One of my favourite writers is Emma Donoghue, author of the best-selling Room, but I particularly like her book of short stories The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits. In the foreword, Emma writes: [This] is a book of fictions, but they are also true. Over the last ten years, I have often stumbled over a scrap of history so fascinating that I had to stop whatever I was doing and write a story about it…I have tried to use memory and invention together, like two hands engaged in the same muddy work of digging up the past.
Hell, yeah! Except, I want to stop what I am doing and find out more about it. So, here are some scraps of history where I stumbled down the rabbit hole of research and eventually dug my way out with a story.
Story: Feeding the Hungry Ghost
Seed: Kim Lee, Chinese fruiterer, of Adelaide-road, Newtown, who has been removed to Somes Island under suspicion of being a sufferer from leprosy, is one of the trio of Chinese against whom charges for possession of opium are still pending before the Stipendiary Magistrate.
Source: Evening Post, 14 July 1903
Research: Opium, leprosy, lighthouses, Matiu/Somes Island, Chinese in New Zealand. Letters that I found in Archives, NZ showed something much more complicated than these bare facts.
Seed: No one took much notice of the small boy of eleven who categorically stated he had seen a plane crashing into the sea at Lyall Bay. However, he was emphatic about it, and when it was suggested by the Police that perhaps he would not know an aeroplane if he saw one, he asserted that he had become quite familiar with them when the U.S. Fleet was in Wellington.
Source: Ungrateful People, G.K. Fraser
Research: Aviators, spiritualism, Mrs Douglas Blair (an obscure and forgotten NZ author)
Story: You Are Not Alone
Seed: In ‘A History of the Birds of New Zealand’, Walter Buller described how a pair of laughing owls bound for London Zoo escaped his Wellington aviary one stormy night. Their calls were traced from The Terrace to the Episcopalian Cemetery where the sexton reported hearing ‘most all kinds o’ noises among them graves.’
Source: Caption on an exhibit at Te Papa Museum
Research: Extinct birds, Walter Buller, Lord Rothschild, Bolton Street Cemetery.
Saving the Huia
Something I learnt that didn’t make it into that last story, was about the efforts to save the huia from extinction in the 1890s. The New Zealand-born son of the Governor General was given the name Huia to promote awareness of the campaign. The story of The Baptism of Huia Onslow (with some wonderful photographs) is told on Old St Paul’s website. They have many more great stories, but that’s a whole new rabbit hole…
Joanne Preston writes about getting side-tracked on her blog A Dark Feathered Art: The guest writer was Des Barry, who had worked as a research assistant for Peter Carey when he was writing his Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-winning novel, Jack Maggs. I remember Des talking about spending months researching the details of how quill pens were made; which feathers were best, how they varied, how long they lasted, the inks, the paper, the whole business. And all this painstaking research came down to one sentence in the final book: “He cut three inches off the feather’s top, cleared the barrel of its scurf, and made six fast cuts.”
I think research assistant for Peter Carey would be my dream job.