Searching in the past for that indefinable something

Denison Street Darlinghurst

Darlinghurst 1924 from the Demolition Books

I think we’ve all done it as some stage and not especially in the past – spent time looking for something, not knowing what that something is! What exactly am I looking for, we ask ourselves. We stop for a moment, think about it and then begin again none the wiser.

I’m searching in Sydney’s way back past for either an old house that has been turned into a block of flats or perhaps a particular row of terrace houses. I’ve been gazing at photographs of the old villas of Darlinghurst at this wonderful website, My Darlinghurst. I’ve also been looking at certain streets, especially Darlinghurst Road. The City of Sydney Archives are great for that purpose, particularly the demolition books. I stumbled on their existence when I was looking for cafes in 1924. (I still need a small one in Pitt Street.) I will shortly begin searching the 1,866 Darlinghurst images here.  I should surface in a week or so.

My search for the perfect flat for Raye Reynolds my doomed artist is starting to get frustrating but I know what the problem is – I want not just her flat but something of the street as well. Maybe just down the road is the Kings theatre, or a park where she goes sketching or a cafe where she scrapes together the money for a pot of tea. So I know I’m looking for a flat plus something else. I’m hunting for a detail that will help fix the flat in the reader’s mind. Maybe its a massive frangipani tree out the front. Now that’s a thought! Or maybe something else.

I wasn’t sure what that indefinable something was when I was researching the Ambassadors Cafe late last year. See this post. I knew I was spending too much time researching but my writing was stalled. I found out where the cafe was, what it looked like and the band that played there in in early 1924 (the last detail I didn’t even end up using). The very last thing I found out before the scene almost wrote itself was that there were private rooms off the main dining area! Private saloons! I put my six characters in the private room. Even worked out who sat where. There were introductions as a few didn’t know each other. They sat down at the oval table, began to talk and the chapter was away!

Think of me as I disappear in the demolition books. I’m sure I’ll come back with something interesting!

 

I can’t keep up with my characters!

SwainsLast week my two young women, Sarah and Louie, were walking down Pitt Street in Sydney in 1924 way before I was ready for them to even leave their houses! If you look carefully at the image above you will see hashes. Yep that’s where I’m missing information. They are catching trams, going into little cafes for cups of tea, having lunch etc before I’m even organised.

I want to stop right in front of them with my notebook and say, “Excuse me, if you could just tell me which tram you caught this morning. Or even if there is a tram from Elizabeth Bay. I also need the name of the cafe you are going to. How much is a pot of tea in February 1924 would be helpful too. And what’s with this marocain stuff? Why does everybody seem to be wearing it? I mean what does it look like? And do you know, girls, that your dresses are great but your shoes! Don’t get me started on the awfulness of shoes in the Twenties. I will do you both a favour and avoid mentioning them.”

There is so much to hunt down and check. For instance I still don’t have Louie’s last name but there is a suggestion already that her family is wealthier that Sarah’s. Sarah’s father, Henry Montague, works in Pitt Street in finance I think but at this stage I’m not sure what he does exactly.

There’s an interesting Swiss German with a yacht but I have no idea how he is going to make his way into the novel. By boat you are probably thinking to yourself. Tempting but how to work that in. Have Sarah in a dinghy in Rushcutters Bay drifting aimlessly? There is the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia nearby so may be, but another research point to check – was the club there in 1924?

In the scene I am working on now, Sarah and Toby Linden are walking in Hyde Park, enjoying the green shade away from the busy streets of Sydney. But wait…No they are not! After looking for some images of Hyde Park around that time I discovered this:

Hyde Park 1925

Construction of St James Station

Hyde Park was dug up for the new underground railway in 1919 and wasn’t beginning to look like the Hyde Park we know and love until 1926. My characters are determined on a romantic walk (well sort of) and a park must be found. Botanical Gardens? Hold on, I’ll just go and check!

Vera Atkins won’t leave me alone!

Special Operations Executive

Special Operations Executive

Yes, I do mean Vera Atkins of Special Operations Executive Section F fame. I first heard of the SOE agents probably around fifteen years ago when I began researching WWII for my novel Tomaree. I have been fascinated with the amazing women of SOE ever since.

