A gold brooch with a purple background
Recording date:

*Speakers: Kaz Cooke, Katherine (Ka)

*Location: National Library of Australia 

*Date: 12 August 2018 

K: Thank you, Katherine. How lovely to see you, I’m sorry that I’ve herded you all up the front but it is a little bit difficult when there’s fewer people but I’ll try not to look too shifty as I look everybody in the eye.

My name is Kaz Cooke, I am an Ambassatrix which is a lovely old-fashioned word like aviatrix for the Library this year. I’m a nonfiction writer, I’ve written books, health books for parents like Up The Duff and books for teenage girls called Girls’ Stuff. I was a journalist for many years and a columnist for newspapers which are flat things that we used to read in the morning in olden times. And more recently I’ve written a novel as well. And so today I'm going to talk about how to build a better story and how I’ve been doing that using library collections. 

I think a lot of writing obviously is writing but a lot of writing is deleting and fiddling and editing and a lot of writing is researching even if it’s just thinking and rehearsing your words and nutting out things in your head before you start and as you go along. And there are a few things that almost all stories need to do, whether they’re a memoir, a family history, a nonfiction book or short stories or a novel and they need to evoke a sense of place and a sense of time and a sense of the people or characters, who they are and how they behave. And most of us writers need to use people somehow to tell the story otherwise it’s not interesting to other people.

Even if you’re telling the history of say a cricket oval the way into the story will be who played on it? Who went there? Their memories, the people who created it, the groundskeepers. You need imagination even for a nonfiction piece of writing to make the story, you need to imagine yourself into it, imagine your way into it. And when I wrote my novel, Ada, about a 19th century vaudeville dancer I used real people, real performances, real events to tell that fictionalised story but I wanted everything to feel right for the times, right for the characters. I spent three years researching and one year writing which I think surprises a lot of people and it is a bit bonkers to spend three years writing – sorry, three years researching and one year writing but I was kind of writing all the time that I was researching and I loved the research so much that I didn’t want to stop.

And as for those essential elements of a story that the National Library as well as other libraries can help you with, all the things I’m going to talk about today you can find out just by noodling around on a catalogue or asking a library staff member at a desk or emailing ask a librarian on the website here or you can just ring them up and ask them how to find something, ask them where to look for something and they’ll help you and it is the greatest use of taxpayer money since an organised water supply. I have always been amazed at what is available and how the staff will help you. And I’ll get to this amazing piece of jewellery later but I just wanted to leave the slide up there for a little while and we’ll get to that story. 

First thing I wanted to talk about is weather and whether the weather that you want to know about is three years ago or 150 years ago you’ll be able to find out the temperature because of records that are kept in libraries like this but wider research will allow you to think about what that weather means. Was it a drought? Were there muddy streets? Were people being cut off from other towns? Were people on edge because of the wind? What do the newspaper reports on the Trove archive say about the weather? What about the reports to Parliament? How did people estimate their own weather before there were weather reports in daily newspapers? How important was the weather to how people lived?

And clothes. You don’t have to describe an entire outfit but if you see in a photo in an album in the Special Collections Reading Room upstairs that someone’s wearing opera gloves with 20 buttons all the way from the wrist up to the elbow you start to ask yourself well who was doing up the buttons? Who was undoing the buttons? A description of gloves being done up by a maid or cleaned by a maid could show the languid, idle nature of the person wearing them much better than writing the woman was languid and idle and that’s of course what writing teachers tell us all the time, you show something rather than tell it.

And I started to ask myself about these 19th century vaudevillians, what did they eat? What utensils did they use? And for historical research, although some things are the same like sexist theatre reviews a lot of the stuff was so different. Childbirth, Christmas dinner, how familiar people were then with horses, which fruit was available in Australia and at what time of the year? And what was considered obscene. And how many children was considered normal and how many children you would have and how many might die. And the thoughts and the language are sometimes very hard to get a grip on because if you’re writing the interior thoughts of a person you can find out their innermost thoughts maybe by a diary if you're writing a biography of someone and you come here and there’s a manuscript that was left by that person, their personal papers and diaries and letters.

It’s especially good if you can find the diaries that were not written for posterity, that were written not to be read by anybody else but that’s pretty rare. So the manuscript collections as well as the book stacks are full of diaries ‘cause some of them were published. One of the fascinating aspects of 19th century diaries is that a lot of the women didn’t write in their own voice, they often wrote in the voice of their son or an imaginary man because it wasn’t considered proper to write down their own thoughts in a diary.

