What is the purpose of historical fiction?

When I asked this question on a social media forum recently the most common response from readers was, ‘Knowing about what happened in the past can help to make sense of what’s happening today.’ Writers responded with comments such as, ‘I have always had a fascination with . . . [the Roman period, Medieval Britain, the history of the woman’s movement, the colonising of the USA, etc etc].’

My own response comes from my experiences of researching for my non-fiction books about the history of colonial Australia as experienced by my Australian ancestors. Among the books I read were a smattering of novels, because while non-fiction doesn’t necessarily focus on people’s emotions or reactions to events, a well-written and –researched historical novel can bring to life the people behind those events.


As the late writer Hilary Mantel said, history can tell us what characters did, but not what they thought and felt – “the interior of my characters’ lives,” as she put it. And in response to the criticism that historical novels often falsify the past she asserted that readers of historical fiction are “actively requesting a subjective interpretation” of the evidence, and that the writer’s job is “to recreate the texture of lived experience: to activate the senses, and to deepen the reader’s engagement through feeling.” (I’ve written about the hazards of playing around with history here.)
Click here for the full text of Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lecture.

In my case if there is a particular event or period in the past that interests me that’s a good enough reason to want to write a book set in that period. A case in point was the Bloomsbury Set between the World Wars, which features in my second novel The Purpose of Prudence de Vere. The battle in the theatre world between the Old Order of the actor-manager and the New Idea of plays that challenged the status quo through the likes of Ibsen and & Shaw, plus a fascination with the suffrage movement, were the inspirations behind my Edwardian novels The Makings of Violet Frogg and Mrs Morphett’s Macaroons.

When writing about her own family history at much the same place and time as mine, the writer Kate Grenville decided to turn her book The Secret River into a novel. As she says on her website: “Solomon Wiseman [her real-life ancestor] emerged from the documents as a vivid, strongly-present individual man, but he was also a representative of his class, time and place. I realised that I could use what I knew of his life, but turn his story into fiction so that I could tell the silent part of his story as well. The story of one man could stand for a much bigger story, about the often-violent reality of white settlement in Australia.”

The image is the programme of the play of The Secret River staged in a quarry outside Adelaide as part of the 2017 Festival. I wrote about this amazing experience here.

If anyone is reading this I would love to hear of any particular historical novels you’ve read and enjoyed, and why!

Patsy Trench
London 2022

Five best books (part 2)

Following last week’s post on my Five Best Books about Edwardian theatre, and once again in response to shepherd.com – check out their site, it’s extremely innovative – I also created a list of my Best Books on Australian colonial history, which you can find here:

This was a tricky and fascinating task as anyone who knows anything about Australia is aware perceptions of its colonial history have changed down the decades, and the History Wars are still alive and kicking. Basically it comes down to whether or not you consider the Europeans who took possession of the continent back in 1788 were colonists or invaders.

This makes the family historian’s task all the more tricky and fascinating, as my pioneer ancestors did take land from the indigenous people, without compensation, although there are also signs they were on good relations with the Aboriginal people. Since I came at Australian history from a standing start and my complete bibliographies are almost as long as the books themselves, it was a tough ask to whittle it down to just five books. But I ended up with a mixture of comprehensive history written by a Pom (Australia: The Great South Land), a novel written in the 1940s (The Timeless Land), a memoir published in the 1930s (Mary Gilmore), an account of life on the land (Station Life) and a merry yet insightful collection of anecdotes (Larrikins & Bush Tales).

Mary Gilmore

There are several lists on different aspects of Australia and her history on the Shepherd site. Here’s one on Indigenous Australia for instance. (An interesting list, although I might take issue with Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines – about which I wrote in my book Australia and How To Find It.)

Happy reading everyone!


It is 16 June 2022, the 100th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which takes place on a single day in 1904.


It is, not quite coincidentally, the 10th anniversary of my first book, The Worst Country in the World, the story of the beginnings of colonial Australia as seen through the eyes of my ancestors, which I published on 16 June 2012. Far be it from me to bracket myself with James Joyce, but there it is. The date was, in my case, quite deliberate.

So in celebration of the anniversary of my first dip into the world of book publishing I am reducing the price of Worst Country to AU$3.99 ($2.99/£2.99) for just one day. Click here:

Enjoy the day, the sunshine, the blooms and the books!

Patsy Trench
London 2022

Self publishing for family historians (again)

This is an update of my previous blog (click here for the original) for the friendly attendees of a workshop on Self Publishing for Family Historians at the Society of Genealogists on Saturday 8 February 2020.

