Editing Research The Author Speaks Writing

The Author Speaks: on inclusion and exclusion

Aidan Phelan discusses the challenge of working out what to keep in snd what to take out when adapting history into a narrative text.

One of the most important things to examine when writing historical fiction (especially when it’s dramatising real events and people) is what stuff you need to include and what can be left out of the main narrative. This has been the biggest hurdle with Glenrowan.

Even as far back as when it was first being developed as a screenplay this topic caused a lot of issues. You see, the Kelly story is so dense, and everything is so interconnected, that vitally important things happen all the way through so finding the core of the story in order to streamline it can be hard. For example, the original screenplay was meant to open with Aaron Sherritt being murdered as that was the event that got the ball rolling for the Glenrowan siege. However Matthew Holmes and I went back and re-examined things our tense, self-contained siege drama morphed into something bigger and less clean cut. We shifted the starting point back to the creation of the armour so that Ned could explain his plot. We had even toyed with the idea of starting with Ned’s arrival at the inn and taking the focus off him and shifting it to the peripheral characters entirely. If we were to do Glenrowan as a standalone film that might still be the best way to keep it contained for a typical 90 minute film, but would necessitate the exclusion of things like Aaron Sherritt’s murder, which would obviously cause narrative issues (you should begin to see my point now). As I worked away on the novel in its first stages I realised I wanted to show more of Aaron Sherritt as so much of the Glenrowan story hinged on what happened to him, and thus I came to the conclusion that we needed more screentime than what a standalone feature would allow. Matthew agreed. That’s where the film version of the story is at now: a six part miniseries that we are pitching to production houses around the world (with far more interest in the USA than here in Australia, it seems pertinent to add.) Piecing together a historical narrative is like putting together a jigsaw but people keep dumping more bits on you and there never seems to be any border pieces.

At the moment I am in the process of putting together the final edit of the novel. This has seen a necessary return to not only polishing up the text but also reassessing what elements to include. The hardest part of this is in the prologue and first two chapters. This is where we set up the factors that lead to Aaron Sherritt’s murder and it’s hard to pinpoint a clear starting point. The more I add in, the more I have to add in as the cause and effect of the story is a delicate ecosystem where everything informs everything else. The more I tried to refine those early chapters the more ungainly they were getting and the clear three act structure that defined the first three chapters was quickly eroding. Thus I made the decision to start editing from the murder onwards as that is when we hit the ground running and get a good, straight narrative of chain reactions. Imagine it as the establishing of an elaborate design using dominoes versus the toppling of them.

I had made the decision to write a novelette covering the Stringybark Creek incident, titled “Blood and Thunder” to elaborate on the events preceding Glenrowan, but that too has been delayed because of how much information I have to go through to tell that story properly. I have since made the decision to turn it into its own novel so I can cover the period from Ned’s tumultuous relationship with Constable Fitzpatrick through to the end of the Jerilderie raid. That way I can tell the parts of the story that I don’t have the space to tell in Glenrowan (and I have the whole book already plotted out and partially written.)

So far the novel is shaping up nicely but it is proving to be a real challenge to concisely bring the reader up to speed on the gang’s career up to the point where the book starts in a single prologue. Ultimately I want to give people with no background info on the gang to get a good sense of the momentum but I also want to create something that won’t sacrifice so much detail that it just raises more questions – hence the frustration!

In the end it will come down to ruthlessness to prevent the text becoming ungainly. Keeping things concise means that it will be easier to write, but potentially disappointing to an audience that wants the whole Kelly story presented. It’s a delicate act that many have failed in doing in the past. I am keenly aware of the pressure to perform and try to stay grounded by asking what I would expect as a reader. Only time can tell how successful I will be.

By AJFPhelan56

Father, writer, artist and bushranging historian residing in Melbourne, Australia. Author of 'Glenrowan' and the popular website A Guide to Australian Bushranging.

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