Reading Time: 3 minutes

in more ways than one

I am about to embark upon NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – which runs throughout November each year. It’s a challenge for writers all over the world (not just the US, which is the ‘national’ referred to in the name) to write 50,000 words in a month, so essentially the bulk of a novel (apparently around 80k is the average novel length, and anything under 50k is considered a novella).

My project is one that I started a number of years ago and let languish, but it stuck around in the back of my mind and wouldn’t go away. The working title is Sarah Grace, which is just the main character’s name (also my maternal grandmother’s name).

I have all sorts of fragments written and research collected, and a rough story I want to follow, but the structure is still undefined. I’m what’s known in the NaNo community as a ‘pantser’ (ie, fly by the seat of my pants, writing without much of a plan) as opposed to a ‘plotter’ (self-explanatory), so I’m just going to start writing tomorrow and see where it takes me.

If I can get to more than 10k, which is the longest I’ve ever managed on NaNoWriMo, I’ll be happy.

The novel

So it’s about a woman who is transported to Van Diemen’s Land in the 1840s and imprisoned in one of the female factories, and how her life ends up. I’d never heard the term ‘female factory’ before moving to Tasmania, but a visit to the very bare bones of the Cascades Female Factory set my imagination alight. Rather than being disappointed by the lack of material on display there, I found the whole experience quite profound as I stepped through the floorplans and imagined the lives of the women and children who had been kept there.

When I first started sketching Sarah’s story, it was quite sordid, centered on male/female relationships and exploitation, and bore the influence of too many bonnet dramas on TV. But the further I got into it, some more interesting themes began to emerge.

In researching the convict ships, I learned about one where the surgeon superintendent spoke the gospel to the men in his care and by the time the ship docked in Hobart, most of the prisoners had become Christians and all of them had been taught to read.

With the believers living disciplined lives, they were dutiful as to the ship’s rules. Because of their punctuality, and even expressing joy while carrying out their daily duties, the ship’s officers never had to punish any of the prisoners. The 220 sets of irons onboard the Theresa, as well as other brutal instruments used for punishment onboard a convict ship, were never used. No person was ever given any lashes, nor was a single prisoner required to be placed under the care of a guard.


I found that fascinating, and wanted to weave into the Sarah Grace story the idea of redemption and rehabilitation through being shown grace and mercy, rather than punishment. Obviously, there are shades of Les Miserables there, but I think there will be some interesting things to say about the treatment of women in that society as well as the treatment of convicts in general.

Hopefully I have enough research to not be tripped up by questions every few lines. It’s all the quotidian stuff that you have to go and find out about that really puts the brakes on — what did they eat? what did they wear? what were hairstyles like? — and invariably one question leads to another, you climb completely into the rabbit hole, and end up firmly ensconced in the rabbit warren, with no writing getting done. You always find out interesting things, but sometimes you’ve just got to put in a placeholder to [find out more about this later] and move on.

Another problem is that there are passionate researchers of Australian convict lives, who have pieced together many tales already. I am aware that my character is completely fictional, but I still want there to be enough fidelity to the lives of the real convict women that Sarah rings true. So then I stumble over wondering what those historians and researchers would think about my story and if it is plausible or not. But for a first draft I really need to just block that out and worry about it later.

So wish me luck! You’re sure to hear more about this as the month goes on…

If you’re also doing this crazy NaNoWriMo thing, I’d love to hear about what you’re writing. If you’re a different sort of creative, what are you working on at the moment?