Errol Broome on ditching excess research to find the truth
To celebrate the release of That Stranger Next Door - my YA historical romance novel set in Melbourne in the 1950s - I've invited some great Australian writers to visit and talk about their latest books.
Today's guest blogger is Errol Broome, author of more than 30 books for young children including: The Judas Donkey, My Grandad Knew Phar Lap, Song of the Dove and Gracie and the Emperor.
Errol Broome grew up in Perth, and after an Arts degree at the University of WA, she began her career as a newspaper journalist. Reporting taught her to write clearly and to stick to the facts. After starting a family, Errol decided to tackle a long held ambition, to write a book.
She began with short stories which won several prizes and more than thirty books have followed. Her books for children have been published widely overseas and translated into several languages.
Errol is Literary Patron of the Society of Women Writers Victoria, and spends much time keeping her garden alive.
My publisher was not enthused at my idea of a historical novel about Napoleon on St Helena because, apparently, children in Australia today don’t know enough about him to feel or care for him.
I was tempted then to write the story as a total fantasy, with a fictional despot on an imaginary island. But, try as I might, I couldn’t throw away the real man, or the wonder in my mind at the impact the emperor’s arrival must have had on this small, most remote island community.
Like Petrov in the Australia - and the mystery at the heart of Goldie's That Stranger Next Door - Napoleon Bonaparte on St Helena happened. Sometimes it’s worth hanging on to a truth. On the other hand truth can get in the way of a good story, so I realise this story must be Gracie’s, not Napoleon’s.
When I began to write the story that became Gracie and the Emperor, I’d researched Napoleon on St Helena and delved deeply into my characters both real and fictional, but I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Things changed along the way, partly because that’s where my characters led me but also because my publisher kept reminding me that this was a work of fiction.
Research fills your head with so many facts, and it’s hard to decide what to leave out. Reluctantly, I discarded much I’d discovered about Napoleon, but even so a great deal of truth remains.
I recreated the setting as accurately as I could, with the known cast of island characters, and stuck to the dates of Napoleon’s arrival on St Helena, his death and his return to Paris. He was kind to children and slaves, he did say Bah! rather a lot, he did like licorice and he did create a garden at Longwood.
It's true that someone sent him everlasting (immortelle) seeds, and I chose Gracie to be that person. I hope children today might learn something here, and even get to like Napoleon a little.
Gracie and the Emperor
'Bonaparte kills people.'
'Bonaparte is coming as a prisoner, child. He can't hurt anyone now.'
'He eats children,' said Gracie.
As long as Gracie could remember, she had been told stories of Napoleon Bonaparte, who would stop at nothing to rule the world and plant the French flag on the Tower of London.
Now, the most famous, the most dreaded man is coming to the very island where she lives. St Helena is like a small ship stuck fast in the ocean, far away from anywhere. When Napoleon Bonaparte arrives, in 1815, Gracie wants to run away, but she has nowhere to go.
Errol Broome tells the extraordinary story of an emperor who saw the courage of a hard-working young girl, and a girl who saw the other face of the man they called the Emperor Napoleon.
You can find out more about Errol Broome at her website.