Darry Fraser writes bestselling, empowering feminist historicals that put women back in the Australian story. Her latest book, her twelfth novel is called The Milliner of Bendigo.
Hi there. I’m your host, Jenny Wheeler. And today on the show, Darry talks about her fascination with the contribution women have made in every generation, whether recognized or not.
And how in all of the books she somehow had the story sparked by a personal or family connection.
Christmas Historicals Giveaway
Our Giveaway this week is Free Christmas Romance, a library full of free historical romance books to download, including Captive Heart, Book #6 in my Of Gold & Blood mystery series, a Hawaiian Christmas novella and don’t we all know it’s time for Christmas novellas.
Show Going Fortnightly?
On a slightly more personal note, I’m thinking of running the show fortnightly rather than weekly next year, to give myself more time to write and to save on some of the ongoing costs.
But I’d like to hear your thoughts before making the change. Would you still support Binge Reading if it was fortnightly. Would you welcome the change because of life just getting so busy
Let me know your preferences at Jenny@jennywheeler.biz and I’ll report on the response next time.
Links to items highlighted in this episode
Darry Fraser and Arnott’s Christmas Tin: https://www.darryfraser.com/the-drover-comes-homes-for-christma
Candice Fox, The Chase, https://www.candicefox.org/
Jodi Taylor, Chronicles of St. Mary’s series; https://joditaylor.online/
Rachael Mead, The Art of Breaking Ice
Kate Grenville, A Room Made Of Leaves;
Where to find Darry Fraser online
And that’s the housekeeping over. Here’s our guest for this week. Darry Fraser.
Introducing author Darry Fraser
Jenny Wheeler: Hello there Darry and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Darry Fraser: Oh, thank you, Jenny. Thanks so much for having me.
Jenny Wheeler: Darry, you’re a best-selling author, some of your books have reached the Top 100 lists in Australia. And you write “empowering feminist adventures.” That’s the way you like to describe them.
They’re all historicals as well. So tell us, what do you like about writing feminist adventure stories?
Darry Fraser: The first thing I hear quite a lot, especially when I’m doing library talks or bookstore events or something is, ‘Gee, all your leading ladies are well ahead of their time.’ and so on and so forth.
And I had to have a think about and about that and address that women back in the day were just like you and I are in our 21st century, except they had greater restrictions on what they were allowed to do by law or within the family or whatever.
But I don’t believe that too many women were just wimps. I think they had as strong a personality as people you might meet today.
But what fascinated me was how they maintained their own strength and their feminist, – and we’re not talking feminazis here, we’re talking feminists – being your own true self, within the restrictions that they came across.
And… I think when you step back in time, which is basically what I do, and I love doing that, you find these people dotted throughout history, because we don’t often have a great glimpse of the ordinary person’s day-to-day life.
Finding fascinating historical stories
That glimpse of strength comes through, and we’re finding more and more stories about let’s say Australian and New Zealand women who did their own thing within the confines of society’s rules and regulations.
And that’s what fascinates me.
Jenny Wheeler: Where do you look for those kinds of stories or how do you find them? Because as we know, even the written record that women left behind is often less valued than the male record left behind.
Darry Fraser: Yes, that’s true. I think especially with those sorts of written records you and I today might be able to read between the lines.
They did have to be careful what they wrote. Certainly, that’s just it, what they wrote. I find them in digitized newspapers at Trove.
The National Library of Australia digitizes all our newspapers, and often I’ll go to the classifieds or the little articles that the local papers might publish, and there’ll be snippets of women’s lives.
They might be having a. a swipe at somebody. They might be interested in having a gentleman friend.
There’s all sorts of things that you can pick up in the tiny wee little bits of lives that were detailed or featured if you like in some of the newspapers.
I don’t know if you have that sort of thing in New Zealand, but it’s an invaluable resource over here. And the other thing I think is that because I’m tuned in to this sort of thing, I can see it quite clearly. wherever I might go.
If I’m in a bookstore, or at another author’s talk, or listening to a podcast or something, there’s just a little bit there I can drag out and tease into something that I might be able to chase down.