First of all, an apology. I misled you concerning inserting images into a paperback. I was confusing paperbacks with ebooks.

To insert an image into a paperback all you need to do is to click Insert where you want the image to go, click on Picture, choose your image, and Bob’s your uncle.

It’s best to make sure the image is the right size before inserting it into the page. If you try to alter the size after you’ve inserted it you may lose resolution. As I remember when I did this it this involved a bit of toing and froing to get the size and position of the image right.

NB: This is for black and white images only. For colour you will need to choose the colour print option on Amazon’s website, and I imagine this will bump up the price somewhat.

Here’s a link to Amazon KDP’s instructions: https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/help/topic/G202169030#tips


Recommended and reputable organisations who can help you with any or all aspects of your self publishing adventure:

MATADOR:   https://www.troubador.co.uk/matador/

SILVERWOOD: https://www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk/

I AM SELF PUBLISHING:  https://www.iamselfpublishing.com

PYNTO:  https://www.pynto.co.uk/ A friendly wife-and-husband team who can design any kind of book you like, from basic to custom-made.

LIFELINES PRESS:  http://www.lifelinespress.co.uk/  A bespoke, personal service for print books only, offering everything from ghost writing to editing to the end production of a beautiful work of art, printed on paper of your choice, hand-bound in leather or anything else you choose.

Before you approach any of these companies:

What you need to think of

EDITING:   There are three main types of editor:

  • Structural edit – checking the manuscript as a whole for clarity, over-writing, under-writing, repetition, overall structure
  • Copy editing – line by line checking for grammar, clumsy writing, repetition, clarity
  • Proof reading – checking for mistakes and typos

There is a certain amount of blurring between these three tasks, but do not expect an editor to proofread your book. She/he may correct mistakes if they spot them but it is a different process altogether, and one a sharp-eyed friend might be able to do for you.



Find a book whose layout you like to use as a template. Consider:

  • SIZE: Of the book; standard non fiction is 6”x 9”, fiction 8”x 5” (but you can choose what you like). 
  • TYPEFACE AND TYPEFACE SIZE:  There are specifically recommended fonts. I used Palatino 11 point. It’s not a bad idea to print out a few pages in various typefaces and sizes in your chosen page size to see what it looks like
  • MARGINS: Mine were quite generous at: top, bottom 1.9cm, inner 2 outer 1.5, gutter .33
  • CHAPTER TITLE LAYOUT:  Centred or left-aligned, upper or lower case, etc.
  • TRIMMINGS: Drop caps, headers, small caps etc
  • IMAGES: (photos, maps, family trees)

FRONT MATTER: What goes before the main text. This is a matter of choice, but for ebooks certainly it’s good to keep it to a minimum. Mine consists of:

  • Title page
  • Copyright page
  • Dedication/quote page
  • Table of contents
  • Photo of the subject of my book

END MATTER:  What comes after the main text.

  • Acknowledgements
  • Appendix & chapter notes/references
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Author biography

You can also include reviews, if you have them, or books you’ve already written.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY:  This is important to readers, so it’s a good idea to make yourself sound interesting and likeable!

  • Keep it brief
  • To the point and in the context of the book.
  • Write in the third person

BLURB: The blurb is what makes a person read a book or pass on.

  • Again, keep it brief – no more than 200 words
  • Write in the third person present tense
  • Remember it is a selling tool not a synopsis, so don’t attempt to tell the whole story

The blurb also acts as a reminder of what excited you enough to write the book in the first place.


The two major players are
Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing): https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/
Ingram Spark: https://www.ingramspark.com/

Both organisations publish in print and ebook form.

Amazon: free to submit, easy to navigate, they provide you with a free ISBN (or ASIN).Subsequent updates and changes, to the interior or cover, are also free.

Ingram Spark: fee of $49 to submit – unless you are a member of ALLi, in which case it’s free), and you need to have your own ISBN (through Neilsen: https://www.nielsenisbnstore.com/). Advantages of Ingram over Amazon are a) the quality is very slightly better, b) they have print outlets in the UK and Australia, c) they have a wider range of sizes and quality, including hardbacks.

Amazon has around 85% of the market but many people, including bookshops, don’t like them.

In both cases you upload your manuscript as one document (in Word), and your cover separately (as a pdf). You enter your title, author name. Chose categories and keywords, decide pricing. Make sure you fill in your tax details so you are exempt from US tax.

I will be adding details on ebooks shortly. I will also be updating my blogs on formatting.