About 18 months ago on goodreads I read about a book entitled A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and missing agents of WWII by Sarah Helm. I marked the book to read and thought that someday, when I had a bit of time, I would read it. After all, I am currently researching Sydney in the 1920s and when I am not reading books on that subject I am participating in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 so Vera would definitely have to wait!

Well it seems she wouldn’t wait! As a writer I do not ignore that funny hunch, the information that appears unrelated to my research but falls into my lap and even photographs that I can’t ignore. They do often turn out to be important in some way. But, let’s face it, how can female WWII agents and the woman that recruited and mentored them, have anything to do with my current manuscript? I have no idea but I can’t put the book down!

It seems inconceivable now the circumstances that these agents operated under – constantly having to move from place to place and fully aware that they may be captured at any time. Of approximately 400 men and women of F section that were couriers, radio operators and organisers, over 100 did not return.  39 SOE women were sent undercover, 13 did not return – a loss of one in three which is tragic. 

I can’t wait to find out how Vera Atkins (travelling to Germany after the war) eventually uncovered the fate of all but one of the missing F Section agents, all the while remaining a mystery herself that Sarah Helm must uncover.

Stay tuned for a review of A Life in Secrets.

Waiting for Eleanor Dark

Slow Dawning by Eleanor DarkI‘ve been doing that for quite a while now for two very different reasons but I had better start at the beginning. I first discovered that I really wanted to read Eleanor Dark‘s first novel way back in the early 1990s. I was researching my third manuscript set between the wars and as the tone of the times (as I like to think of it) is always very important to me I generally try and read at least a few books written during the time that I am researching. By then I had read Prelude to Christopher and thought it marvellous so I was quite interested in reading Eleanor Dark’s very first novel. I can’t recall the exact details but it became obvious that there were limited copies available and I think I had to either try and buy a copy online (which I never attempted) or read the book at the Mitchell Library. Also impossible with a young child and a very unsympathetic husband.

Life moved on. For me there was a divorce and a move up the coast, a World War II novel (Tomaree), a contemporary novel (Crossing Paths: the BookCrossing Novel) and then a manuscript set during World War I (The Grey Silk Purse). As research for that book I thought I would finally attempt to read Slow Dawning and this is when the waiting really began.

In July 2011 whilst researching transport during WWI, I requested Slow Dawning along with another book. I did this online during the week to make sure both books would be available for me after I got off the Newcastle train and arrived at the Mitchell Library in Sydney. On arrival I was told that Eleanor wasn’t there. I said I requested it. The staff nicely informed me there was a delay of about half an hour. She couldn’t be quickly located.

By the time the book turned up I was deep in my other research and only gave the novel a cursory glance. I was still at this stage thinking I could read it in several sittings or just glance through it and dismiss it (particularly after what Eleanor Dark’s biographer had written about the book). I did neither. I decided I really wanted to read it but wasn’t sure how I could achieve this as I knew by 2011 that the book couldn’t be bought online. Surprisingly no second hand book shop on the net had it available for sale (and still doesn’t). I reluctantly returned the book and thought I would have a look at it again next time I was at the Mitchell and hopefully not as busy.

On Saturday, 26 January this year I arrived off the train, keen to have another look at Slow Dawning. It was my main focus this time. I went to the desk to pick the book up and they told me it wasn’t there and would take  a while for them to find it. I said this had happened last time and why couldn’t it be ready when I put a special request in for it? They didn’t know. I was frustrated and beginning to wonder why this book AND ONLY THIS BOOK kept me waiting. It arrived and I began to read Slow Dawning. Because of the delay in arriving I didn’t have much time with the book and was now more determined than ever to read it.

I took it to the front counter and asked if I could photocopy the book. They said yes and calculated the cost – approximately $30. Being a starving artist I didn’t have the money to spare that weekend but promised myself I would be back in a few months to finally read Eleanor Dark’s first novel. What a mission!

