Author Barbara Hartmann King is certainly well placed to write stories about rural Australia – after all she’s been living on the land for more than 40 years. The writer of the Coloured Sands trilogy tried a few different genres of writing before she settled on her Australian historical fiction. She’s been living in the South Burnett since she got married at the age of 20, and raised her four sons on the land – so she knows a thing or two about what she’s writing about.
For those unfamiliar with her work, Barbara’ stories depict true events in the tumultuous history of Australia, from white settlers to the indigenous tribes who were impacted by their presence. Her first book, Coloured Sands, starts at the beginning of the 1900s and weaves the tale of a young girl who was the sole survivor of massacre – her entire family was killed – and the actual story was based on true events. From her survival, the then eight-year-old girl is rendered mute and the book tells the story of her life – and traverses across three generations.
As a young girl, Barbara was awarded a teaching scholarship, but didn’t take it up. Her parents were established business people and well-respected, so all in all it was a good upbringing for a woman who would go on, to not only run properties, but her own business as well, before her writing took her full-time into retirement.
A young Barbara was brought up in Crow’s Nest and attended boarding school in Toowoomba with her twin sister. Although both sisters were awarded scholarships, their mother wasn’t ready for them to leave home and move to Brisbane to study, so they stayed nearby. Instead both married and had families. Barbara met her husband, Robert at a Junior Farmers’ event.
Barbara married at the age of 20 years and had three children by the time she was 24. It was a great change,’ Barbara emphasises. ‘On one of our properties we never had electricity or phone – that was the biggest hardship of all. I had terrible roads to travel on, they were corrugated, horrible roads, and I used to take my sons 40 kilometres to the nearest doctor. They used to have to go long distances for education too. It was 20 kilometres to the nearest school. When we did get a phone it was a party line phone, and we gradually got electricity. It was a long time.’
Barbara spent many of the early years raising her four boys. It was a turning point when she opened a furniture and manchester business with her husband and met people from all walks of life, especially the Indigenous people who lived in the oldest Queensland Aboriginal settlement just outside of town.
‘I would get the older generation coming into the shop who would tell me the stories about being on stations, and some of them would still speak the old language. I gradually got to understand them. I found them very interesting – to this day I’ve still got those friends. If I go to town, I set down and talk.”
By this time, Barbara was already interested in writing. She’d been writing poetry during her years of isolation on one of the properties and already had a book of about 40-50 poems published titled Collect all the Babies. And that didn’t take into account the dozens of poems that were published in newspapers Australian-wide. But when Barbara got really serious about writing, she wanted to do it the right way – so she undertook a four-year course which she finished in two – to give her the right tools.
Just before she touched on Coloured Sands, Barbara joined a writer’s group and penned a rather ‘Mill & Boon ‘ style romance – but it just wasn’t for her. ‘It didn’t take very long to write one of those romance stories, about three months,’ she says.’ And I didn’t really want to write those anyhow, and I dabbled in a few different things and then I wrote Coloured Sands and I thought, that’s it. That’s the style of writing I want to do – even though it is a lot of research. I want to stick to that now.’
And it certainly is a huge amount of research. Because Barbara’s books are based on true historical events, she is adamant that all the facts must be spot-on. She has a bookcase flanked office at home, which included a mass of Australian history research books – references she continually returns to when writing.
When it comes to creating a story, she finds one event, one single idea that inspires her and writes from that. ‘I take a single idea and I start and I just keep going and I just go with it,’ she explains. ‘The story takes its own path with lots of twists and turns.’
Writing Coloured Sands was a bit of a momentous effort – Barbara was already working almost six-days in her business and was taking the laptop to work , to sneak in a couple of minutes writing where she could. It wasn’t unusual for her to write late into the night.
In fact, when she finished the first book, she was so inspired, she just kept writing and Valley of the Eagle was something of a natural progression. Barbara remembers the first book as a bit of a hard slog, but certainly an enjoyable and worthwhile one.
The first book was published in 2003 by a small local publisher who is no longer in business, Barbara hung on as long as she could, trying to find another publisher for her second novel, but it was becoming evident that demand was too great. She was constantly being stopped in the street and asked for the next book – so she self-published it at the end of last year and the response was positive.
Her children all have their own careers and lives and she is the grandmother to five. Barbara’s eldest son, Brendan has his own property and her second youngest, Christopher is in the police force. Her youngest Jamie lives nearby on his own acreage. Sadly, her second oldest, David, died at age 39 several years ago. ‘He just died in his sleep one night and that’s what happened,’ she recalls. “they said it was just like SIDS – a big strong man…I remember him always.’
But it is the hard times and the tragedy that makes her writing so well-received and so poignant – the fact she’s had her own struggles and suffering make it easier to write into her characters. ‘We are very human, or we wouldn’t be able to write,’ she says emphatically.
Barbara Hartmann King’s descriptions are beautiful and vivid and she really captures the Australian landscape, and her characters and their relationships are so human that the people in her stories literally leap off the page.
Written by Eva Roberts (Outback City Express)