Mark Dapin is an author, historian and journalist. His most recent book is The Nashos’ War, a highly acclaimed history of the Vietnam-era national service scheme in Australia. We spoke to him about the best way to approach history writing.
What drew you to historical research?
When I was a boy, I didn’t want to be a pilot or an engine driver, I wanted to be an historian. It was my only ambition, apart from becoming a writer (or, I admit, an astronaut). I’d never actually met an historian, however, and I didn’t really have a clear idea of what they did. I thought they must read history books all day, which seemed like the perfect life to me (I was an odd kid). When I grew older, I tried to use the skills I had learned as a journalist to write history. They are undeniably useful, but equally as useful is reading history books all day.
How do you write with confidence about historical periods, particularly in other countries?
I do a huge amount of research. I read a lot, but I read it very quickly. I generally know what details I am looking for.
What’s your best tip for a writer undertaking a large research project for the first time?
Try not to think of it as one massive project. Break it down into the largest possible number of small sections. When I write journalism, I tend to write in 500-word blocks. When I’m writing history, I cut that down to 200-word chunks. If I can complete 5 x 200 word fragments in a single day – even if they are not narratively consecutive – I know I’m working well.
Join Mark for his course Writing History: You Can’t Google It! at the Writers’ Centre on Saturday 17 February.