So where do you find those voices? If you’re writing about a real person or a type of person those manuscript reports and letters and diaries, letters to family members and friends and to the newspapers are great but very often you can’t find them, you can’t find direct quotes so you have to think yourself in sideways. You find manuscripts written at the same time by the same sort of person as your character or biography subject and to find the voice of Ada, my Ada who was a real vaudevillian and dancer, in those three years I found every interview with her vaudeville troupe in that time and at any other time and there were two sentences in all of those thousands of words and reviews and stories written about them, two sentences that were actually said by Ada. So I started reading theatrical slang and Lancashire slang books ‘cause that’s where she was from and I found out everything I could about her life and imagined how she might feel about it and ended up settling on her personality as a kind of feisty fibber.

And while I don’t use footnotes in my book I will say for those of you who are going to write family histories or stories or fiction or nonfiction that I will always record any direct quote and its source in the acknowledgments of a book as well as a bibliography and I would advise you to always have a system that tells you where you got an idea or a phrase from in your notes because the most common defence even by famous historians when they’re accused of plagiarism is that they’d been sloppy, they’d accidentally written something down and they thought that they had made it up, they thought that they’d created it. So if you’re going to be terrified of anything to do with writing please make it fear of accidental plagiarism and not fear of the actual writing itself.

If in doubt when you’re writing a story that involves Aboriginal characters or Aboriginal events from history please make yourself – introduce – perhaps just you can ring up cold through the switchboard to the Indigenous Curator and ask them for their assistance and speaking of sophisticated cultures I’ve just been up to the Asian Reading Room and that is amazing today if you can find your way up there, there’s fancy dress for kids but there’s also election material for the latest Thai election and 200-year-old drawings on bits of plant. It really is amazing what you find in a library.

And back to talking about creating the times that you’re writing about, I think it’s always good to check whether your idea of what was happening then is the well to-do or the ordinary workers so you can search Parliamentary records and newspapers to see the concerns of the people who are always thundering away and writing their own pamphlets which is the equivalent of social media today, people would be completely furious about something and publish a pamphlet and have it printed and pass it out to their friends. And it can also tell you, reading the newspapers of the day, what the fads were so eating only meat, galvanising electric baths, wet bandage cures and protests against immigration which were all happening 100 years ago as well as now so that’s always fascinating to see what the parallels are too.

And I was amazed to see that music collections and the sheet music of the time is also really useful you know what were the satirical songs? What were the sentimental songs that people were really into at the time? And you can always find the hidden people when you carefully read all those reports either in newspapers or the official reports. You can find the cross-dressers, you can find the female criminals, you can find the political activist who we perhaps think didn’t exist then and it’s always great to read the naughtier newspapers like The Truth and The Sporting Globe and The Referee which always had sport and theatre in them and all the stories that the rich and famous didn’t want to be run. Another way is to look at the instruction manuals and how-to books of the time.

One of my favourite ways was maps because we think of maps as never changing but in fact they change all the time, the borders, the ownership of areas and the Library has so many historical maps. People used these maps to work out where to fly their warplane and where to find their fuel dump. They used them to invade Aboriginal country to set up a sheep farm. They used them to find the mining town that they wanted to go to, that you know somebody had struck tin or copper in the middle of Western Australia and people would go and a town would just appear out of nowhere and then there’d be buildings and pubs and a whole social world and those are the sort of places where vaudeville troupes went. And then they’d run out of the copper or the tin or the gold and the towns would become ghost towns and then they would disappear off the map again. 

And I used a fantastic series of maps that were fire insurance maps from 1888 which showed what businesses in Melbourne were at what addresses and how many stories there were and where the stables were ‘cause hay was really flammable so the firemen had to know where the stables were. And how many – what the buildings were made of and how many storeys they were. And these maps even showed you where the smells were, the aquarium and – as well as the stables. And it showed me that there were 60 oyster bars in Melbourne in 1888 and now for the same population that would mean there’d be 700 oyster bars in Melbourne so that’s a really interesting thing to think about, it gives you - looking at those maps gives you a 3D picture of what a place would have looked like. And also the Sands and McDougall directories which you can look up your relatives from 100 years ago if they were in Australia and work out – you can look up an address and see who was living there, who was living next door, what their jobs were and there was no privacy legislation, all that stuff was out there. 

