Bernice Barry’s Top 3 Tips for the Amateur Historian

Bernice Barry author of Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines

On Monday we heard from the lovely Bernice Barry author of Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines, if you missed it do go here and have a look.

These are Bernice Barry’s top 3 tips for the amateur historian:

1. Keep a note of everything

Keep a note of everything, a passing record of sources. It doesn’t take a moment to put a scribbled list of document names into an ‘Old Stuff’ folder for safekeeping or to copy and paste a link from your browser into the notes you’re making for a particular chapter. Years later, a name or a place might finally surface in your research and you’ll realise you’ve seen it before, somewhere…

2. Retrace your steps occasionally

Retrace your steps occasionally. As you learn more, your knowledge of the subject or topic widens and deepens. At first, you’re sort of skating the surface of information, top level facts, but as time passes the small details and secondary characters become more relevant and interesting.

Digging deeper where you’ve already dug once before often reveals new things that you wouldn’t have recognised the first time around.

Even now, I sometimes re-read documents or online links I first saved twelve years ago and I notice something new just because I know so much more today than I did then. And more old sources are being digitised all the time so a repeat of an old search today can sometimes bring up information that wasn’t available online even a few months ago.

3. Spread your net wide

Spread your net wide. The key information you gather about what happened and when and where is the spine of a story but I think it’s the accumulated effect of tiny background details that fuels your own empathy with the people you’re writing about.

Reading contemporary texts gives you a feel for the sentence structures and vocabulary of the time, and adverts in newspapers tell you so much about people’s lives – what they desired, feared, laughed at and what they bought and used in their homes.

Find as much as you can that was written at the time and in the region you’re researching and read, read, read. Authentic images and words will find their way early into your writing in a more natural way than trying to inject background research later when you redraft.

This book is a must-read for anyone interested in Georgiana Molloy, the early settlement of Australia, the history of botany or for those who enjoy a good historical biography told with warmth and understanding.

  • To buy her book Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines, go here.
  • To read more about Bernice Barry and her work visit her website:
  • Or connect with her on Twitter: @MrsBlunderstone
Georgiana Molloy: The Mind That Shines

1880s’ Girl Highly Recommends Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines, A biography of one of Australia’s first female botanical collectors.

 Bernice Barry’s top on-line resources.

If you are doing historical research, especially for the UK and Australia try…

Thank you again, Bernice for sharing your experience in writing and researching Georgian Malloy: the mind that shines.


Bernice Barry- On Researching Georgiana Molloy

Bernice Barry author of Georgiana Malloy: the mind that shines

Author Bernice Barry, in the bushland Georgiana loved.

Originally from the beautiful, craggy Atlantic coast of Cornwall in the UK, Bernice emigrated to Australia’s far south-west coast near Margaret River in 2001, after two landlocked decades living in England’s midlands. She has spent the last fourteen years creating a native garden in a forest near the Indian Ocean. In 2011, she closed the door on a career in international curriculum innovation, as an adviser on the teaching of literacy, to focus on her lifelong interest in writing, literature and history.

  • To buy her book Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines, go here.
  • To read more about Bernice Barry and her work visit her website:
  • Or connect with her on Twitter: @MrsBlunderstone

A big Welcome to Bernice Barry!

I can’t begin to say how much I enjoyed this book for it’s writing, the journey it takes the reader on and for setting the record straight about Georgiana Molloy and her husband John, who were among the first European settlers on Western Australia’s southern coast.

On With the Conversation…

1880s Girl: In the chapter, An Unbroken Spirit, you say:

“It was a moment of realisation and a reminder why I decided to tell her story always through the historical context of her own time and place.”

In recent years it has become popular to write novelizations of real people and events, for example, Queen Victoria, Elizabeth Gould, Charlotte Bronte and even Madame Mao.

Georgiana Molloy: The Mind That Shines by Bernice Berry

This is a fabulous biography written with compassion, respect and minute attention to detail.

Q1: Did you at any time consider writing a fictional account of Georgiana’s life? What influenced your decision?

Bernice: From the beginning, my aim was to make public the rather different picture of Georgiana that had emerged through my research. It was important to me that new and correct information was made available about both Georgiana and her husband John Molloy.

I had a rule not to include anything, however small, that I couldn’t backup with secure evidence, even down to what the weather was like on the day John Molloy was baptised in London in 1786, so a fictional account didn’t enter my mind.