Meanwhile, happy publishing!

Patsy Trench, February 2020

Family Tree Live

When I published my first book back in 2012 about my Australian ancestors, The Worst Country in the World, I contacted a number of magazines, organisations, newspapers and individuals asking if they would review it. About half of them ignored me, and of the rest, most of them told me rather begrudgingly I was welcome to send them a copy of the book but they could not guarantee anything.

Now I appreciate asking anyone to review a book, especially from an unknown author, is a Big Ask; but at the same time it costs a fair bit to send copies to the far side of the world, and then to hear nothing more is disappointing.

However among the few positive responses I received was one from a delightful lady called Karen Clare, Deputy Editor of Family Tree magazine. Not only was she pleased to read and review the book (and as it happens to review it very positively) she was extremely gracious about it. She even implied I was doing her a favour by sending it, and by submitting other pieces for the magazine’s blog, and she invariably answers my emails promptly and enthusiastically.

If you’ve ever been a novice writer you’ll know what a lonely business writing and publishing can be, which is why it was especially exciting for me to be able to say a brief Hello and Thank You to Karen at the Family Tree Live conference held recently at Ally Pally.

The two-day conference comprised a list of lectures and workshops on everything from DNA – a hot topic, and a few cats have been thrown among pigeons for some people when they discover their father/brother/grandfather was not who they thought they were – to the ethics of family history. As Dr Penny Walters said in her talk on ‘Ethical Dilemmas’, we may have a good chuckle about our g-g grandma who was seven months pregnant when she got married, but to your g-g-grandma it was no laughing matter.

According to Dr Nick Barrett – genealogist and historian, who among other things worked on the first four series of Who Do You Think You Are – there has been a big change in attitude towards family history over the past fifteen years. What was once regarded as a ‘navel-gazing’ hobby is now taken seriously by academics, as the findings of family historians and DNA testing is challenging historical records.

I was only able to attend the conference on one day, but I sincerely hope it happens again. Thank you to Family Tree magazine, and especially to Karen Clare, for making this family historian’s task that much easier and more satisfying.

© Patsy Trench

Research research research . . .

I just spent two days in the British Library – separated by the Easter break – researching for a chapter in my forthcoming book Australia and how to find it about famous writers who visited Australia in the 19th century and what they said about it. (Early draft cover below.)

I had allotted myself one day to cover both Anthony Trollope and Mark Twain, but in the event it took two intensive five-hour days to cover them both, even sketchily. And as I was laboriously copying out yet another Twainesque witticism about, for instance, the absence of colonial governors – ‘The continent has four or five governors . . . but you will not see them. When they are appointed they come out from England and get inaugurated, and give a ball, and help pray for rain, and get aboard ship and go back home. . . ’ – or the multiple gauges in the Australian railway system which meant passengers had to constantly change trains. . . ‘At the frontier between NSW and Vic our multitude of passengers were routed out of their snug beds by lantern-light in the morning in the biting cold of a high altitude to change cars on a road that has no break in it from Sydney to Melbourne! Think of the paralysis of intellect that gave that idea birth . . .’[1] I was aware that while I filled several pages for each of them, probably less than 5% of it would actually appear in the book, which got me thinking:

There must be a more efficient way to do this.

‘This’ meaning research in general. Over the years that I’ve been studying Australian colonial history and filled notebook after notebook and hard drive after hard drive I’ve come to realise how relatively little of it actually reaches the pages of my books. How a week’s work in a library can end up distilled into a paragraph, or a sentence, or maybe into thin air.  At a generous guess I would estimate around 10-20% of my research ends up in my books; and the more I do this and the more ruthless I become with myself the less of it I wind up using.

On reflection research is a bit like travelling, and you can approach it in one of two ways:
1) you make a list of sites you want to see, you go there, take pictures, don’t get distracted, tick it off the list, move on to the next one, repeat procedure, go home. Or
2) you can wander around the streets without any particular purpose, maybe taking in a famous site or two, but if you spot something interesting down a side street then you can investigate that and who knows what delights you may come across?

I find myself choosing the second method, not deliberately perhaps, more by default, or ignorance, or because I am never quite sure what it is I am researching in the first place. It is an expensive way to do things timewise but it’s a lot more fun because of the unexpected treasures you come across on the way. Hence my book (second draft cover below).

The book is intended as a kind of taster or introduction to my two heavily-researches tomes on my Australian family history – The Worst Country in the World and A Country to be Reckoned With. It contains observations and anecdotes about Australia and Australians I felt I could not include in my other books – the sort of stuff you find down the side streets, you could say.