The Milliner of Bendigo – Darry’s 12th novel
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. The latest book, the one that we’re particularly focusing on today is The Milliner of Bendigo and it’s your 12th book. You’ve got a very good, strong backlist there. How did you get started on this? And did you write historical fiction right from the beginning?
Darry Fraser: Gee, how long have we got on that one? When I was quite a lot younger, I lived in Alice Springs in the centre of the country.
I had always grown up with stories read to me by my mum. And then when TV arrived, we were inundated with historical Western serials and things like that.
And even as a young child, I thought, where are our stories? Where are our stories?
I learned history at school, which was mind numbingly boring, Australian history at school. And I thought, there’s no excitement here. Where’s the excitement?
Anyway, I had lived for five years on the Murray River in a town called Swan Hill, and the river just fascinated me, so by the time I was old enough to travel on my own and got to Alice Springs, I thought I may as well do the thing that I’ve always wanted to do.
I’m getting on, anyhow I wrote the greatest novel ever known to man at that time only to have a bit of a knock, or quite a hefty knock. I felt I had to put that manuscript away in the undies drawer for quite a long time.
In 2016, I thought, you know what, it really is now and ever, because that was 33 years later.
I dusted it off again, and submitted it in a pitch. And it was published as Daughter of the Murray in 2016. The journey through to publication was a long one. But not necessarily one that I slogged away at all those years. But the time was right for the Australian story set in fiction, historical fiction to have its day.
Being a gay man in 19th century Australia
I think I was just fortunate enough to be at the right place in the right time.
Jenny Wheeler: The Milliner of Bendigo traces not just the story of a solo businesswoman who is trying to make her way against some very tough social circumstances, but also presents us with Fitz, who is a very self-aware gay man. He knows that he likes men better than women. He doesn’t talk about this much to anybody.
He keeps it very secret and he’s almost faced with that challenge that some people even still in our own time are – to marry, even though he knows marriage isn’t really for him -just to keep his social cover.
And that also is what almost a more perilous social situation to be in than a single woman without family connections and it was brave of you to introduce him. Is this the first time you’ve had a gay man in your work?
Darry Fraser: Specifically, if you like, that he’s come out. I’ve indicated before. It’s a well-known fact that we’re all made up of a jumble of different things over the centuries.
What’s accepted as right and what’s accepted as wrong changes, as the decades and the centuries go by.
But I felt it was important for me to work in a gay character because it’s a little like other things we tend to shy away from. They were there, and we can’t ignore the fact that they were there.
But Fitz’s story is important, I think, because he has interacted with his straight male friend and he’s got a straight female friend and he’s trying to navigate around what he should and shouldn’t do.
And I really wanted to showcase from an ordinary person’s point of view, how difficult it might’ve been for people like that.
I think in some circles, for instance, Oscar Wilde, he had his own circle of people who understood who he was and he’d found his tribe and so on and so forth.
But somebody took a dislike to that and he knew he could be in great trouble. From a legal point of view, it did have to be kept well under wraps. And I presume a lot of gay people would have married just to stay under cover.
Widows as vulnerable as gay men
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, absolutely. I’ve seen recent movies set in Asia and China where in those cultures, it still is very much something that people will conceal because of social shame.
One of the highlights of the story relates to plot lines related to the law that was in place at that time, that if someone died without a will, their property reverted to public domain and then people could come along and snap it up for a bargain basement sort of price.
This is one of the storylines that’s going in The Milliner of Bendigo. I’m not quite sure how long ago that law was canceled, but guess it particularly put vulnerable people like widows at risk, didn’t it?
Darry Fraser: It certainly would. The particular part of the story you’re referring to there, refers to government grants of land, if you like.
We call them over here settlers or closer settlements where the land was opened up by the government and basically leased for a fee to the leasee.
And if the rent payments defaulted the government basically took the land back. But the other part of that is that in around 1878, the Married Women’s Property Act came into being in British law, which covered Australian, I’m presuming New Zealand law at the same time, where if a woman came to a marriage with her own property, it could then stay in her name and not be taken over by her husband.