1880s Girl: I really love that you take the reader on the journey of discovery with you to uncover the lives of Georgiana and John Molloy, and I’m sure I won’t be the only person inspired to take up their own journey of historical discovery.

Now, Bernice, you have degrees in English, French, Spanish, teaching, reading and education so research is not new to you but…

Q2: Take us back to the very beginning how did you start your research into Georgiana’s life? The very first steps?

Bernice: The first steps came from my longstanding interest in 19th Century literature. I’d read a biography of Georgiana Molloy and didn’t really connect with her a lot at that point but it seemed strange that the books she packed in her trunk for the voyage to WA didn’t match with the woman described in the book.

I read her diary at the Battye Library in Perth and saw significant, personal entries not mentioned in the biography. I realised there was a lot more to her story.  I began doing quick searches online. As new information began appearing in front of me, it threw up mysteries in her life and I was hooked.

view of the Blackwood River in Augusta by Orderinchaos

The view of the Blackwood River in Augusta Western Australia, Georgiana Malloy’s first home in Australia (photo by Orderinchaos)

Q3: Once Georgiana’s story took full hold on your imagination, on a practical level how did you expand your research? And how long did it take you to write the book?

Bernice: I wish I’d known from the beginning that one day I’d decide to write a book.

The research was spasmodic when I had time. In those days I was still travelling to the UK about once a year for work and I used those opportunities for research visits. I’m very lucky to have a partner who was happy to go on graveyard and dusty archive trips instead of holidays!

I ended up with a huge, jumbled collection of notes and lists and photographs and a picture of her life that was very detailed but not organised as a research project.

One day I realised that if anything happened to me, everything I’d discovered would be lost once again. Writing a book seemed like the best way of gathering all that stuff and sharing it. The first draft took about a year (2011) and there were 12 more drafts before we self-published in 2015. The Picador edition was published exactly a year later in 2016.

1880s Girl: One of my favourite quotes from the book is:

“There are many approaches to research and they do not just involve the finding and interpretation of facts. Sometimes it is only by combining imagination and empathy with knowledge and secure sources that the past begins to appear. Questions that ask, ‘What would I have done in the same situation?’ and ‘What did that mean for the way these people lived their days, hour by hour?’ can sometimes flick open the closed door of time.”

Your empathy for Georgiana, the early settlers and the Noongar people comes across in each chapter. The book glows with warmth and compassion that makes this a unique historical biography.

Kilcreggan pier and village in Scotland is one of the places Bernice visited that was familiar to Georgiana. There is an undeniable familiarity between the vistas of Kilcreggan and Augusta. (Photo by William Craig)

Q4: How important was it for you to visit the scenes of Georgiana’s early life both to inform your writing and to further your research?

Bernice: I think it’s possible to write well about a place you’ve never been to if you immerse yourself in first-hand, contemporary descriptions and images, and feel as if you’ve experienced the place yourself.

Even so, being in the places that were part of Georgiana’s life was the most significant thing of all for me, especially places that are new to the story, like the garden of her school in London and the flower garden in Scotland where she gathered the flowers for her wedding. It’s impossible to describe how very close she felt at those times and, in one particular place where her emotion was running high in 1829 and mine was too in 2007, I felt sure that, somehow, we’d actually connected through time.

1880s Girl: About 9 years ago  just before becoming very ill, I tried to learn more about Georgiana myself through primary resources available at the Battye Library in Perth, but with no experience, no idea who to approach or request information from and suffering from ‘imposter syndrome’ and a lack of self-confidence I gave it up. What with juggling being a new mum and debilitating fatigue, delving into dusty archives took a back seat but it raises the question,

Q5: How does a private individual gain access to archives from institutions?

Bernice: There are times when access is a bit easier if you have academic weight behind your enquiries but my experience has been that most queries end up in front of a librarian or archivist who will work just as hard to help you as they would anyone else. These are knowledgeable, professional people and I’ve always been blown away by their kindness, patience and expertise.

You can usually find a contact phone number or email address, even for the archives of the most lofty institutions. Being a bit shy doesn’t help but I’ve learned to be brave and ruthless when I’m desperate! Knock on a door. Write a letter. Just ask.

1880s Girl: How exciting that moment was when you got to put your hand on the very stem of the Acacia extensa cut by Georgiana herself! Just thinking about it makes my heart palpitate with excitement.

Q7: What were the most exciting moments of discovery for you while researching Georgiana?