If I can ever get to the end of it it will be published some time later this year.

And meanwhile I have to acknowledge my total failure to refine my research methods. But I am acquiring massive amounts of information. If I could retain half of it I could go on Mastermind.  

© Patsy Trench

Anthony Trollope (wikipedia)

[1] The Wayward Tourist, Mark Twain, Melbourne University Press, 2006. Edited extracts from Following the Equator, 1897

Admiral Nelson’s left hand

(from ‘The Nelsons of Burnham Thorpe’, by Mary Eyre Matcham, p151)

In the course of writing about my four times great grandmother Mary Matcham Pitt I spent a ridiculous amount of time researching her cousin-in-law Admiral Horatio Nelson.

Mary’s cousin George Matcham was married to Nelson’s youngest sister Catherine, and it was George who – with the aid of the Nelson name – arranged for Mary and her family’s migration to the fledgling colony of New South Wales in 1801. George and Horatio were great friends as well as brothers in law, and I was more than delighted to come upon a book called The Nelsons of Burnham Thorpe, written by a descendant of George’s, which revealed many behind-the-scenes stories of the Nelsons and the Matchams, such as the following. It shows a side of Nelson we don’t often hear about.

When Nelson lost his eye in battle he was refused a pension until he could produce a formal certificate.  After a moment of ‘vexation’ he began to see the funny side and insisted on the surgeon providing him with another certificate to prove the loss of his arm, ‘which he declared might just as well be doubted as the other’.

Admiral Nelson by Lemuel Francis Abbott (wikipedia)

So he drew up a petition on behalf of his remaining left arm, written by his brother William and the rest in his sister Catherine’s hand, with the final words and signature in Nelson’s own ‘well-known left-handed scrawl’. The edited version goes like this:


Whereas your humble Petitioner has had the mis-fortune to lose his Brother in His Majesty’s Service, & is now obliged to do all his Master’s work himself, to which he is by no means competent. This is to certify in behalf of himself & the whole race, that they have been from time immemorial, greatly abridged of their Just rights & Privileges.

They therefore respectfully submit to your consideration the following observations & humbly hope that you will condescend to take Notice of their lamentable case.

And first, no person has ever endeavoured to insinuate that right hands were made before left ; so that no peculiar privilege can be claimed by either party, on the score of seniority.

Secondly, the left hand is as long & strong by Nature as the right, has as many joints, fingers & nails ; wherefore no Just title to pre-eminence can be asserted by either, founded upon superior capability.

For these reasons, we would have an equitable, true & perfect equality to be established between us according to the laws of Reason & Nature : & neither of us to be superior or inferior to the other.

Instead of which, you must acknowledge that at present, We the left hands have been kept in a state of comparative ignorance, & barbarism.

This arises solely from our want of education, for while the favoured right hand is attended by the very best masters in writing, drawing, & fencing &c. the poor left hand is neglected, forgotten & hangs aukwardly dangling by the side ; except now and then when called in to assist in some drudgery which the right hand does not choose to do by himself. Barbarous custom too has excluded us from a participation of the most pleasant offices that our nature is capable of ; if we meet our friends & acquaintances, we are not suffered to move, but the right hands instantly leap to embrace each other & enjoy the delight of friendship. How often has your petitioner itched to take a Lady by the hand, but yet never was permitted, tho’ the right was engaged in all the offices of Gallantry, and in battle, when my noble Master, God bless him, was hewing down the Dons with the right hand, your petitioner remained unemployed, liable to all the injuries of war without the means of defence or retaliation.

In this age of innovation it is considered dangerous to propose reforms of any kind & they seem somewhat suspicious when they come from the party alone to be benefitted, but as the reform which your petitioner stands up for, does not to the best of his knowledge bear in its remotest consequences upon the constitution in Church or state, he trusts that the objects of it will not be accused of temerity, folly, malevolence & so forth. Qualities too often he fears justly chargeable upon political Reformers.

Should his arguments have any weight with You & the prayer of his humble petition be taken into consideration & produce a change of system, Your petitioner will together with all his fellow sufferers be bound in Your service by the strong ties of gratitude & your petitioners shall ever pray

Admiral Nelson’s left hand.”

© Patsy Trench

Fact v fiction

How would you like it if in years to come you were depicted in a film as a debauched, serial womaniser/seductress, who drank neat rum straight from the bottle and squashed pet rabbits for a hobby?