You can get a lot of hints to the feel of a place from local paper archives, local papers from nearby towns will often have information about the wider district and court records, records held elsewhere in capital cities. Gideon Haigh, the writer, learned a lot from a really surprising source, just boring old Education Department records that it had been thought – when he was researching his new true crime book about Molly Dean who was murdered in Melbourne in 1929 - the book is called A Scandal in Bohemia – because the Education Department records were not just marks and promotions but they were really juicy letters of complaints and violence and things that had happened, things – crimes that teachers had committed in a way.

And so his doggedness in looking at what other people thought was a slightly irrelevant record paid off. And he’s such a tenacious researcher. He was onsite here at the Library because Molly Dean was in a Bohemian sort of circle of artists and writers at the time and they kind of abandoned her when she was murdered and you know they thought – it sort of wasn’t very good manners of her to be murdered, I think, was their thought, poor love. So – but he knew that the people that she knew would never have forgotten it and that there was a man who was in that circle of friends who went on to write 26 unpublished novels and Gideon had found this out. And then he found out that the guy had brought in a suitcase here and donated to the National Library 26 unpublished single-spaced, handwritten novels that are in the archives. And so Gideon sat down in the reading room upstairs and started to read the 26 unpublished novels knowing kind of in his bones that this guy would have at some point based a plot on what had happened to Molly Dean and he found it in the 17th book. 

And I love that stuff talking about class differences which was also a theme of that book but I love the fact that you kind of get the real world in court reports and scandal reports and then you get this kind of fancy world in the reports of weddings which describe then in incredibly laborious detail everything people wore, what the women wore and all of the presents. So if you got married your list of wedding presents would be in the local paper and it might go on for half a page if you were from you know a posh family.

And you have to dig sometimes a little bit deeper and I was fascinated after learning about the oyster bars, there being so many ‘cause I kind of imagined that people would be swanning around you know drinking champagne and eating oysters and that was sort of the people in their top hats and – but it turns out that actually a dozen oysters were thrippence a dozen plus a beer for breakfast so it was a very working class thing.

And fashion books often give us the wrong idea of what people were wearing because imagine if people in 100 years look at what was on the catwalk at New York Fashion Week you know they would think that we were all the size of giraffes walking around wearing miniskirts made of caravan upholstery so it’s those things like family photo albums and dressmaking pattern books that actually give you what people were really wearing. And one of the things I love is in those dressmaking pattern books they have patterns for different professions and trades. You had to have a special kind of apron if you were a tailor or a butcher or a governess and I thought that was just such a fantastic thing that people were making their own stuff.

And the other thing that surprised me about libraries was that libraries have - are full of objects in their archives, it’s not just books, it’s all sorts of things. So before I saw a cabbage tree hat which I’d read about in 19th century books I didn’t know what – I had completely the wrong idea, I thought it was a kind of floppy sun hat. It turns out to be – because I got one out of the archives and actually had one in front of me and looked at it and had the gloves on and was able to touch it I realised it’s more like a hard helmet like a sort of a boater-shaped helmet and that these were worn by all the coach drivers for Cobb & Co because they had to have something really sturdy but also that kept the sun off. And also then it became this kind of groovy thing about the – the Bohemians wore and the writer, Marcus Clarke, if you look at the Trove website which is attached to the Library, if you look up Trove. Is it Trove.gov.au? It’s Trove.nla. Anyway you will see a picture of Marcus Clarke looking as handsome as he possibly can in his jodhpurs and his cabbage tree hat.

So this brings us, talking about objects, to that object there which is 7cm long and it’s a brooch made of human hair so all of those white strands are the hair of two elderly ladies that was collected and put together, taken to a jeweller in Geelong and made into this amazing brooch. So the two ladies were Miss Drysdale and Miss Newcombe in Geelong and they met each other in the first days of the colony when there weren’t very many men around but as we’ll see I don’t think Miss Drysdale and Miss Newcombe were very interested in men. But they met and decided that they wanted to live together and farm in a district of Geelong so they did and they designed a house and had it built for them and they employed people to run the farm and that interconnectedness that has now happened between libraries means that this brooch is in the State Library of Victoria, the diaries of Miss Newcombe and Miss Drysdale are in a book in this library here, there’s a silver teapot that belonged to them that’s at Museums Victoria but if you go on Trove you can see all of those things, all of those illustrated things and find out which books and other things have been written about them. 

So there’s a book called Lady Squatters and a book called Miss D and Miss N. And I started to look at this and to think well it’s an incredibly beautiful object and it’s only about – it’s sort of - in its 3D height it’s about – I guess it’s about 1.5cm tall and then it’s got all these symbols in it so the lyre in the middle like a harp was a symbol of constancy and the roses were a symbol of love and the way that these two women wrote about each other in the diary were that they had chosen each other as life companions but the researcher who edited the diaries was cross at the idea that they might have been in love and other people who’ve looked at the diaries say well it’s obvious that it was a gay relationship and they lived together and that’s what it was all about.

