HNSA2019: The Criminal Mind

This represents my notes on the presentations at the 2019 Historical Novel Society of Australia conference. They should not be taken as a precise record, and any mistakes are mine. There are gaps in some of the discussions because of my hand-writing speed, or because I took a note but couldn’t remember the context around it. I hope you enjoy reading about this conference as much as I enjoyed observing it. This blog uses affiliated links.


The Criminal Mind: innocence, guilt and psychopathy in historical fiction.

Rachel Franks chaired this panel, with Pip Smith (Half Wild), Janet Lee (The Killing of Louisa), and Catherine Jinks (whose latest book is Shepherd). Note: Catherine Jinks didn’t speak to a specific book in this panel, referring instead to her backlist, so her answers are broader than the other two authors.

Question about research style.

PS – Interested in city versus self. Where you are influences who you are and vis versa. Several examples from her book about her main character, who had several identities over their life.

JL – Louisa was the last woman hanged in NSW. JL found a letter apparently by her main character. Was interested in the rest of her life, not just the definition of being a murderer. The story of her hanging was dramatic with the trapdoor not opening, and the imagery from the actual report stuck in JL’s head as she was writing her novel.

CJ – there are two ways of researching a book. The library way or the journalist way. Library is more introverted and based on letters and books, while the journalist way is more people focused through interviews. Pick what suits you.

PS – Chased the energy of the period and used art from the era as writing prompts. Art captures the mood. For details, PS had a spreadsheet of the known moments of the real person. This helps ensure accuracy and helps see the gaps in the story.

Question – how do you fill those gaps?

JL – writing a real person is tricky. JL didn’t want to disrespect her. The book is written “within the scaffolds of what I could find.”

CJ – there’s a big difference between writing non-fiction and fiction.

Question – selecting point of view

PS – even when you inhabit a first person voice, you are still a bridge between reality and fiction. It’s a performance, similar to acting.

CJ – *shrugs* Write something set in 1750. No one is alive to say ‘well we didn’t do that.’

JL – my story is only a version of the story. I wasn’t in the room and can’t know everything. I just tried to be honest about the character.

Question – Inner life of character and psychology

PS – I started with Eugenia. The psychology came through in the transcripts of interviews with her, and I could empathise with her.

JL – I’m a collector of historical items. I did a tour of Darlinghurst gaol. Seeing it in real life helped me realise that she was surrounded by men. The gaol’s layout has only one wing for female patients, the rest are all men. I cried at the end of writing this book as it had become personal. She was my friend.

CJ – think about the pressures of external life and what impact that has on a person. It influences their psychology.

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