I’m exaggerating a tad, but not that much. I’m thinking of two films currently on in London where our historical Queens Anne, Mary and Elizabeth are portrayed not quite as they or their cohorts may have been.

Film makers are renowned for playing fast and loose with historical fact. In ‘The Favourite’ Queen Anne is shown falling under the spell and influence of two different women at different times – her friend Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and then her cousin Abigail Hill. So much is fact. But did she really enjoy lesbian relations with both of them? And what about her husband, Prince George of Denmark? Did he not warrant a mention, even if he was dead at the time?

The Favourite (thetimes.co.uk)
Olivia Colman as Queen Anne (thetimes.co.uk)

It’s known fact that Mary Queen of Scots did challenge Elizabeth to the throne of England; though whether her husband Henry Darnley was a closet gay who early on in their marriage was found in flagrante delecto with Mary’s court musician David Rizzio (actually her private secretary), again is far from proven fact. (Historically, there was a rumour Rizzio was the father of Mary’s son James.)

Mary Queen of Scots (amazon.co.uk)
Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan as Queens Elizabeth and Mary (amazon.co.uk)

Personally, as regards Queen Anne, I far preferred the stage play, written by Helen Edmundson and performed by the RSC a few years ago. (See my review here.) It was entertaining, thought-provoking, moving and informative, and brilliantly performed by its three leading actresses. It also contained its own fair share of debauchery, but it felt a lot closer to the truth.

Which begs the question: why mess with history when the facts are strange enough in themselves?

When it comes to family history facts of course are paramount. I know I’ve added the odd fictionalised scene into my my books, but I’ve also made it perfectly clear (I hope) where I’ve added embellishments to recorded fact. And while I’ve gone over several generations of my Australian family history with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, there are still gaps that I am eager – and hope – to fill. Every so often an exciting snippet of news emerges from an unexpected source that promises to partly fill these gaps. But when I ask where the information came from the answer tends to be along the lines of ‘I read it somewhere’.

Australian Aboriginal history is even more complicated. It tends to be passed down orally from generation to generation of the Aboriginal community. And it’s often at odds with what you might call ‘official’ recorded history; that’s to say history as recorded by white Europeans, and as often as not in newspapers. Some of it is no doubt undisputed fact, though without background knowledge it could be misleading. And you only have to look at certain of our newspapers today to see how adept they are at distorting the news.

Curragundi Joe (Tom Pitt) from Clayton
Curragundi Joe,  a Kamilaroi man, aka (possibly) Tom Pitt. Did he have a connection with my Pitt family? Photo provided by Clayton Pitt

So: written history or oral memory? It would be wrong for the family historian to dismiss either of these sources of information completely. The best we can do is try to be as truthful and factual as we can. We owe it to ourselves, and more to the point we owe it to our ancestors. You never know who might make a film of your life one day.

The book launch

In my case, it was like the 11 bus – you wait and wait and then two come along at once.

I have to confess first off that not only have I never had a book launch before, I have never even attended one.

Now I am Australia for two launches of my latest book about my Australian family history, A Country To Be Reckoned With, arranged by, respectively, a friend, fellow writer and self-made entrepreneur Michael Burge, and the Hawkesbury Historical Society.

The Makers' Shed (5).jpg
The Makers’ Shed, Glen Innes

Michael and Richard Moon, silversmith and jeweller, have transformed a local shop in their nearby town of Glen Innes into a spanking new workshop cum gallery cum what they term an “artisans’ marketplace”. I was invited there to be interviewed about my latest book in front of a full, friendly and highly engaged audience – the first of many similar events planned to take place over the coming months. For more details on this remarkable enterprise take a look at the Makers’ Shed Facebook page.

The second launch took place in the Hawkesbury Museum in Windsor – a daunting prospect, as I was fully aware the majority of attendees were long-term Hawkesbury residents who were many times more au fait with the region’s history than I could ever be. In the event, having declared my status as a London-based Pom who’d spent several years researching not just local but colonial Australian history in general, I received nothing but appreciation and generosity from the assembled audience.

Hawkesbury launch (2)
Author addressing the friendly audience at the Hawkesbury Museum

What I learned:

In advance I emailed the friendly people at ALLi for helpful hints for a successful book launch, and their responses proved very useful.