Invariably it would have been and how many women would have known that that they could keep that? But also, the thing was that if in the day, if their husband didn’t stipulate that their wife, their widow could administer the property, then she had to appeal to the courts that she was the legal wife and that she should be able to administer the property that she had married into.
So yes, it seems like it’s a long time ago, 1878, 1880, 1890. It’s not really. It’s just a hundred and a bit years ago. And whilst we’ve come a long way, I think there’s still a lot of people don’t understand their rights around marriage and property and this sort of thing when they go into it.
I keep my eye on that in my stories because it definitely plays a big part in how the characters go forward.
The personal aspect in Darry’s stories
Jenny Wheeler:, I found it fascinating that you say in one of your blogs on the website that all of your stories have some personal component, either something that happened to you, something in your ancestral past or something in your surrounding personal history. And I wondered what the factor in The Milliner of Bendigo was for you.
Darry Fraser: I live in South Australia, as you might know, and I love returning to Victoria where I was born and bred.
So I’ve got The Milliner of Bendigo firmly in my head, but I know she’s got to go back to the river. So there’s a couple of things here. My maternal grandmother was a milliner in the … I’m going to say the 1920s.
And whilst I never saw any of her own creations, I knew that she. really did love a good hat.
I thought that was important employment for women in the day, they could look after their own fashion; basically, if they were a good craftsperson and good with needle and thread and with fabric and so on and so forth.
And so for a woman to have her own business, she may very well have been at a printing press, but I didn’t find too many instances of that.
I think a milliner speaks to femininity and craft and diligence. I drew on Grandma Lena’s work a little, and of course the river features once again, so I can’t seem to separate my stories from the river not for a great distance anyway.
Jenny Wheeler: I also got the feeling that you liked writing about outsiders, because a couple of your other books, one’s called The Bush Ranger, one’s called The Prodigal Sister.
There’s that feeling of people who are outside the normal limits of society. And I wondered if that was an attraction for you and whether you also had a sense of wanting justice for those sorts of people.
Beating down society’s walls
Darry Fraser: The Elsa Goody Bush Ranger was a young woman whose last family member has just died and she lives on the family farm and she knows perfectly well that the powers that be are going to take it away from her unless she can find the money to keep it going.
Whilst she sounds like an outsider, she desperately needs to keep her own place and to be able to look after herself.
With The Prodigal Sister… In the very late 1890s women were allowed to undertake the same type of Bachelor of Arts as the men.
Prior to that, they were two different Bachelor of Arts degrees, but by the late 1880s and 90s – into the very early 1900s women could study these things that had previously only allowed men to get into university to and go on to medicine and science and so on.
So Prudence in The Prodigal Sister thought that because her father was a doctor and now she could undertake this Bachelor of Arts study, she would do that because she was allowed to, without realizing that once you step out of St. Andrews in Scotland and return home to colonial Melbourne, things would look very different.
And she suffers a sense of bewilderment. Why is it only my gender that precludes me from doing these things?
As far as outsiders go, I think it’s, for me, it’s a case of why not? Why can’t I? And I guess in my own life, I have experienced that sort of thing. Now, I must admit, I was never brought up with the idea that I couldn’t or shouldn’t.
And so when things occurred to me, I always questioned it. And I guess that’s how I approached those two stories.
Women pressured to choose marriage
Jenny Wheeler: The Prodigal Sister, did you see examples at that time of women who trained in Edinburgh and then came back to Australia and found it very hard to fit in? Was there a basis of a story there that you read about somewhere?
Darry Fraser: Only the fact that women had been trying to get into universities in Melbourne. Particularly Melbourne, for some time and that the very few of them who went for it, so to speak, indicated that there would have been pressure not to do that.
And of course, if you wanted to study, and you were one eyed about it.
It was very difficult to do that as a married woman because babies might very well pop out every year and that wasn’t going to work.
Women were pressured to stay away and if they weren’t pressured to stay away, they generally found themselves remaining unmarried, which they may very well have preferred.
One woman comes to mind. She was a well-educated woman, Vida Goldstein, and she was a suffragist at that time. And while she didn’t study medicine, she made the decision to remain a single woman so that she could do the work she wanted to do.