On Saturday 1st June I had an awful trip down on the train, missed my connection and had a wait at Gordon station. By the time I arrived at the Mitchell I was already very frazzled and precious time had again gotten away from me. I went to the front counter to pick up the book (as before ordered online for a quick pickup) and was told AGAIN the book wasn’t there! They couldn’t locate it. WELL… you can imagine what sort of mood I was in! I made a fuss (as much of a fuss as anyone can make in the hallowed rooms of the Mitchell Library). I was asked if I wanted to make a complaint. I said yes I did, mainly, I explained because obviously there was something wrong with the cataloguing of this particular book. I filled out the form (still haven’t heard anything back) and waited.

Finally after about thirty five minutes of twiddling my thumbs the book was in my hands and I went into the photocopying room to carefully copy each page. I began by putting twenty dollars on my card to do the photocopying with and the machine just ate my money. By this time I was practically in tears! The Library staff must have thought I was mad but eventually the money was allocated to my card and I spent over half an hour photocopying each page. Finally I was able to read Eleanor Dark’s first novel. Here is my review:

Slow Dawning by Eleanor Dark

I have the book but I’m still not happy! I recently downloaded for free Betty Wayside by Louis Stone. This novel is from 1915 and is quite dated now but anyone can read it. The same should apply to Slow Dawning. In my opinion it has been forgotten because both the author and her biographer dismissed it as a potboiler. I argue that it is much more that that. I believe Eleanor Dark had serious intentions for this book but with the long delay in publication and the fact that sales were disappointing, she dismissed it as a potboiler to cover her disappointment. What serious novelist with literary aspirations sets out to write her first novel purely for money, particularly a book with a prophetic paragraph such as this:

“It was in this way that she had seen her fellow-women. They would climb at last, she dreamed, to a height where they would perform not only the artistic or intellectual work to which their natures inclined, but the normal functions of wifehood and motherhood as well – carrying a double burden as only they were privileged to carry it. A terrible fight, and a slow one, but epic in its magnificence. Generations it would take, and thousands of women would be the most bitter enemies of their own sex.”

No, I really think Dark had fairly high hopes for this first of her babies, especially when you consider her next novel Prelude to Christopher. You DO NOT as a writer, I believe, intend to write a potboiler as your first published work and then write something of such high standing as Prelude to Christopher as your second.

But the waiting for Eleanor is not over. This book should be made available for the general public to read. It is the first book, a very enjoyable novel, of one of Australia’s major writers. It should be accessible to all and the cataloguing problem needs to be fixed. Hopefully, something will be done about this sad state of affairs and Slow Dawning will eventually be available for everyone to read.

Digging deep into Sydney’s past

Excavation_at_York_Street_northBasement and underground station deep actually! Did you know that under The Strand Arcade was the Ambassador’s Cafe? It was opened in late 1923 and the cafe was in the newspapers off and on throughout 1924 because of the illegal sale of liquor. You can imagine me jumping for joy when I discovered this. In point of fact this last week I’ve been seriously thinking of changing the opening chapter to January 1924 instead of October. Maybe even have my main character Sarah visiting the cafe on that fateful night in February. Just a thought…

At the moment I’ve written only four and half pages. This is the first novel that I have actually started without doing at least several months research beforehand, which is why I’m in a bit of a pickle. Very early on I was planning a garden party to be hosted at Sarah’s house in October with her controlling mother in her element and Sarah dodging as many eligible and boring bachelors as she can. But I’m guessing that not many garden parties in the twenties would have been hosted in the middle of summer. If I go ahead with the change in timeframe to accommodate all those lovely police raids I will have to forfeit the garden party.

I am now stuck wondering what social event the mother could organise in January – if any at all! You see this is just one of the many challenges historical writers face when they are recreating the past as accurately as they can. Challenges surface, more research is needed and then you stumble on an interesting fact that can trigger a scene, an event, even a very important location in the storyline.

I stumbled on the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in 2010 and what those women achieved during WWI ended up being a major theme in The Grey Silk Purse. In Paris Next Week, my new manuscript, my theme is the lost generation of the twenties – the frenetic surface glitter of their lives which I believe was a actually a psychological recreation to the great losses of WWI. How I can depict that aspect of history and still create an enjoyable novel is the task I’ve set myself, as well of course as getting to know Sydney in 1924.

