Writing Insider – Elizabeth (Liz) Tynan

Liz discusses her professional writing career and how her love of research and untold stories led her to write popular history.

Starting out

Why did you start writing?

I undertook a Bachelor of Arts (Professional Writing) at the University of Canberra as my first degree. I had known for some time that I was going to be some kind of writer. I discovered during my degree that I was especially interested in (and good at) journalistic writing. I was only 20 when I finished my degree, and was lucky enough to get a cadetship on a travel newspaper in Sydney almost immediately. I was doubly lucky to have a deputy editor (Helen Hutcheon) who mentored me, and I remain in contact with her. She was such a lovely writer, and I learned a lot from her. I also had favourite writers from early on who influenced me, notably George Orwell, Clive James, John Mortimer and others. I have always been drawn to clear, eloquent and simple writing, and have tried to emulate that in my own work. I switched to science journalism/communication in my mid-20s and did not look back. The subject matter is fascinating, and my writing style suited it. I worked for a short while with New Scientist, but ultimately I was drawn to academia, and I made the switch when I joined the Journalism program at James Cook University. I also spent five years in the media and journalism program at the University of Tasmania, part of that time as co-ordinator of the program. I did my PhD (at the ANU) on aspects of the Maralinga story, and that led directly to my book on the subject, Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga Story. My latest book, The Secret of Emu Field: Britain’s Forgotten Atomic Tests in Australia, follows on where my earlier book left off. I have also co-written two textbooks (the first on media and journalism, the second on business communication) for Oxford University Press.

How did you go about it?

My BA in professional writing was excellent training and gave me a good starting point. I had the former prominent journalist Maurice Dunlevy as my journalism lecturer, and he was brilliant. I had several excellent Professional Writing and Modern History lecturers as well, and they all emphasised rigour and clarity. These days I do spend time planning my books and prepare a superstructure to work within. This is also needed to pitch a book to a publisher, and it is good overall discipline. However, once writing is underway it is all fluid and changes regularly, because I learn in depth about my topic as I go. I find the process of making changes to structure helps clarify in my own mind where my book is heading. I teach my postgraduate academic writing classes that writing is part of thinking, so as I write I learn and as I learn I write.

What stories, worlds or characters were you writing in the early days of your writing journey?

I have made several attempts at fiction, including a self-published serial killer novel on Amazon, but it is not my forte. I really love writing popular history. The research side is blissful as I am an introvert who really enjoy working in archives and libraries. The work I do, on British atomic tests in Australia, has its challenges and its controversies, but I find it endlessly interesting even while it can (on bad days) drive me a bit crazy because of the conundrums and complexities.

Who or what inspires you?

I am inspired by the courage of the survivors of the atomic tests in Australia, particularly the Aboriginal people whose homelands were in the path of the radioactive contamination, and the military personnel who in the vast majority of cases did not know the dangers to which they had been exposed.

What kept you going?

Deadlines! As a former journalist, I am motivated by (terrified by!) deadlines. My publishers have always provided rock-solid (but reasonable) deadlines and there is no way I would miss them.

The beginning of a book

How did you come to writing your first book?

The textbooks to which I contributed were based upon my teaching, and the various interests that were expressed through my teaching (correct grammar and clear writing, as well as my interests in broadcast journalism, specialist journalism, sub-editing, etc). My two books on British atomic testing in Australia were motivated by the fact that there are complicated stories to be told that needed the length of a book to do justice. I prefer to have the space of a book to tease out the strands.

What was your writing process?

I work full-time, and although my atomic history books are part of my role as an associate professor, I find that I have to do most of my writing on weekends and during my “holidays”. I haven’t had a true holiday for years now, as I use all my leave for writing. I am not complaining, but it does make for an exhausting life!

What about research

What sort of research did you have to do to develop this work?

My research is based on archives, where I source original documents. I find it easiest to take my laptop into an archive and type up the content of the documents. Fortunately I am a fast touch-typist. This makes finding material easier than photographing documents.