She knew that family responsibilities would take over. So it was it was a juggling act and you had to be very determined to get through in a man’s world, if you like.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. That does raise the interesting question. Have you used real people in your stories and how do you balance fact and fiction when you are dealing with real lives?
Some women chose to remain single
Darry Fraser: I do use real people in my stories. And sometimes they’re local people from the local papers that nobody else in the world would know. Again, Vida Goldstein, she had a cameo in I think one of my books in particular.
I don’t ever try to, but I’m not an historian, so I don’t ever try to learn about them per se. I know what they’ve done, how they’ve contributed to society. And I just try to take a view that they would have been normal people with a particular interest in an issue and that they were determined and one eyed.
If I’m portraying real people, then I stick to the facts about who they were and what they did and then just try to work around what their character might have looked like.
One particular man in The Last True Heart he was – his name escapes me at the moment – but he was a newspaper editor in the Victorian city or township at the time of Geelong. And he was a very great defender of the up and coming constitution in Australia.
I had to try and figure out who he was as a man and how determined he was to do what he needed to do. I don’t think I’ve stepped on anybody’s toes, but I was contacted by his great grandson, wanting to know if I had any more information about him.
Those sort of things I think bring the story to the people in the local area that might be reading it and they can say oh, you know He was one of our characters, but I don’t really try to put words in their mouth
Jenny Wheeler: Because we’re coming up to Christmas, I thought it would be fun to mention your two Christmas books. The Driver Comes for Christmas….
Darry Fraser: and then driver’s brother.
Jenny Wheeler: I wonder how did those come about and were they popular with readers?
Australian Christmas stories
Darry Fraser: The Driver Comes For Christmas came about the day my publisher asked me would I do a novella for Christmas?
And you knew it had to be set in history. For years and years, I had always loved a painting by Jack Waugh from 1964. He was a graphic artist, but did some painting.
And he had a drover on his haunches by the campfire with Santa Claus in full red and white with the reindeer on one side of the picture and a Kelpie dog staring at the reindeer. on the other side of the picture.
I was a picture that just brought everything about the Australian Christmas story to me.
I had to research Christmas in Australia and the red suited Santa Claus. And he was a bit later than my stories are set.
The red suited Santa Claus and Rudolph, for instance came about with Coca Cola after 1921.
So I tried to come up with a story that would fit the Australian Outback scene with a Santa Claus who was trying to get the people in the day into the spirit of the thing and poor old Santa in the story is just dressed in dungarees and his braces and he’s got a mad character Alf by his side.
I wanted to bring that whole childlike innocence of Christmas back again by, by depicting what it would have been like in the 1890s in Australia.
They only knocked off work for half a day to have Christmas lunch. It wasn’t a big deal with thousands of dollars spent or pounds spent at the shops for presents and so on and so forth. And Christmas magic. I love Christmas magic.
How Darry Fraser celebrates Christmas
Jenny Wheeler: Tell us a bit about that, because the Aussie Christmas, obviously, and the New Zealand Christmas, is quite different from the Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere.
You see this reflected in the woman’s fiction. Christmas books have become very popular, but mostly they are stories about snow and sleigh bells and those kinds of scenes are created.
What do you particularly enjoy yourself about Aussie Christmas? How do you celebrate Christmas Day?
Darry Fraser: Generally, it’s a barbecue or lots and lots of seafood. Prawns and crayfish and so on. And it’s generally – especially if in my situation you could have a quote unquote “Orphan’s Christmas” where a group of friends who don’t have family around get together and it’s a shared meal. Someone will bring the trifle, someone will bring the salad, someone will bring the prawns whatever it might be.
And it’s generally, a wee glass of champagne just as everyone arrives and then mostly a big snooze in the afternoon before everyone goes home.
Jenny Wheeler: That painting that you were mentioning, just reverting to that for a moment, I think you mentioned somewhere that it ended up on an Arnott’s biscuit tin, didn’t it?
And you have a picture of it somewhere and it is the most marvelously nostalgic kind of painting. And I thought to myself, I bet those biscuit tins, probably you only find them in second hand shops these days.
