Salt Creek: A blueprint for writing compelling historical fiction
Salt Creek is an extraordinary example of compelling historical fiction. It is no surprise that debut novelist Lucy Treloar and her novel Salt Creek received critical acclaim and multiple awards, including the Dobbie Award for Best New Writer and the Indie Award for Best Debut, as well as a shortlisting for the Miles Franklin Award. Recently it was longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award (2017).
In March 1855, after several failed business ventures, Stanton Finch moves his wife and six children from their respectable living circumstances in Adelaide to the remote coastal region of the Coorong:
The journey to that place was like moving knowingly, dutifully, towards death. I have seen beasts as resigned. People say it is not so, that they are ignorant to the end, but this is only what people hope. I knew our purpose in travelling there, how Papa had pinned his last tattered dreams to it, which I imagined visible as a flag slipping listless above the dray. Although Mama was as sad as I ever saw her, yet we knew or thought that our all, our very lives and futures, depended on Papa. It was unthinkable not to go with him.
The novel details the aftermath of that journey.
Of all the kinds of novel you can write, historical fiction is probably the one that most requires research. In a blog post on researching a novel for Writer’s Edit Claire Bradshaw wrote, ‘There are plenty of things you can do to ensure you’re writing the most authentic novel possible. Setting, characters, plot details, historical influences, even genre and craft – all these elements and more can be researched to strengthen your knowledge and flesh out your book.’
Lucy Treloar did that and more to create Salt Creek. She took great care in grounding the events of her story in their political and social context, allowing her to add multiple layers to the experiences of one family during South Australia’s colonial history. Not only does she portray the hardships of early colonial life in remote areas and the attitudes of men at the time to women and how they should lead their lives, but above all she shows the impact of colonisation on the lives of the first inhabitants of the land, the Ngarrindjeri people. In an author’s note she lists a number of books that have informed her writing, especially sources on the Ngarrindjeri people and the impact of colonisation on Aboriginal people. I will illuminate more of the research she undertook below, in context with highlighting some of the strengths of the novel.
As with most great novels, some of which I have written about in this blog, Salt Creek is not only a wonderful read, but also demonstrates how to write historical fiction well. In particular, Salt Creek features:
- a great choice of point of view,
- a strong voice,
- strong and complex characters,
- great dialogue,
- a strong sense of place,
- multiple layers through the incorporation of the political and social contexts of the relevant time period, and
- significant themes.
As always, I will give detail on only some of these below:
A great choice of point of view
Treloar has given the eldest daughter of the Finch family, Hester, the role of first person narrator for Salt Creek. Books on the writing craft will instruct you that first person narrators have to have a reason for telling their story. In Hester’s case, such reason lies not only in her wish to document and examine her and her family’s experiences in the Coorong during the early days of colonisation, subject to the whims of her father Stanton, but also in a visit to her house in England years later by a friend from the old days towards the end of the novel.
Salt Creek is framed by Hester’s life in her mother’s childhood home in Chichester, England, about twenty years after the family’s journey to the Coorong. The reader bears witness to Hester’s reminiscences about the family’s life there over a period of several years while she grew from young teenager to young woman in the relatively early days of the Province of South Australia, created in 1834.
Importantly, this framing of the story through Hester’s memories many years later enables Treloar to keep any melodrama at bay in a novel filled with dramatic and tragic events, which might otherwise have threatened the balance of this deeply thoughtful and incisive narrative.
The voice of Salt Creek emerges not only from the stylistic choices of the author, but primarily from first person narrator Hester, and her voice strikes the reader with its authenticity. It was the strength of that voice which immediately hooked me:
Chichester, England, November 1874
Mama often talked of this house when I was a child, and of its squirrels with particular fondness. She missed them as she missed all about her life here. They were fastidious, she said, and always prepared for flight. Their plumy tails jerking, they would hold a nut in their tiny hands, turning it and turning it looking for the weak point, angling their heads and tilting the nuts, their tiny teeth flashing, yet could not always penetrate the shell. I watch one now through my drawing room window as it flickers beneath the oak, stopping to pounce, to sample, to bury, before flaming up the trunk. It is cold now; the breeze blows in and I shut the window. The squirrel glares at me from its branch. It has its habits and instincts that it must follow, as most of us do, I suppose. There was no point in my mother preparing for flight. Her sense of duty and her love were together too great.
I wondered how Lucy Treloar found the authenticity of Hester’s voice for Salt Creek. Likely sources included fiction and non-fiction written at the time the novel is set as well as archival research. Since there was no direct information in the book or on the Internet on how Treloar found Hester’s voice, I decided to ask her. The following are extracts from her kind and generous response:
Very early in my thinking about Salt Creek, around the time I first visited the Coorong, I came across an 1850 letter written by a distant aunt, Emily, about her family’s journey from Adelaide to the Coorong. She leapt off the page as a person, and I could see how modern she was in many ways, not so different from a teenager of today: upset about the isolation, losing her friends, the primitive conditions, the flies, and hating to be teased and so on. She had such a strong, unguarded and funny voice that I formed an instant attachment to her, and began writing in that voice. It was that letter and the visit to the Coorong that jumpstarted the creative process… In terms of how I was able to write freely in that voice, I think my approach was to saturate myself in a Victorian sound (the sound of the written word in my mind) and sensibility, which I could then inhabit and write from, almost as if I were a writer of the era… Writing in that voice was like acting the part of Hester, but on the page.
In terms of specific texts, Jane Eyre is one of my touchstone books, and I’m sure it had some influence on inflections, vocabulary and word order, despite the voice being different. And Charles Darwin’s writing was an influence on various characters, as well as being revelatory of Victorian colonial attitudes.
Strong sense of place:
Treloar beautifully evokes the landscape of the Coorong, as highlighted in most of the reviews of Salt Creek:
I stood on the tallest sand hill on the peninsula and turned slowly, looking all the while through Fred’s telescope. To the west was the vast blue plain, the sea – empty today – and to the east across the lagoon was the long stretch of the landward shore, which Tull called tengi. Addie and Mary were feeding the chickens, a favourite task of Mary’s. From this distance, it was as if they were scuffing through blossom… Undulating to north and south was the peninsula’s unending line of sand hills and saltbush and grass.
Treloar’s skill in evoking place is grounded on frequent family trips past the Coorong when she was younger and on extended stays during the writing – part of the research process.
In addition to the political and social contexts I mentioned earlier, Treloar explores what it was to be a woman and what it was to be a man in the period Salt Creek is set in, and what role parental expectations, whether implied or expressed, may or may not play in the decisions children make as individuals on how to live their lives.
Above all, Salt Creek questions what it is to be civilised, and what it is to behave honourably, decently and humanely: is morality an absolute value or should it depend on religion or social attitudes to right and wrong during particular historical times? These questions centre on young Tull, son of a white man and an Aboriginal inhabitant of the Coorong, whom Hester’s father decides to ‘civilise’, and who will affect the lives of the Finch family forever.
Salt Creek is a novel every Australian should read. Not only is it a compelling read, but moreover it forces reflection on these questions and teaches us something fresh about Australia’s early colonial history. And for writers, the novel illuminates the benefits of extensive research for creating complex historical fiction, as well as providing lessons on the individual points of the writing craft listed earlier.