How did you balance the process of writing and researching?

I generally do about 90 per cent of my research before I start writing, and the writing process itself shows up what I still need to do as I go along.

Agents and publishers

How did you get your first book published?

The first book to which I contributed was the media and journalist textbook with Oxford titled Media and Journalism: New Approaches to Theory and Practice. The two other co-authors and I pitched to Oxford and managed to attract interest as we were proposing to fill a gap in media/journalism textbooks. For my second book with Oxford, on business communication, Oxford approached me. For Atomic Thunder, I sent pitches out to various publishers and fortunately I heard fairly quickly from NewSouth. For my latest book, I pitched again to NewSouth and was so pleased to be accepted.

Acquisition to publication

How, if at all, did your work change in the hands of a publisher?

For the most part, I have been fortunate in the copy editors with whom I have worked, with both publishers. I have had the same copy editor for both Atomic Thunder and The Secret of Emu Field, and she has done a remarkable job refining the text, in some cases removing sections or shifting to make the narrative flow. I always enjoy a good edit, and learn from it.

And, overall

What was the hardest thing about writing and bringing this book into the world?

Writing a book is hard but satisfying work. I like the quote I found in a book relevant to my latest work. The author Kevin Ruane said: “Whilst writing, a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him to the public.” I think this matches my experience pretty well. The final stages can be fraught, and I am often filled with dread about how the final product will be received. But, and to quote from another author (George Orwell), “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” I do feel driven, and it is all a bit mysterious. But I am not about to stop.


Elizabeth (Liz) Tynan, Author

Associate Professor Elizabeth Tynan PhD is co-ordinator of the professional development program at the JCU Graduate Research School. She teaches academic writing, editing and critical thinking skills to HDR candidates. Her book, Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga Story, won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Australian History and the CHASS Australia Prize for a Book in 2017. Her latest book, The Secret of Emu Field: Britain’s Forgotten Atomic Tests in Australia, was published by NewSouth Publishing in May 2022. She is co-author of the OUP textbook Media and Journalism: New Approaches to Theory and Practice, now in its third edition. She is also co-author and co-ordinating editor of the OUP text, Communication for Business (2013).


The Secret of Emu Field: Britain’s Forgotten Atomic Tests in Australia, Elizabeth Tynan
History. NewSouth, 2022

Emu Field is overshadowed by Maralinga, the larger and much more prominent British atomic test site about 193 kilometres to the south. But Emu Field has its own secrets, and the fact that it was largely forgotten makes it more intriguing. Only at Emu Field in October 1953 did a terrifying black mist speed across the land after an atomic bomb detonation, bringing death and sickness to Aboriginal populations in its path. Emu Field was difficult and inaccessible. So why did the British go there at all, when they knew that they wouldn’t stay? What happened to the air force crew who flew through the atomic clouds? And why is Emu Field considered the ‘Marie Celeste’ of atomic test sites, abandoned quickly after the expense and effort of setting it up?

Atomic Thunder:  The Maralinga Story, Elizabeth Tynan
History. NewSouth, 2016

Quotes from reviews of Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga Story:
Cryle (2017). Aus Journal of Politics and History, Vol 63, No 1: “Tynan necessarily draws upon extensive archival material and institutional reports, many of them classified and highly political. But she tackles these sources with the verve of an investigative journalist, unearthing and analysing little seen information, while instilling an ever widening cast of players with identifiably human characteristics.”

Leonard (2017). Historical Records of Aus Science, Vol 28 No 1: “A range of authoritative sources has been consulted in support of Tynan’s convincing line of analysis. The work is strong in its use of primary archival material, with corresponding exploration of how the events and information pertaining to the tests unfolded into the public conversation, necessitating a discussion of material derived from historical news media and other accounts.”

Clode (2017). Aust Review of Books, No. 389: “Tynan has brought together a vast array of detail in this book…the most powerful material is not concentrated in a single blast but is scattered liberally throughout the book. The sheer breadth of the story is astonishing…”