This website is for articles on the mountains of south-eastern Australia. It was started on 14 May 2015 and went on line on 20 June 2015.
Anyone is welcome to contribute well researched articles, they will be hosted for free.
Please send any queries, corrections, additions, photos or articles to: sisson.dave at yahoo.com.au
- Future articles
- Choice of subjects
- Thoughts on writing local or specialised histories
- - Preparation and research
- - Pre publication
- - What format to publish in
Future articles depend on when they are finished. Possible contributions are:
- A history of Cope Hut on the Bogong High Plains
- An article on Australian ski lift manufacturers. Sadly all are long gone, but for a few decades, local manufacturers held their own against foreign companies.
- A transcript of an interview with Alfred Gregory (1913 - 2010), pre war mountaineer and member of the 1953 expedition that was the first to climb Mt Everest.
- An annotated bibliography of the Victorian High Country.covering over 300 books. Eventually this may be broadened to cover the Snowy Mountains of NSW and the Highlands of Tasmania.
- A history of hydro electricity in Victoria. From the acknowledgements section of Klaus Hueneke's Hut's in the Victorian Alps."... David Sisson checked the manuscript for historical accuracy... David is finishing a book on the history of hydro electricity in Victoria". Well I did finish writing that book, all 100,000 words of it. But in those days I had neither the funds nor the motivation to self publish it as a book. But one day I plan to haul it out of the boxes it's stored in, tidy it up and publish it here.
- Reviews of walks guidebooks covering south eastern Australia. Years ago a number of my reviews were published in magazines. I may republish them together with reviews of more recent books.
- I will probably also write a few more descriptions of good walks that don't appear in recently published guidebooks.
I'm also considering a blog to answer questions on high country related subjects. I mostly write on subjects that haven't been covered before, but I'm happy to write a few paragraphs and/or point people to the relevant books and articles. Email me if there is something on mountain history or hiking in south-eastern Australia if you want to know more about and I'll do my best to respond promptly.
If you're interested, email me at sisson.dave at yahoo.com.au or phone 04 2585 7269. David Sisson.
Choice of subjects
Some people have asked what motivates me to research and write about a subject. It's often stumbling across strange and surprising information about a place I already know. In the case of my histories of mountains, it was finding out that a hotel used to operate on Mt Feathertop which I thought of as a remote and undeveloped place. For Donna Buang it was learning that thousands of people used to ski there and while there is almost nothing there today, it used to be a proper ski resort. Those stories seemed unlikely, so I did some poking around and found out that they were true, but no one had ever written anything about them.
The ski lift directory is by far the most popular thing I've ever written (over 280,000 views last time I looked). It's more of a list than a properly written article but I was provoked to make a start on it by information in articles, books and websites that I knew to be inaccurate and I wanted to set the record straight. I worked as a corporate researcher, fact checker and reference librarian before the internet made my profession largely obsolete early this century, so I had the skills and the disposition required to do that sort of thing.
Finally I wrote a number of the walk guides during the time I was walks secretary and later president of a large hiking club. Many of the best walks in Victoria were not described in published books, so I wrote descriptions of them to assist people leading club walks to places I knew fairly well. The notes were well received and circulated beyond the club, so while I haven't been involved with the club for a decade, I've continued to write descriptions of good walks that are not in guidebooks.
There's a fair bit of ski history on this site, but I started out writing short histories of mountain huts in Victoria for groups like the Kosciusko Huts Association and I have a fairly strong knowledge of most areas of mountain history. However timber mills and tramlines, mining and mountain cattlemen had been covered extensively by other authors, so I ended up writing longer articles on ski history as it was an area of mountain history that had been largely neglected. But once I've finished a few more ski history articles I'm working on, I will resume work on mountain hut histories and hopefully upload a history of hydro electricity in Victoria as well as articles on subjects beyond the mountains.