  • Make it entertaining. Crack a few jokes if possible.
  • If you are going to read from your book, keep it short. I read the opening chapter, two pages, and it seemed plenty long enough.
  • If you have to use notes, try not to keep looking down at them. Eye contact is so important when addressing a roomful of people. Make bullet points if necessary, otherwise try to speak off the cuff. It’s more important to connect with your audience than it is to include every single item you have on your list of Things to Say.
  • Show enthusiasm. Tell people what it was spurred you to write the book, what excited you about its subject matter – and hopefully still does.
  • Keep your talk on the short side, and if you can, elicit responses from the audience – either during and/or after the talk. The more they are invited to participate the more likely they are to pay attention.
  • If you are using PowerPoint, or projecting images in some way, remember their focus will switch from you to the screen. So if you want them to keep looking at you insert the odd blank page into your presentation.
  • Enjoy it, if you possibly can. If you feel nervous, don’t be afraid to say so.
  • Again, above all else try to make it fun, for yourself and for everyone else. If you forget something, or repeat yourself, don’t let it put you off your stride.

I followed these hints and it worked better than I thought it would. I was extremely nervous beforehand, but I started off on both occasions with a bit of a joke, and that set the scene and told the audience it was okay to laugh. I realised in both cases there were Important Things I forgot to say; but they were only important to me.

Thank you to Heather and Richard Gillard at the Hawkesbury Historical Society and to Michael Burge at The Makers’ Shed for giving me the opportunity. Here’s to the next time!


Attention independent authors: The High Country Book Club is looking for high quality indie-published books to feature at The Makers’ Shed. Full details are on their Facebook page.

Patsy Trench
December, Australia

[email protected]

What is the purpose of family history?

Why are so many of us devoting so much time and energy into researching our family history?

When I recently Googled ‘What is the purpose of family history?’ the most common responses that popped up were along the lines of ‘It helps me to understand myself’ or ‘I want the younger generation to understand their heritage’.

There are myriad reasons behind the family history addiction, as I call it, but I have to say those two above don’t quite fit mine. While we are all naturally curious about where we came from and who we think we are and why, my motivation stemmed from an emerging fascination with the context of my ancestors’ lives. The reason I decided to write about my four times great grandmother (The Worst Country in the World) was because she was one of the earliest free settlers to migrate to the colony of New South Wales, in 1801. It was the story behind her migration, and behind the colonisation of that far-flung country in the first place, that grabbed me.

Family history, broadly speaking, is about ordinary people.

Traditional historians tend to focus on the famous, the ones in the foreground of the picture so to speak. Family historians are more likely to be looking at the people in the background, whom nobody outside the immediate family has heard of. That doesn’t make them unimportant, or boring. It’s the ordinary people who keep the wheels of everyday life turning. Your ancestors needn’t have done anything remarkable to make them worth writing about.

Coorah c1907
My family, c1907

 In the blurbs of the two books I’ve written about my family I rather grandly claim I’m ‘looking at Australian colonial history through the lives of my [fill in appropriate ancestor/ancestress]’. I am unwittingly taking on the role of historian, and perhaps wittingly trying to avoid the term family history because who is going to read a book about my family except, well, my family? It wasn’t just because I wanted to sell more books that I broadened my sight lines; it was because I believe history told through the eyes of ordinary people is every bit as valid, and revealing, as history told about the heroes and the VIPs.

But what about the gaps?

The further back you go in time the less likely you will have access to images of your antecedents, or clues to their characters. Their legacy depends almost entirely on what they did, or more to the point, what they did that was recorded. (Which tends to balance things in favour of the men, needless to say.) Famous people may well be written about during their lifetime – you can probably get an idea of the kind of people they were by other people’s descriptions of them. With ordinary people this is less likely. So what do you do?

You can make it up. It’s generally easy to know when, where and how our ancestors did what they did; but what about the why? Unless they wrote letters or diaries (in which case lucky you), it’s down to guesswork. That’s guesswork informed, of course, by weeks and months and maybe years of exhaustive research, not just into your relative but into the world that relative inhabited.

For example I know when and how my ancestress migrated, but I don’t really know why, so I have assumed. I know who her offspring married but I don’t know how they met, so I’ve made it up. I’ve even invented characters in my latest book (A Country to Be Reckoned With) to represent the sort of people my convict ancestors may have worked for. Of course I go to some pains to explain what’s fact and what’s imagination, it isn’t hard to do. The purpose of the fiction is to throw a clearer light on the fact, to bring it alive; all with the ultimate purpose of creating a book that will appeal to a wider audience beyond my immediate family.

Over to you:

Why are you researching your family history and what does it do for you?

This blog post appeared first on the family-tree.co.uk blog in October 2018: https://www.family-tree.co.uk/how-to-guides/expert-blogs/what-is-the-purpose-of-family-history​

©Patsy Trench