It’s early days yet but I already know that Hyde Park was a mess from construction of St James Station so I can’t have Sarah and her beau conducting a romantic walk there. The very famous Australian restauranteur Azzalin Orlando Romano worked at the Ambassador’s cafe before opening his own restaurant. There was a police raid on Maxine’s – a dance hall in 1924 (another scene in Paris Next Week very possibly) and according to Jack Lindsay there was at least one coffee shop called Mockbells but more details are proving elusive. Something called The Blues was the new dance craze and there was a Hungarian cafe in Castlereagh Street. Heady stuff! This is where I long for the Tardis to just nip back to 1924. Oh to scout around and be a fly on the wall! I can only hope to do Sydney in 1924 justice.

Stay tuned.

Doing a newspaper interview

Debbie Robson's studyI have been very lucky in that I have now been interviewed several times regarding my books. So far three interviews for Tomaree (including a magazine interview) and two interviews for Crossing Paths. One of those was a TV interview and the other was conducted at Swansea at my “bottle” launch which was a lot of fun.

Last week I was interviewed by the delightful Georgia Osland and I must say that although she was the youngest of the reporters, she was wonderfully efficient. I threw a lot of facts at her in regards to my writing career and she deftly weaved them into a coherent article.

Here is the newspaper interview in The Star

I owe this latest interview to my involvement in the Local Writers Showcase this Saturday 31st August at Warners Bay Performing Arts Centre where eighteen writers will talk and/or read from their work.

Here is the list of writers involved:
11.00am Welcome from Lake Mac FAW Linda Visman, President LMFAW
11.10 Official opening by Greg Piper, MLA, Member for Lake Macquarie
11.20 Group presentation with: Magdalena Ball Poetry; Fiction; Non-fiction; Jaye Ford Psychological thrillers; Judy Johnson Poetry; verse novel; novel; Beryl Mullard Local History
12.15pm LUNCH BREAK
12.35 Rina Robinson Short story, Poetry
12.40 Lachlan Ness (Tony Lang) Non-fiction: Memoir & stories
12.55 Kaz Delaney (Kerri Lane) Young Adult Fiction
1.15 Carol Wylde-Browne/ Claire Shields Wangi Sailing Club Local History
1.30 Carol Heuchan Poetry & Performance
1.50 Jean Kent Poetry
2.10 Jan Mitchell Biography & Memoir
2.20 Debbie Robson Fiction – historical & contemp.
2.40 Christina Batey Young Adult Fiction
2.50 Linda Visman Young Adult Fiction
3.00 Karen Davey-Phillip Non-fiction: Raising children
3.15 Linda Brooks Non-fiction, Fiction (children’s & adults), Publishing
3.40 Elizabeth Horwitz Getting started in Writing
3.55 Close and thanks Linda Visman

It should be a wonderful day! Come along if you are in the Newcastle/Lake Macquarie area.

Message in a bottle

Message in a bottle found in Maine

In January 2011 I released 20 bottles into the ocean with flyers advertising my book Crossing Paths: the BookCrossing Novel. 10 bottles (mainly wine bottles) were released at Newcastle breakwater and ten bottles at Swansea channel. More details are on my webpage http://www.tomareebook.com/crossing_paths.html including a plea to contact me should any bottles turn up.

Last month, out of the blue, I received an email from Meredith in Maine asking me if the bottle above was mine. I knew immediately that it wasn’t because below is what was enclosed in my bottles:

crossing paths DL artwork 1

My next thought, of course, was who did release the bottle? It was found in the Bayside area of Northport, Maine and the message reads in capitals:

GENE – I THINK OF YOU OFTEN .. AND REMEMBER YOUR SMILE AND LAUGHTER!
DEBBIE

From the photo you can see that the sand is quite a lot lighter than the beach sand from Maine. Meredith thinks that it may have come from Cape Cod or the Virginia area. Maybe even Australia! I would love to find out. Please contact me if you know where it may have come from or even if you are the Debbie who released the bottle. Here’s hoping we can meet. One Debbie to another! My fingers are crossed!! Please pass this message on if you can.

Coping with the rejection of your manuscript

GallianoYep, that’s what I’m doing. I’m back on the merry-go-round. Just received my first rejection for my current manuscript The Grey Silk Purse. And already resorted to drink! One bourbon and coke down and the Galliano pictured to go! Coping mechanism No. 1. Have a drink. That’s one strategy and being very generous of spirit, although down (but not beaten) I am going to offer some more.