Thoughts on writing local or specialised histories
I've written histories on a number of subjects, but after the Donna Buang article won a commendation in the 2015 Victorian Community History Awards, a few people asked what I thought was required to write a good history article or book. There are books on writing history by professional writers and academic historians and reading them is quite useful. But much of what they say doesn't apply to people without a academic or professional writing background who are trying to produce small histories with no thought of making money from them. So here are my thoughts.
Preparation and research
Obviously you need a thorough knowledge of your subject, not only from reading publications on related subjects but also by spending time chasing up information from original sources such as contemporary magazines and newspapers as well as spending a lot of time going through files at the Public Records Office (the state government archives) in North Melbourne. Searching the internet is also useful, especially if you look at all the sites referenced in a search. I've found important information that only appeared on page 12 of Trove or Google search results, so vary your search terms and persist with checking the results even when most stuff on later pages appears totally irrelevant.
Interviewing or even just chatting to old timers who may remember the time and place you are writing about is also important. It helps you to see things from the perspective of people who were around closer to the time period you are covering, Adding quotes from them breaks up the narrative you are writing by injecting a perspective from someone who actually experienced what you are writing about.
The preoccupation of history academics with primary or original material is well justified. Not only does it make a writer go back to the sources of the time and freshly evaluate the material, but it also avoids misrepresentation of facts. One example in my experience is that the Victoria Falls hydro electric generator near Omeo was widely reported to be the first use of hydro electricity in the state. When I started researching the hydro generation industry I found that Victoria Falls had been preceded by at least five other hydro installations. However lazy writers had simply rephrased what they read in earlier books and articles without bothering to check the facts, resulting in the error being spread ever more widely. So do make the effort to check things from the original sources, not only will you avoid semi-plagiarism, but the material you write will be more accurate.
You also need a really good understanding of the time and place you are covering, you need to put your subject in context. Read up on the way ordinary people lived their lives and listen to recordings of older people talking about their youth. You will become aware of just how different our society was, that communities were closer and that people were far more concerned for their neighbours. Almost everyone was at least nominally religious and while there was some sectarian tension, it was very rare for this to outweigh the common faith and the general cohesiveness of communities, especially rural communities. Geoffrey Blainey's book Black Kettle and Full Moon is a good place to start as it analyses the lifestyle of ordinary people and conveys a feeling for the way ordinary people in an earlier Australia lived and thought.
All this takes time, even though I studied history at school and university, it took me over a decade of reading and listening as an adult to feel that I really knew and to some extent understood, the Victoria of earlier times. It's also useful to know something about the politics and economy of the time you're covering, knowing if there was an economic boom or recession often helps to explain why people acted the way they did. Likewise colonial and state governments needed to have policies that reflected the thoughts and concerns of ordinary people or they would be voted out of office, so a basic knowledge of contemporary political issues is often useful.
Make sure you have a solid knowledge of all aspects of your subject and/or district, not just the narrower area or subject you are writing about. Learn about the climate, fires and floods, what industries operated in nearby towns, when those industries rose and the reasons for their decline. Know what transport was used before the railway came to the district. Know when the railway arrived and how it changed things for the locals. Know what crops were grown on nearby farms and how they were harvested before mechanisation.
When you have done all this, you should have a real appreciation of your area and the people who once lived there. You should try to have an understanding of what concerned them and what motivated them. As much as you can, try and view the world of their time through their eyes. It's likely that only a little of this will directly find its way into your article or book, but having this knowledge will improve what you write as you will have a real feel for the mindset of the protagonists.