And in fact Miss Drysdale refers herself to her partner for life in the diaries. But I – and then Miss Newcombe wrote after her companion died that all of her friends were surprised that she was going to marry a clergyman and that she was surprised herself. And I don't think one thing or one source or one book or one brooch can tell us the whole story and that’s why it’s so fascinating to research as much as you can. I think what the diaries do reveal is that they did love each other, they did see each other as life companions. They certainly never had any intention of having separate bedrooms but that wasn’t so unusual at the time. They were very devout Methodist ladies and I suspect the rest of it is probably none of our business. But it’s really interesting to see that people can look at the same items of research and come to different conclusions.

So I guess I wanted to make the point that the Library catalogue is kind of free online shopping for researchers, there’s just so much there. Other people have come along, amateurs, professionals, they’ve made lists of various research items so there – a lot of the work has been done for you. Those experts include Library staff, they include - if you find a book that’s got a lot of stuff that you’re interested in, find out if the author’s still alive and see if you can ring them up, see if you can go and see them you know there’s – we sort of I think are often restricted by – I know I was by not having an academic past. I came from being a reporter and I sort of thought that libraries were like these scary places that weren’t for the likes of me ‘cause I hadn’t been to uni and what I’ve discovered is that they are for everybody and that a lot of this work has been done by curators and researchers already in libraries.

And the books that this library has published – and there’s 10% off I just noticed down in the bookshop – but they’re amazing, they’ve done these beautiful photographic coffee table books, the history of traveling by ship, the history of children and their games and their clothes in colonial times, the story of political protests in Australia, history of ads and shopping, Living the 1960s by Noeline Brown which is great and Royal Visits to Australia by Jane Connors which just shows how people lost their minds when the Queen would come here and all the reports were about how she was actually closer to God than being a human and just these fantastic kind of insights into the different ways that people thought.

And there’s – nobody knows everything that’s in this library, it’s just too big but you can become an expert on a bit of it like a lot of people have and anybody here can add lists on Trove, anybody can correct an old newspaper report and help that to be easier to be read by other people. And if you make a connection between a photograph and a book or something and you tell Library staff that can end up in the catalogue and helping other people make those connections between things.

And I haven’t even had time to talk about oral histories and recorded interviews or board games, there’s some crazy board games over the 200 years that are here but that’s all gold. And I guess what I just wanted to say to you is if you’re bored one day have a look at what the Library catalogue can open up for you and if you are a writer of nonfiction or fiction or thinking about family history or your own story, if you are going to research then just use the Library from nose to tail like the gourmet people say on MasterChef because it is just – it’s surprising how far that can take you.

And researchers complain about kind of getting stuck and getting obsessed and they talk about getting stuck down a rabbit hole but if you’re like me you kind of end up finding out that being down a rabbit hole is kind of your happy place. So I’ll answer any questions, I’ll come off to the side and anyone who wants to come down and talk about research or writing, please, you’re welcome. But aside from that I just wanted to say thanks for listening to me talking about my obsession and my rabbit hole today and I hope it kind of inspires you to have a bit of a noodle around the catalogue and look around the Library today in more detail and I hope that you enjoy all of your burrowing. Thank you very much.


Ka: Thank you so much, Kaz. Now Kaz is going to help us cut the cake at 3:00 so I hope you’re all going to –

K: It’s going to be so difficult –

Ka: Well I don’t know, you haven’t seen it like it’s pretty speccy. I hope you can all join us on the podium for that but before then go and do some noodling as Kaz suggested in the Special Collections Reading Room on level 1 and the Rex Nankivell Room on level 2 and the Asian Collections Reading Room on level 3. There are amazing displays of collection material, everything from a very early foundation stone for the Library building that I think was laid in 1934, Jane Austen’s letter to her sister, Cassandra, is on display, if you’ve got little ones you can do some dress-ups in the Asian Collections but you can also see some fantastic displays of material including copies of Possum Magic in a range of languages such as Korean and Japanese so go and have an explore around the building and then join us on the podium at 3 for a round of happy birthday and some birthday cake.

K: What’s the podium?

Ka: The podium is that big flat surface outside.

K: Oh out the front, she means.

Ka: Yeah, out the front. You know where the steps are. See you on the steps at 3:00, thanks for coming today.


End of recording