Bernice: There were lots. A highlight would have to be the moment when I found the connection between John Molloy and the Kennedy family, leading me to work out when and how John and Georgiana first met, soon after her fourteenth birthday. Another was finally working out where she went to school in London, visiting that garden and touching trees that had been there since those days.

1880s Girl: At the Perth Writer’s Festival you mentioned that for each fact, especially on new information, you set yourself a standard of needing three points of proof.

Bernice Barry organizational tips for amateur historians

Tips on how to keep track of all that information.

Q8: On a practical level how on earth did you organise and keep track of all 630 references that made it into the book and undoubtedly the many that did not?

Did you use a computer program? a spreadsheet? alphabetized manila folders in a file cabinet?

Bernice: I wish I had, but for years I wasn’t planning to write a book. Luckily, I’m an obsessive hoarder so I kept a record of every source as I gathered information.

When I started the first draft, I saved my writing every couple of days with a new filename so I had a complete record of everything, even after I’d deleted bits.

The first notes for each chapter were just a structural collection of the sources and quotes and facts I wanted to group together in that section.

I drew on those and built the text around them as I wrote the first draft. As I was writing, I inserted an endnote as an aide memoire to myself for every fact I mentioned, so I could always track back to find out where each bit of information came from.

When the final draft was complete, I went through and edited the endnotes down to reduce the load but I’ve still got all of them safely saved – just in case.

And finally for the encouragement and edification of all us amateurs out there…

Q9. What websites or online sources do you recommend for the budding historian?

The most useful ones to me have all been obvious but I couldn’t have done my research without them.

  • Trove for Australian history, particularly shipping records, advertisements and clues about the weather!
  • The Australian National Archives and UK National Archives online because searching is quick and easy. When I’ve ordered documents online, the photographs have arrived in moments by email.
  • The British Library website always seems to have what I’m looking for, however obscure. I use it mainly for background information, like photographs or paintings of places to help me with the description of settings and for examples of books or magazines published in the years I’m writing about.

Thank you so much, Bernice, for your time and generosity in sharing your research process with us.

And thank you, readers, for joining us. Check in Friday for Bernice Barry’s Top 3 Tips for the amateur historian.

5 Ways Biographies Can Inform Your Historical Fiction

This fascinating biography yielded many un-looked for gems.

This fascinating biography yielded many un-looked for gems.

I don’t know if some of you might be like this 1880’s girl but I used to think I hated history, all those dates and wars and statistics. But history is more than facts and figures it is stories, stories of real people who lived ordinary and extraordinary lives.

Tell the story of a single person or family and suddenly history comes alive, takes and shape and importance.


5 ways Biography can Inform your Fiction

#1 Politics

Politics form a back drop for just about everything but this 1880’s girl finds it incredibly dull, but a biography makes it better. If using a biography of a political or royal person you will also find the context of the politics, the sources of unrest and riots.  Biographies turn the statistics into stories.

From biographies about Queen Victoria I learned about the commoners view of royals, modes of travel throughout the period, the novelty introduction of fountain pens and the discomforts of living in a grand house.

#2 Household management

From the book Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foremen I learned a great deal about life in a great house, the number and type of staff employed and the role of the duchess in  keeping it all running.

Biographies are a secret insider look at one person or families life. From their extracts of letters or household ledgers we start to form a picture of the world around them. The biographer neatly compiles and presents the most interesting details for easy consumption by the novice researcher

#3 The Zeitgeist

To get the tone and feel of an age I like to read about authors or composers, even if the person you are reading about is distinctly outside the norm. For example Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte.  From this we learn how writers and thinkers of the day interacted, communicated and what they thought of each other.

We learn some of the challenges The Bronte’s faced, how they over came them and what the world of that day thought of them. From Charles Dickens we see a large breadth of society poor to middle class.

#4 Science, Medicine and Technology

I have just finished reading a biography of Rachel Beer which I picked up because I wanted information on professional women of the late 1800’s but got so much more.

It turns out her husbands family was instrumental in the growth of the telegraph. There was heaps of information about when and where telegraphs became available, how telegraphs changed the face of newspapers and how much they cost to send.

The book contains information on the treatment of TB  as well as the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire details the grusome treatment she received for a variety of ailments.

Mark and take note of these.

#5 Daily Life

This is perhaps the most obvious use of biographies.  True most biographies available will either be on the rich and famous (Queens and Duchesses) or of the brilliant and eccentric (Ralph Waldo Emerson or John Constable) But even they ate, slept, were waited on or employed.

