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.

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!

The Next Big Thing – The Grey Silk Purse

The Grey Silk Purse Notebooks

Here are four of my six notebooks for my current work in progress.

1) What is the working title of your current/next book?
My current work in progress is entitled The Grey Silk Purse and is set in 1917/1918 Serbia and Mayfield, Newcastle in 1920/1930.

2) Where did the idea come from?
Several years ago whilst doing book talks for Tomaree, a bookseller showed me a card advertising a New Year’s Eve party at the Trades Hall, Newcastle for 1930 run by The New Moon Dance Club. Whilst searching for more info about the mysterious club I came across a November, 1922 ad: “Lost yesterday Lady’s handbag between Elizabeth & Henry Streets, Tighes Hill along Port Waratah tramline or left in 6.42pm Port Waratah tram from Newcastle, contains 6 pounds, metal season railway ticket, keys etc. Finder handsomely rewarded on return to Miss Summerville, Room 5, Carrrington Chambers, Watt Street.”
I kept the name Miss Summerville but couldn’t find Carrington Chambers. Somehow I made the jump from there to my current project.

3) What genre does your book fall under?
Historical fiction

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Strangely I have no idea for this one. I cast Crossing Paths though. The main characters were played (in my head) by Rose Byrne, John Cusack, Rupert Penryn-Jones, Miriam Margoyles and Helen Mirren (in an uncharacteristically timid role).

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
It is January 1920 and Miss Summerville living in a beautiful house in Mayfield, Newcastle begins a diary detailing how, after a long illness, she has woken up and can’t remember the last two years of her life.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I hope to finish the manuscript very soon. (I’m on the second last draft now.) I’m determined to find an agent and a mainstream publisher and that is my goal for 2013.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft?
Much longer than Tomaree. Approximately two and a half years.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
The Winter of the World by Carol Ann Lee
The Soldier’s Song by Alan Monaghan
Armistice by Nick Stafford

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Heroic Australian women from both world wars, including Olive Kelso King, Alice Kitchen, Vivien Bullwinkel and Nancy Wake.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
Hopefully the wonderful Scottish Women’s Hospitals who ran 14 field hospitals during WWI. Many of their doctors, nurses and orderlies were Australian, including Stella Miles Franklin who worked at the Ostrovo Unit in Serbia, the unit featured in The Grey Silk Purse.
I’m now tagging three people to keep this meme going. They are:
Matthew Glenn Ward @ Matthew Glenn Ward
Anthony Wood @ Want For Words
Janna G. Noelle @ The Rules of Engagement
Happy writing!

The World’s Worst Travel Agent

Yes, that’s me when it comes to moving my main character from A to B, ie England to Salonika during the last few days of 1917 to early 1918. Should I have her spend most of the travel time on board say, a French liner/hospital ship with the possibility of it being attacked by a submarine? During one week in April of 1917 55 ships were sunk in the Mediterranean. So maybe not…

Or then I can have her going overland to Le Havre, Rome, Taranto and then by ship via Corfu to Salonika but where did she stay on the way? On board the train or in small hotels? The mind wanders and at this rate she’ll never get there! She is stamping her foot in frustration and I’m dithering around like a maiden aunt. But then of course I know what is ahead of her: driving an ambulance along a torturous road with men crying out in pain in the back, freezing cold such she has never known in Australia, horrible sights that no-one should have to witness and young orderlies, VADs and nurses did witness, sometimes for years, more often than not working incredible hours that would compromise their health in later life. Yes, it’s all ahead of my Miss Summerville and I’m petrified for her. No wonder I am delaying sending her to Macedonia.

In fact I’m quite nervous about the writing of her Serbian diary. How did the real women live through it all? I am in awe of  women such as Sister Alice Kitchen who served through the whole of the war, Sister Ross-King who was awarded a Military medal for her bravery on the night of the 22nd July when her Casualty Clearing Station was bombed. And the wonderful dressing station sister Agnes Dorothy Kerr. Even just your average nurse who often worked up to 18 hours a day, particularly when  a convoy of wounded men arrived! They deserve to be remembered.
http://www.theage.com.au/news/opinion/lets-remember-the-bravery-of-thousands-of-australian-nurses/2007/04/23/1177180564828.html?page=fullpage

Now it’s back to getting my girl over there and into action. I know she is going to be fearless!

