reasons for their behaviour were apparent within the context of that society. My view is that their behavior was not a deliberate rejection but the result of their position in the poorer levels of society. Mothers worked, often outside the home, while they raised children; young women, of necessity they went out unchaperoned; they had children out of wedlock and kept them; they sang and danced and swore. Despite their daily struggles, they tried to gain some pleasure in a grim world. They were not rebels rejecting the strictures of their society but rather these strictures were a luxury they could not afford even if they wanted to follow them.

There is an unspoken element in the way this story is told, the writer. I might put off my twenty-first century glasses but the construction of the story, the imputed motivations are very much a reflection of when and where I write, and of my own personality. I was aware, painfully, that every creative decision I made, every interpretation of the records, another writer with different life experiences and a different view of the world could interpret in another way. In Here Be Dragons, Sharon Kay Penman creates the life of Joanna/Joan, Princess of Wales, from childhood through to her death. Joanna is a character beloved of so many readers, yet in by Barbara Erskine’s Child of the Phoenix Joanna is portrayed as cold and sanctimonious. With no detailed evidence of Joanna’s personality, who is to say which writer is closest to the truth?

So Cold Blows the Wind is my interpretation of the lives of Ellen, Harry, and their families. I have tried to be honest and aware in my interpretation of the records and what I know of their lives. At this distance of time, I don’t know that we can ever get to exact truth but through diligence and imagination, I have tried to distil its essence. And, most of all, I have let Ellen’s life, in particular, drive the story so that the reader can walk beside her and see that world through her eyes.

Since publication of the novel, the comment that has touched me most came from a cousin who I did not know of until after the book came out. He said that Ellen, as I had presented her in the novel, was what he had imagined her to be – strong and loving. It was the same sense I had of Ellen Thompson. And perhaps this means that my imaginings do have something of the truth that we owe to those who came before us.

2 – Possibly a photograph of Harry Woods, on far right.

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Hobart Town 1878 – a vibrant town drawing people from every corner of the earth where, with confidence and a flair for storytelling, a person can be whoever he or she wants. Almost.

Ellen Thompson is young, vivacious and unmarried, with a six-month-old baby. Despite her fierce attachment to her family, boisterous and unashamed of their convict origins, Ellen dreams of marriage and disappearing into the ranks of the respectable. Then she meets Harry Woods.

Harry, newly arrived in Hobart Town from Western Australia, has come to help his aging father, ‘the Old Man of the Mountain’ who for more than twenty years has guided climbers on Mt Wellington. Harry sees in Ellen a chance to remake his life.

But, in Hobart Town, the past is never far away, never truly forgotten. When the past collides with Ellen’s dreams, she is forced to confront everything in life a woman fears most.

Based on a period in the lives of the author’s great-great-grandparents, Sarah Ellen Thompson and Henry Watkins Woods, Cold Blows the Wind is not a romance but it is a story of love – a mother’s love for her children, a woman’s love for her family and, those most troublesome loves of all, for the men in her life. It is a story of the enduring strength of the human spirit.


Catherine Meyrick is an Australian writer of romantic historical fiction, and the descendant, through her father, of nine men and women transported to Van Diemen’s Land as Tasmania was known until 1856. She lives in Melbourne, Australia but grew up in Ballarat, a large regional city steeped in history. Until recently she worked as a customer service librarian at her local library.

Catherine has a Master of Arts in history and is also an obsessive genealogist. When she is not writing, reading and researching, she enjoys gardening, the cinema and music of all sorts from early music and classical to folk and country & western. And, not least, taking photos of the family cat to post on Instagram.


  1. Thank you for your in-depth narrative about respecting our ancestors while bringing their stories to light. I loved the way you allowed all your characters to have flaws. You described their motivations as if you understood what made them act the way they did, which had to be difficult. The result was a terrific read. I highly recommend Cold Blows the Wind.

  2. Thank you, I am so glad you enjoyed the book and saw the characters that way. I wanted to present them as real people, like us a mixture of strengths and flaws, trying to do their best.


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