From biographies you can learn about how to conduct a middle class courtship or how marriages of the elite were arranged. You can learn the habits of a confirmed bachelor or what went on at a Gentleman’s Club. You might find out how much was actually lost at the gaming table.

With careful reading you will pick up on the religious climate, the education system, family responsibilities and expectations, what people ate, watched and listened to.

Time to get out your highlighter and notepad and inform your fiction.

Details like this make history live, the more textured your understanding the better your fiction

Get out your pen and mark details that jump out at you, make marginal notes, write on your timeline


A few titles to get you started:

  • Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Roreman
  • Serving Victoria: life in a the royal household by Kate Hubbard
  • Lady Almina and the real Downton Abbey: the lost legacy of Highclere Castle by the Countess of Carnarvon
  • Marie Curie and her daughters: the private lives of science’s first family by Shelley Emling
  • Victorian Girls: Lord Lyttelton’s Daughters
  • Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale by Gillian Gill
  • The First Lady of Fleet Street, the life of Rachel Beer: crusading heiress and newspaper pioneer by Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren
  • Constable in love, landscape, money and the making of a great painter by Martin Gayford

You may notice I have a weakness for books about women.

Happy Reading!!

PS It is best not to highlight the library’s copy.

3 Ways to Start Your Research–When You Don’t Know What Your Doing


You may not have three questions but I have three answeres.

You may not have three questions but I have three answeres.

Today is all about research.  Now you may remember at the outset way back several posts ago I said there would be no scholarly examination of history or words to that effect. I am merely a curious amateur in the field of history, a novice,  a rookie,  a greenhorn–you get the picture, I don’t really know what I’m doing.

A few years ago I was deep into the first draft of a novel set in 1838. My first difficulty was in researching clothing of the time. There are endless sources for the 1840’s and later and for the teens or earlier, but with my limited expertise there was this great gaping blank from 1820-1840.  It was during this time that woman’s figures changed dramatically.

They went from having the high loosely-corseted waist and slim figure associated with Jane Austen….

Dress for a Hall Dance 1810.

Dress for a Hall Dance 1810.

to the tight lacing and enormous skirts we associate with the duration of the Victorian Age.

Evening Dress 1840

Evening Dress 1840

This was pretty much all I could find out in books.

But what happened in between? How did we go from one extreme to the other? Was it a sharp delineation marking the ascension of a new monarch? Was it a gradual change reflecting the shifting moral clime and increased strictures on women? In the regency women experienced an increased freedom of movement  (in their clothes) a mini women’s liberation that led to other freedoms, these however were severely clamped down upon during Victoria’a reign  the strictures on women becoming ever more regimented and complex.

Thanks to Pinterest which is an entirely different rabbit hole the in-between fashion looked something like this…

1830's Fashion

1830’s Fashion

But I digress. Who me? Never!

The issue at stake is…

How to do research when you can’t find any leads to get the ball rolling

Here are three places to start that have nothing to do with Google or Wiki-anything.

  1.  Novels–Not novels written 100 years after the fact but novels published during the period you are researching or shortly there after. For example Cranford was published in 1853 but set in the late 1830’s and contains memories form the authors own life. In other-words it is an eye witness view on the time.
  2. Biographies–Find someone really famous or at least interesting enough for someone to have written a book about: a monarch, a scientist, scandalous duke you get the idea. It can be anyone from the time and place you want to write about. They do not have to be even slightly related to your topic. The thing is Biographers have sources, they have research passes and special access that mere mortals on the opposite side of the planet can only dream of. This means they have details. Details that might take you hours of fruitless research to glean elsewhere. Details about fashion, inventions, ideas, scandals, what people ate for dinner etc, etc, etc of your target time frame.
  3. Movies–This comes with a caution. I wouldn’t trust any visual representations of past centuries from any movies made pre-1980 unless you have it on good authority that it was well researched. For instance in the 1970 BBC version of Little Woman all the girls are sporting hair styles much closer to the 1970’s than the 1870’s.  The best movies are the ones on DVD that come with making of featurettes and extras. Why are these helpful? Because again movie magnets have researchers. Researches have those magic resources known as connections in the business.

Over the next few posts I  will delve into each of these three resources and reveal what to look for what to avoid and how to sift for the details that will enrich your own story or  deepen your understanding of history. Or maybe you just want to one-up that know-it-all in your life.

Now go find those threads and get your ball rolling.

Happy Delving!