More Heroic Women

Now that my main character has just stepped ashore in England (on the 28th November, 1917) I have switched my research to find out more about the last year of the war. Along the way I have met more heroic women. I am only a third of the way through Women on the Warpath by David Mitchell but within the pages of this book I have already met some wonderful, inspiring women:

The indefatigable Pankhursts who took on Womens Suffrage (of course), the Huns and the Bolsheviks, particularly Sylvia who worked tirelessly for poverty stricken women in the East End of  London, among many other good works. Lady Muriel Paget who formed a hospital unit  that was sent to Russia. Lady Leila Paget who organised a hospital unit in Serbia and liaissed with the Bulgarians to open an emergency clinic in Skopje.
Sarah Macnaughton  who set up a soup kitchen at Furnes in Flanders and Mrs. St Clair Stobart who was the leader of a coloumn through the terrible Serbian Death March of late 1915.

One of my aims in writing The Grey Silk Purse is to highlight what it was like during WWI for women with a driving need to help others. It was a time when women really made a difference. Opportunities arose because of the war and the shortage of men, and these amazing woman and thousands more grabbed life with both hands and achieved startling results.

It’s a mystery

After posting my last blog a mystery has developed. On Saturday 13th July I spent the day at the Mitchell, after first viewing the World Press photos and the SMH Photos1440 http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/events/exhibitions/2010/photos_1440/items/image05.html I went carefully through A History of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals by Eva Shaw McLaren looking for a reference to the tragedy at the Ostrovo Unit. Nothing. Just a mention of the unit being moved. Now I know from our excellent historian Susanna De Vries’s book Heroic Australian Women in War, in a chapter on Agnes Bennett and Lilian Cooper, that the skeleton staff of the unit were massacred by the Bulgarians and our very own Miles Franklin was referenced. I am waiting for my local library to get a copy of De Vries book that features Miles Franklin – The Complete Book of Great Australian Women for more details.

In the meantime I decided to go back again yesterday to the Mitchell and had a very interesting day. I went through two old directories (1914 and 1919) of the Newcastle, Cessnock, Maitland districts and also leafed through Flora Sandes’s two autobiographies. Sandes was the first woman to be commissioned as an officer in the Serbian Army. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flora_Sandes I also went through Stebbing’s At the Serbian Front in Macedonia – again no details of the massacre of the unit. The mystery deepens.

Lastly I went through the 1917 diary of Miles Franklin which proved to be fascinating – particularly descriptions of the camp. Matron was a terror evidently and the work in the kitchen exhausting. Unfortunately I ran out of time to read the 1918 diaries but am  looking forward to reading the chapter on MF in De Vries’s book and delving deeper into what happened to the unit.

On heroic women

At this stage it looks like my main character may be working at one of the units of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. I have been reading about the amazing Olive Kelso King and her experiences in Greece and Serbia. I am staggered by what she achieved during her war service. I’ve also been researching the two Australian doctors involved with the SWH – Dr Agnes Bennett and Dr Violet Cooper. Suddenly I am nervous at putting my character into the middle of the danger and terrible working conditions of the Eastern Front in 1918. Never mind that these women actually lived and worked there! I am worried about having to face it all just on the page!

I am, unfortunately in some respects, very thin-skinned and was crying in a cafe last week when I read again about Vivien Bullwinkel and the massacre at Bangka Island. I mean I know that Vivien was the only survivor of 21 nurses gunned down at Radji Beach and I was okay when I first read about what happened but then was done for when I came to Matron Drummond’s word:

“Girls, I love you all and I’m proud of you. Walk into the water with your chins up. Don’t be afraid.” You can’t get more heroic than that!

Yep, it’s not going to be easy putting my character into a similar sort of danger. It’s going to be challenging not just emotionally but in getting the historical context accurate.  Now back to the past!