Born and raised in Australia, Alli Sinclair has a passion for adventure that has taken her around the globe. She’s lived in Argentina and Canada, climbed mountains in Nepal and Peru, and worked as a tour guide in South and Central America. Drawing on her travel experiences, she’s written best-selling novels based in Spain and Paris, and with Burning Fields she returns to her homeland, which has always been close to her heart. When she’s not writing, Alli regularly presents workshops for Writers Victoria, Queensland Writers Centre and private writing groups, and also provides mentoring and manuscript assessment for new writers. She lives in Geelong.
One of the most rewarding aspects of writing historical romance is doing research, because it’s an opportunity to delve into different eras and uncover secrets and little-known facts. Readers don’t need to be history buffs to appreciate the historical and cultural nuances within stories, though what deep research does do is give a novel extra layers and authenticity.
When I set out to write Burning Fields, my research took me to Australia during WWII and post-war, and Italy during WWII and the Italian Civil War. What I learned helped shape my characters, by tapping into what life would have been like for them in an intense period of history that is still relevant today.
For example, 1946 saw the beginning of an Italian tradition of men giving wives, sisters, mothers and daughters a fragrant mimosa blossom as part of La Festa della Donna, International Women’s Day. The mimosa, known as the silver wattle in Australia, was first introduced to Europe in 1820 and Italians chose this blossom as their symbol of appreciation for women. These days women in Italy also hand out the beautiful mimosa to other women as a sign of respect.
Racism, especially against Italians, was rife in Australia during WWII and post-war, with many Italians accused of being fascists. So many Italians, like my character Tomas and his family, found it incredibly difficult to adjust to their new lives in Australia. In Burning Fields there is a scene where Tomas gives my Australian heroine, Rosie, a silver wattle to express his admiration for her inner strength and desire to stand up for those who are too afraid to speak up or don’t have a voice, including the Italians she’s grown to know and love. This act of Tomas’s symbolises his acceptance of his new life in Australia by marrying old traditions with new.
When Rosie returns to the family sugarcane farm in northern Queensland, she grapples with losing the independence she’d gained working for the Australian Women’s Army Service during WWII. The returned servicemen needed to work, and women were expected to go back to more traditional roles within the home. It was a major time of upheaval for everyone so to better understand Rosie’s experience working for the Australian Women’s Army Service, I undertook a great deal of research and uncovered some interesting facts. Prior to WWII, women hadn’t been accepted by the Army outside of medical services, so forming the AWAS was a major shift in thinking from the government. By women taking onshore roles, the men were freed to fight overseas. Women worked as high-ranking officers (including captain, lieutenant colonel and colonel), drivers, typists, signallers, mechanics, cipher clerks, Japanese translators and veterinary surgeons, and they were also stationed at defence posts around Australia. The army discovered that women were extremely good at keeping secrets and, as the war drew out, many women were recruited for highly confidential work.
As is natural in intense periods of war, a strong sense of camaraderie grew among the women. When the AWAS was disbanded in 1947, their sense of physical community was forced to disperse overnight yet some bonds remained steadfast.
With over 24,000 women joining the AWAS during WWII, the expectations on women to easily adjust back to their old lives post-war is an important part of our nation’s story. It was a privilege to explore this little-known part of Australian history and to honour those women who helped Australia in our time of need.