How it came to be written . . .
About three years ago, I saw a project advertised by a small town in the south-west of Western Australia. The people of Northcliffe (population about 1,500) were setting up a tourist attraction, an arts and sculpture walk, and wanted artists and writers to produce the material for it. I very much admire the way small country towns in Australia set to work if they need something, fund-raising and making things happen. I was tempted by a new and hopefully enriching experience.
I was fortunate enough to win a commission to research the local history and write a novella about a strong woman of the sort who’d been involved in creating the town.
This is a different type of Australian settlement story, because Northcliffe wasn’t founded till 1924, when the West Australian government decided it wanted dairy farms not forests in the south-west of the state. It offered land to ex-servicemen and others, paying them to clear the forest and giving them loans to establish dairy farms. The scheme was called group settlement because people were assigned to the land in groups of about 10-20 families, each with a foreman to help them settle in. Many were townies from England – and later from other countries – and knew nothing of farming.
People arrived before things were properly organised and the earliest settlers had a hard time of it. The ‘town’ itself at that stage was bare land with one building on it, the shop.
The more I learned about group settlement, the more interested I became in this fascinating episode of history. I visited Northcliffe to be briefed along with the other writers and artists. I walked through the remaining forest and spent time in the museum looking at household objects families had made from kerosene tins and crates. Nothing had been wasted. I talked to an elderly woman who’d been a child of one of the early settler families and I read every book of group settlement memoirs I could lay my hands on.
In the end my short story about a group settler’s wife came out as a booklet of 60 pages, and I was very pleased with it.
But it wasn’t enough. I had all the research and story ideas seething in my mind and I knew the group settlers deserved a much longer novel. New characters walked into my imagination, set up camp there and I was off running, the longer story pouring out of me as the shorter one had. I’m so proud of ‘Freedom’s Land’ and believe it’s made one of the best books I’ve ever written (46 novels published now). And I salute the group settlers, who faced hardship and built a town from nothing.