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Author Q&A: Kellinde Wrightson on baby farmer Frances Thwaites

IHM: What resources did you come across when researching your book that perhaps haven’t been widely used by others?
Kellinde: I don’t know what others who’ve written about Frances did or didn’t have apart from the usual material that has appeared in non-fictional accounts of her. All I can say is that I had an enormous amount of material, primary mostly, which I’d gathered over the course of seven years. It was the primary materials I relied on, so I quickly lost sight of what others had said about her. I wanted to start afresh.

However, that said, probably the one thing I got hold of which I’d not seen in other works on her was the prison mug shot taken at Darlinghurst Gaol in 1889 which shows her looking quite different from the photos of her that have appeared elsewhere. She looks more like herself, I think, in this photo. She was newly arrived in Sydney and pretty green as far as things went. She looks perplexed and disappointed. This was the photo I looked at for all those years while I wrote her story. This is the photo that appears in the front of the novel.

IHM: Was there any information or personal anecdotes you uncovered that touched you personally?
Kellinde: It was the fate of Frances’ daughters that stopped me in my tracks. It was when I found two notices about them. The first was a report from the City Police Court that four-month-old Reta Daisy, Frances’ love child by Ted, was formally ‘charged’ with being a neglected child and sent to the reformatory schools which was, of course, Frances’ great fear because the schools were renowned for abuse.

The other was a notice in the newspaper announcing that 18-month-old Gladys Amelia, Frances and Rudolph’s daughter, had been unofficially adopted by a wealthy couple. It was ‘Rich Man Poor Man’ 70-odd years earlier. It was the stories of these two sisters, raised so differently and without knowing whose daughters they really were, that I then focused on for the second and third books in the Baby Farmer Trilogy.

IHM: If you could track down one thing you haven’t yet managed to find out about Frances or her daughters, what would it be?
Kellinde: That’s a hard question for me to answer but I’d have to say I’d be pretty excited if more of her letters or other personal documents turned up. I think enough has been said about the baby murderess people she think was.

She wasn’t a monster. She was a young mother trying to get by. It’s the real Frances I’m interested in, the one who woke up in the mornings and thought ‘I wonder what today has in store for me!’

IHM: What would be your top tips for writing fiction based upon a true story from history?
Kellinde: Learn everything you can about the historical figure or event you’ve chosen to write about. And I mean everything. The more you find out the better off you are.

Australia has an impressive amount of material available online for free, for instance, the State Library of NSW, Trove, and public records offices. You need a lot of time for that part. You can’t rush it.

You then have to let all your research simmer, like a good stew, for quite a while before starting the writing part. Then decide what it is you want to produce. If it’s fiction, then you have a balancing act to carry out. How close to the facts do you want to be?

I started writing Frances’ story as non-fiction, but fairly quickly her character took over. There was a point at which I became her, as much as that’s possible. I was so far gone into her mind, her crazy world, that I felt like her. I tried to write the book from that perspective but also tried to be balanced and fair. I felt a duty in regard to the material and the other characters as well, although I certainly didn’t like some of them – Rudolph was one, as was Det. Nixon and old Mother Walkerden.

In the end, though, when you go down that road, the work, the fiction, takes precedence over your original goals and notions of honouring the material. It has to otherwise you’re not really writing fiction. Having now finished writing the other two novels in the series about Frances’ daughters, I’d say my rule of thumb is this: If you feel for the character, if you have a deep sense of him or her beyond just knowing about them and what they did, run with it and see where they led you. It’s exciting.

Click on the book cover for more information.
Click on the book cover for more information.

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