2. Adopt a mantra. I submitted my first piece of writing way back in 1981 but it wasn’t until sometime after 1996 when I watched The Cable Guy and Carey said those marvellous words “Allrightee then!” that I adopted a mantra. I still repeat those eloquent words to myself on being rejected. I find they are very helpful, being such a mix of frustration and, dare I say, bloody-mindedness, that they sum up my feelings exactly and are very soothing.

3. Begin another project. As readers of this blog will know that’s what I’ve already done. I tell you, Paris is looking pretty good at the moment! I’d rather be writing about it than trying to work out where to send my manuscript next. But then maybe that’s why I still haven’t found a mainstream publisher for my novels. I tend to submit a handful of times and then retreat into a hole – generally the world of the first half of the 20th century. Each one of us has our own coping mechanisms, I guess, but obviously breaking through does require perhaps that one last gasp of air – that garganturan lunge to the finish line. Maybe I’m still ambling. How are you going?

4. Whinge to friends. This is a good one. Twitter and facebook friends are excellent. You can’t see them looking around for a means of escape and only those that feel like lending a friendly ear will respond to your tweets and posts.

5. Regroup. I do find that after a rejection (at least in the early stages of submitting) I am pushed back to have another look at the manuscript. This is my method of regrouping. After yesterday’s rejection I read for the 101st time, the crucial first page. I decided again, that yes, the manuscript did need a prologue but I slashed a few sentences. They were phrases that I had hesitated over previously. They are gone now and the first page is much cleaner.

6. Do not speculate! I’ve done it in the past, you know: “Oh why didn’t they accept my manuscript? Was it because of this, or that or maybe…etc. etc.” Don’t! It is a complete waste of time. Put your frustrated energy into something else. Maybe an idea for a co-operative, start up a meeting of like-minded friends or go to a workshop. Catch up with relatives or see a movie or a play. Anything is better than beating yourself up about it.

These are just a few suggestion. I hope they help. If you are wandering around in the wilderness, like I am, I would love to hear yours!

Beginning the long journey of writing a new novel

Paris Next WeekYes, I know, I’ve just finished my manuscript The Grey Silk Purse and have made my first submission but I’m nervous. As a diversionary tactic I’m researching a new novel. I even have a title - Paris Next Week.

I’m at the absolute beginning which is always exciting. I have a vague idea about the plot and I have the two main locations – Sydney and Paris in the 1920s. I’ve just picked up my first book to read. It is Women, the Arts, and the 1920s in Paris and New York edited by Kenneth W. Wheeler and Virginia Lee Lussier and even after a quick glance it looks like the perfect ticket. The ship hasn’t docked yet but I already have a list of books to take on the voyage and some of these books may even help determine aspects of characterisation and plot.

That’s the fun of researching. You read to learn about something new. It may be Serbia in 1917, Port Stephens in 1942, England in the middle ages and as you find out more information you often stumble across an amazing fact that alters your writing completely.

Originally at the very start of The Grey Silk Purse I had a vague idea that my main character would be a nurse in Salonika, although something nagged at me that this profession wouldn’t suit my Miss Summerville. I began reading about the Australian nurses working there during WWI and discovered that other Australian nurses were working in Serbia, of all places! When the Australian troops were sent to France a lot of our girls were sent to the little known Macedonian Front. I began to read about Serbia in earnest and very quickly stumbled upon the wonderful Olive Kelso King who drove an ambulance. That was more like it. This is what my girl would have been doing!

Through reading I discovered not only the beautiful and very important location Lake Ostrovo for my novel but what my character did during the last year of the war. I read six memoirs of women involved in the Scottish Women’s Hospital and I drew from their knowledge to set the scenes for the most crucial chapters in the book – the why and wherefore of life in a field hospital. I can’t imagine the completed manuscript without all these facts now common knowledge to me. I don’t reveal them all of course but they are crucial to a lot of decisions I made (or my character makes) during the course of her war work.

I now have an even greater admiration for the women who were involved in this terrible conflict. We often talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We can now see that returned soldiers from all major offensives were victims but how did the women cope? We know the men either ended up in asylums or drank excessively after both world wars but what happened to the VADs, the ambulance drivers and the nurses when they returned to civilisation? That question is the driving force of the novel and it’s one I really couldn’t have asked without at least the basic facts behind me. So happy research reading. You’ll never know what you may stumble upon!