Would that be right?
The famous Arnott’s Christmas tins
Darry Fraser: That’s absolutely correct. I’m looking at two of them now that I’ve found here and there online and they’re very rare in the shops now because they were always a limited edition.
I did find a third one, which I made a prize for somebody on my Facebook page. And I still look at that and see something different in it every time and you’re right, it’s quite nostalgic and it’s something that, gee, I would love to experience in the bush sitting around the campfire and suddenly Santa appears. How good would that be?
Jenny Wheeler: Just turning away from the books to talk about your wider career, if there’s one thing that’s been the secret of your success in your creative career, what would it be?
Darry Fraser: Oh, I guess that I’m a little bit one eyed about what I do and these days, because I took so long to get here, I’m sticking with it.
But the other thing is I have found that my stories relate more to the ordinary person who’s just going about their lives doing ordinary things and all facets of their lives are clearly important to them as they are to you and me and I think my stories must relate to the modern day reader somehow.
Jenny Wheeler: And do you have any idea how that is? I was interested earlier when you said you felt you’d really arrived at the right time where people were ready to read Australian historical fiction. And there has been a terrific flowering of Australian historical fiction in the last decade, hasn’t there? A lot of it written by women.
Darry Fraser: That’s right. I guess if we’re talking vintage of the authors when I was at school, as I previously mentioned, I wanted to study Australian history, but it was mind numbingly boring.
When I dug a little deeper, I was able to see that it wasn’t boring at all, but I wanted to bring those stories forward.
And I think with regard to fiction set in history, in this case, Australian history there was a shying away of who we were as a country or people.
And lately it’s become ‘come on, own what’s going on. Get on with it, do the right thing and embrace the whole lot.’
What Darry Fraser is reading now
Suddenly, instead of shying away from the Australian character, culture or psyche, we have decided that ‘Warts and all. here we are’ and we want to learn more about it.
I’ve had such a lot of lovely readers say to me. “I didn’t know that had happened. I didn’t know that occurred. When I read that I researched it myself.” I’m finding these lovely bits and pieces in our past in Australia’s past that we can be happy about we can take pride in and I think that’s where I’m coming from.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. We always like to ask our authors about their own reading habits and whether they’ve got anything they’d like to recommend to the listeners. And we’re talking here really about books that you read for entertainment, for relaxation, for escapism. Do you read books for those purposes?
And could you recommend any?
Darry Fraser: Absolutely. But my reading is eclectic. I read across all genres except historical fiction. And I love thrillers. I’m in the midst of an older one of Candice Fox’s at the moment called The Chase, which I’m enjoying. I love the concept of time travel, but it can’t be too weird or too out there.
Although I suppose it is in a sense. I read and will read again, Jodi Taylor’s Chronicles of St. Mary’s. That was a fascinating, wonderful ride into the past with a number of paleontologists and archaeologists, believe it or not, but it was great fun. another local South Australian author,
Rachael Mead, wrote a wonderful novel called The Art of Breaking Ice. The title was fantastic too because it’s about an artist, a visual artist by the name of Nell Law who in the 1960s was smuggled onto one of the Antarctica Explorer boats. Her husband was the captain of the ship and she was the first Australian woman to land at Mawson at that time. That was a fascinating read.
There are too many to mention. Probably I’ll read just about anything as long as I can click with the author’s style of work. There’s a few that have come to mind.
A historical writer who doesn’t read the genre
Jenny Wheeler: Thank you. I often use these as a starting off point for looking and seeing if they’re likely to be good for the podcast. It’s always good to get these suggestions. You mentioned not historical fiction. Why don’t you read historical fiction? I can guess, but I’d like to hear what you
Darry Fraser: Yeah, I think for me I don’t want to, anybody else’s voice to seep into my own when I’m in that, I’ll call it historical zone. So if I’ve read for instance Kate Grenfell’s A Room Made of Leaves, a wonderful book set much earlier in colonial Australia with about Mrs. MacArthur.
Certainly Kate Grenfell’s style is far different to mine, but I was fascinated to see how she worked the story because she was one of the authors who indicated that when women wrote letters, there were hidden meanings in the, between the lines.
