Thursday, 29 March 2007

Asking questions

My graduate advisor used to tell me that writing is a muscle like any other. It needs to be exercised and nourished. Just like any other kind of exercise, motivation and the actual process of doing it can be difficult. Part of the purpose of writing this is to get myself into the rhythms of writing again, to get my writing muscle fit and ready for action.

One of the hardest things about doing historical research, or any kind of research, is the long lead up to writing. Actually getting to the point of crafting a narrative and putting words on the paper takes a very long time. Before this time, there is the moment of having an idea, or more usually for me, having questions that I want answered. I then start trying to work out how to answer these questions.

Usually my path leads through archives and libraries, which are fortunately some of my favourite places in the world. If I had to name the one, single favourite part of the arduous process of getting my Ph.D. it would be the fortnight I spent at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Most of my work was done in dry, air-conditioned underground rooms but occasionally I emerged into the main reading room with its wooden bookshelves, balcony and that amazing cupola soaring above the books. To be honest, I got as much pleasure out of the modern reading rooms as I did in the architecturally more magnificent areas. I loved rummaging through boxes containing original letters from presidents or their wives or holding something like the early drafts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with pungent margin comments by public servants engaged in the task of hammering out an international agreement.

After I start finding some answers to my questions, I often find that I have to modify the original questions or even move in another direction entirely. It is only after months and years of research that you get to the point of sitting down explain what you have found and to start the story that you want to tell.

Here are the questions with which I am starting this project:

1. What did my protagonists know about Queensland when they set out from Hamburg?
2. If they had been recruited by an agent, did they have descriptions of what to expect?
3. What did they bring with them?
4. What was the journey by sea like?
5. What did they see on arrival and in transit via Ipswich?
6. How did they select a claim?
7. What did they see when they arrived at their claim?
8. What was everyday life like?
9. If they were tempted to give up, what were their options?

I intend to find answers to these questions through the use of maps, shipping records, diaries, newspaper reports, photographs and political records regarding agents, information distributed by them and the type of promises and assurances made. I also anticipate discovering better questions to ask and the unplanned directions in which this research may go.

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