Casting the characters in your novel

Miriam Margoyles at the Newcastle Writers Festival

Miriam Margoyles at the Newcastle Writers Festival

Do you, I’m wondering? I’d love to find out what other writers do. I’ve written six novels now. Three are as yet unpublished and I’m starting the rounds next month for my sixth. Strangely though, I’ve only ever cast one of my novels with “real” actors as opposed to descriptions in my head and on the page. Why is that?

I’m not sure except to say that the only one I have cast, is set in contemporary times – 2004 to be exact and I don’t think that is a co-incidence. In Crossing Paths there are eight main characters and they all have approximately 20,000 words each, which is a lot of “air” time. My main character Jane Townsend is the beautiful but fragile Rose Byrne. I just couldn’t imagine anyone else playing the role although she is in her thirties now whilst my Jane remains (in the inimical way of fictional characters) still in her twenties. John Cusack is Jeremy Braithwaite. No-one else will do and the same goes for the psychic medium and retired librarian Ruth Moon. She is none other than the indefatigable Miriam Margoyles who was part of Newcastle’s inaugural Writer’s Festival and did a brilliant and very entertaining Catherine de Bourgh for the discussion panel (see pic above) celebrating 200 wonderful years of Pride and Prejudice.

When you are picking actors to play your characters I think it is essential to aim high. Don’t bother with B grade, inexperienced actors. Grab the stars and that’s just what I did for my characters, particularly Mary Darling. Mary has just changed her surname and decided to run her family home on Vancouver Island as a B & B at the start of Crossing Paths. She is an excellent cook and the perfect person to run a B & B – she just doesn’t know it yet as she is lacking self confidence. Now I know Meryl Streep likes a challenge. Here’s one for her! Play a woman who is shy and seriously lacking in self confidence! Not sure I’ve ever seen her do that!

In Cornwall a gay, New Age writer is looking for love and I pretty much envisioned Rupert Penryn-Jones in the role of Jonathan Fairlight. His widowed mother and new bookcrosser Daphne is not one of the eight main characters but I’m sure Helen Mirren would have fun with the role, particularly with her new friend Miriam Margoyles aka Ruth. Have they ever acted together? I don’t think so.

Now the last three characters I didn’t actually cast but that was because suitable actors, I believe, are in abundance for those three roles. A pretty Greek actress who has rudimentary English for Eleni, a sophisticated French actor in his late fifties for Pascal, a French biographer. And lastly a good looking, enigmatic African American actor in his thirties for Russell, a Boston bookshop owner. Too easy!

As for my other novels – my first I don’t think it entered my head to chose actors. It was enough to actually be writing. My second unpublished novel was peopled mainly with my ancestors so it was kind of impossible to make casting decisions. As it was I used my family tree to create the extensive family histories of both the Kittos and the Wearnes and as a result I have messed up my knowledge of actual facts. I’m no longer an expert on our family on my father’s side! Fact and fiction has been irreparably combined in my mind.

For my third unpublished book I was dealing with two sisters from two different times . Both sets of sisters – one beautiful and one plain were inspired by a photo of two sisters from the thirties and with these real women in my head, there was no way my mind was going to make the leap to actors. And I think that’s as it should be.

Likewise my first published novel, Tomaree was also inspired by real people so apart from studying the physical appearance of a real US Serviceman and creating a character around some aspects of him and making my female character a redhead, no one came to mind!

For my last novel, the recently completed manuscript of The Grey Silk Purse no actors have put up their hands. I’m of the belief too that it is often a good thing (particularly when the past is concerned) to let the reader reconstruct the appearance of characters. I’ve had a lively discussion on the subject with Matthew Ward of Mary Celeste Press as to the pros and cons of putting a real person’s face on the cover of a book. If there is no face, the reader can choose a suitable actor if they want to. Or they can decide on a full description in their head (from a few details supplied by me). Either works but it is fun as a writer (when it does happen) to play along with a real life actor, give them exciting action and dialogue and watch a novel spring to life with their help!