Above all, try to not view historic people and places from the perspective of modern thought and politics. Suspend any political agendas you might have for a while. Instead try and look at things the way people of the time would have. The most preposterous (and boring) history book I've read was by a university lecturer writing on the Eureka Stockade from a 20th century Marxist perspective. Another dreadful history book was by an academic writing on an American subject from a Libertarian perspective. Books like these that push particular ideological agendas might possibly appeal to the small and inward looking bubble of academia and sympathetic political 'fellow travelers', but bringing the 'History Wars' to smaller local subjects almost always alienates the general reader. If you must adopt a stance on an issue, perhaps the 'post revisionist' approach is best, where the thoughts of all protagonists are discussed and while it is clear that the author leans towards one side of the debate, no firm judgements are made. This approach is the less likely to alienate a general readership than strident advocacy of one side in a forgotten historical debate and if you're writing a specialist history with limited potential readership, you want your work to be appealing to as many of them as possible.
Finally, footnote everything. Unless you are writing a university essay, thesis or 'peer reviewed' paper, it's unlikely that the footnotes will be in the final version, but they serve as a valuable reminder of where you found a particular snippet of information. This is initially useful as the simple task of footnoting impresses those sources in your memory, but also because later on, you will probably come across information or an opinion that conflicts with a source that you may have considered rock solid. Being able to easily refer to all the sources enables you to weigh them up and write a balanced summary of the issues. But try not to be overly partisan towards one viewpoint on a contentious subject and at least mention that others at the time thought differently as there were very few clear cut issues.
When you are reviewing your writing, do your best to eliminate jargon, or if you must use it, make sure the meaning is clearly explained at least twice when you first use it. The same goes for acronyms and abbreviations, they may be well known to insiders and those with a knowledge of the subject but they often confuse or alienate the general reader.
When you have a decent draft of your book or article, get someone with historical knowledge and who knows at least a little about your subject to proof read it. Tell them to be harsh. Encourage them to challenge assertions you have made, look for factual errors and generally get stuck into what you have written. Remember that people who are overly 'nice' will only tell you what they think you want to hear, not what you really should hear to improve your book or article. So the sort of people who are willing to be rather honest and blunt are usually more useful proof readers than those who are always trying to be nice or pleasant. A good proof reader or informal historical advisor may also be able to find relevant subjects or issues you have overlooked. If they do the job properly, some of what they say will make you wince, but it will make you analyse things you may not have considered before. I usually follow most of a proof readers suggestions (often reluctantly), but I do stick to my original thoughts in a few instances.
Then, unless you can afford to employ a proper editor (or you know one who owes you a favour), get an acquaintance with 'grammar nazi' tendencies to read over your final draft. Have them look for awkward phrasing, difficult paragraphs and the dreaded errant apostrophes. No matter how good a writer you are, a good amateur editor who has not been involved in writing the article will suggest changes that will vastly improve the final product.
Finally, the Royal Historical Society of Victoria has uploaded an 85 page online book Writing and publishing local history. It has a more methodical approach than these quick thoughts and it is well worth a look.
What format to publish in
When I first put my history of Mount Donna Buang on line, friends commented that it was a bit rough, but that I should work towards having it printed as a book. I must admit that this appealed to my vanity as anyone can put something on a website, but being the author of a proper printed book conveys real status. But I had assisted with the publishing of a few books, so I knew there are many obstacles and if you want to do it well, the process is long and expensive.
Advantages of publishing on line
- It's quick, easy and cheap. In recent years a number of companies (Wix, Squarespace, etc.) have appeared that allow a person with no knowledge of html to produce an attractive website with minimal effort. This means that almost anyone can upload your articles and maintain a website for only a few dollars a month.
- You can revise your work. When an article, book or webpage is first published, an author will probably feel content with their work, but the very act of publishing it generates discussion and correspondence on the subject, so new facts and anaylysis will almost certainly come to light. If you've published a printed book, all this is too late to be included, but a web page can easily be revised or updated so it always incorporates the latest information and thought on the subject.
Printing as a book
Printing a book is surprisingly expensive and time consuming. It requires the author to hire a book designer, hire a proper paid editor, arrange typesetting, book printing, distribution and then there's the decision of how many copies to print? Too few and it may sell out and your work may not be seen by as many people as it might have been, but printing too many will result in a garage full of unsalable books that you will eventually have to throw out.