But reading historical fiction I might find a snippet in there that, oh, that looks nice and then think, oops, that might be stepping on toes. It’s to do with being careful and it’s to do with keeping my authentic voice. And I’ll talk about that in the third person, Darryl Fraser’s authentic story voice.
Jenny Wheeler: I can see that if you’ve got a story idea from someone else, you might think, Oh, maybe they want to write that story. That you feel as if you might be stealing some of their intellectual property almost.
Darry Fraser: I guess in a sense you, I want to try and keep as unique a style or and plot and setting and theme as I can, but I was contacted very recently by another author who said, Oh I want to do a series called the daughters of a such and I thought daughter is a very common word. We’re all someone’s daughter.
(Editor note: One of Darry’s best-sellers in Daughter of the Murray check)
It was to do with the river system in Australia, and I said I don’t have any property rights to those things, titles or rivers or anything else, so go for it, I think it’s a case of just watching what you’re doing and remaining authentic.
What’s next for Darry as author
Jenny Wheeler: What is next for Darry as author over the next 12 months. Looking at your future year, what have you got on your desk or what are you working on?
Darry Fraser: I’ve probably got three, no I haven’t. I’m just looking at the date. I’ve got less than two weeks to submit next year’s work, which was scheduled for 2025, but the publisher asked to bring that story forward. So that one’s nearly done. That one, once again, is set on the river system to do with, uh, a major strike that occurred in the 1890s in the eastern states of Australia.
And it sounds like it’s very blokey, so I thought if it’s blokey, where do I find the women? That’s what I did research for, and that was fascinating research.
The book that will now come out, or hopefully 2025, because we authors still have to submit our work before it’s accepted by our publishers is already done and finished.
But of course, I’ll be able to revisit that and polish it up and re edit before I submit it next November. And after that, not sure. Not sure.
Jenny Wheeler: Gosh, you’re working well ahead, aren’t you?
Darry Fraser: Yes, there was a time when I was contracted two books a year. but at that very same time COVID struck and my contracts were reverted to single stories a year.
So I did have that extra one up my sleeve going forward. And that’s The Milliner of Bendigo as a matter of fact.
I’d love to do more a year. So possibly I’ll look at doing more novella type.
Where to find Darry Fraser online
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. Do you enjoy interacting with your readers and where can they find you online?
Darry Fraser: My website is a start. Www.Darryfraser.com. And then on Facebook, it’s Darry Fraser Books, and I think there’d only be one Darry Fraser books there. And on Insta Darry Fraser, and I’m more than happy to connect with readers.
After all. they’re the people I do all this for and I’m loving it. I love how I can connect with them on some level whether it’s where they live or what their grandma did or all sorts of things.
One of the highlights of last year’s book, The Fourth White Woman, was two people from completely different areas of the country popped out of the woodwork and it turns out we’re third cousins, each of us.
Those lovely connections from readers that are so special. So yes, I enjoy interacting.
Jenny Wheeler: Thank you so much for giving us your time when you’ve got a deadline coming up. That’s most selfless.
Darry Fraser: That’s called ‘what else can I do before I have to do this?’ But this has been absolutely lovely, Jenny. Thank you so much for having me.
Jenny Wheeler: You’re very welcome. Thanks so much. Bye
Darry Fraser: Bye bye.
If you enjoyed Darry you might also enjoy Tea Cooper’s Come Alive Aussie Histories
Best selling Australian author Tea Cooper lives in a time warp – a postcard-perfect village two hours from Sydney with 19th-century sandstone buildings, and timber slab cottages which leave you feeling you could be back in the 1830s. Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler and today Tea talks about how her surroundings inspire … Continue readingTea Cooper – Aussie History Comes Alive
Next Week on Binge Reading
Emily Bleeker and a US based dual timeline story beginning in an Indiana prisoner of war camp during World War Two.
I’ve never really thought about the prisoners of war from Italy and Germany who ended up staying in America. And Emily has uncovered a fascinating story that originates there.
That’s next week on The Joys of Binge Reading.
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