How to get distracted writing historical fiction and/or the girl on the beach

Source: ( Photo by Branger/Roger Viollet/Getty Images )

Girl on the beach 1925

Yes, it’s a serious problem for historical fiction writers when doing research – staying on track. In the 1980s I went through all the photography books (and there was a lot) at Dee Why Library. Of course I didn’t need to look at all the photos – most didn’t have anything to do with the manuscript I was writing but what the heck! Now with the net the problem is magnified 100 times over. The number of photos that are available is staggering. Google images, Instagram, Flickr, Trove – all waiting quietly (Hey, don’t mind me!) to lead you away from words on a screen/page.

In this instance Pinterest was the culprit. I had been googling 1920s clothes and pinning them on my board Research for my next novel. Pinterest, being very helpful, kindly said “You might like this!” and there was a board on the 1920s that I decided to follow. Some boards are small of course and only take a few minutes to glance over but occasionally I would find myself drifting away from my writing. You know how it is! I love that dress of Audrey Hepburn’s! And really, Warren Beatty was pretty good looking when he was young. Wow, I want to go to that French village right now. This sort of thing happens frequently when I’m on the net but no harm here! This board was on topic – the 1920s. I scrolled down through the images and there she was! Simply a girl on a beach, looking sad yet sort of posed at the same time. I was done for! My writing and research lost for the rest of the evening.

I found myself really studying the photo. Gosh, it does look posed. A publicity shot for a now unknown actress? A photographer friend suggested it was actress Edna Purviance, Charlie Chaplin’s leading lady in many of his films. I googled images of her and decided no, it wasn’t her. I then did a Tin Eye reverse image search. The one that was pinned on Pinterest had no name or details. Maybe another image might have more information. Tin Eye came up with 24 results and it appears the original photograph is a Getty image taken by the French photographer Roger Viollet with a title of “Swimmer on the beach of Deauville (Calvados), about 1925″. A location but no name!

I searched her face again. She really was very pretty! Maybe it was a lucky snap that became a bit of a hit and the damsel was pinned up wherever males congregate. I’m guessing she might have been extremely popular with the French Foreign Legion when the state of her chest was noticed! She is actually striking a pose similar to Farrah Fawcett in that that red swimming costume back in the seventies!

None of this helped me identify her of course and why is she sitting by herself? Is she waiting for someone?I believe she wasn’t an actress because I’m sure if she was, she would have been identified by now. I mean, how many photos do we view a day? Even when we aren’t researching, people put up posts asking please identify. Photos are multiplied over and over in vastly different locations. Gradually the dots are joined but not for the moment for my girl at the beach.

Three hours later after originally viewing her picture, my manuscript is pushed to the back of my mind. I have lost valuable time and asked unanswerable questions, such as: Who was she? Was she a model? What did she do with her life? She’s about the same age as my character. I wish I could chart her life through known facts so that I can have a few signposts for my girl; be made aware of what it was like to be young and beautiful in the 1920s.

She has led me on a merry dance but then I stop and look at her once more. Actually she hasn’t. I’ve only just realised why she caught my attention in the first place. She has abundantly thick and wavy hair – auburn, I’m guessing, just like my main character Sarah Montague’s. I haven’t lost time. Here is a real life sister for an imaginary young woman that I need to return to.

Arthur Streeton and the Battle of Amiens

I love hunting facts down, following paper trails and discovering interesting pieces of information. I mentioned in a previous blog that beginning my second draft of The Grey Silk Purse I had 98 points of research to check – things such as the location of the Niagara Cafe in Newcastle -
http://www.facebook.com/groups/LostNewcastle/permalink/506264069398435/
the weather in London on a December day in 1917, locations in Greece and various birds in the Hunter around 1920 to name some points.

Well I’m down to 10. Yay! and have been working on a very important research point – where my main male character Adrian Langley loses his leg. Before I could choose a location, I needed to choose a battalion for Adrian. I decided that although he is originally from Sydney, he actually joins up with his Mayfield cousins and in early 1917 becomes part of the 35th Battalion “Newcastle’s Own Regiment”.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/35th_Battalion_(Australia)

Immediately the battle of Lena Wood (see picture in link above) caught my eye and with the mention of woods I decided to research the landscape of the Battle of Amiens, August 1918 and quickly found Arthur Streeton’s wonderful painting above. The sight of the painting really changed my thinking and brought with it more questions. Why was the landscape so beautiful and not ravaged? Did Streeton purposely paint an unaffected area of the battle or was this his idealised vision of the pre battle scene? The woods look wonderful, the scenery is green. The whole thing evokes a pleasant summer stroll and that thought led me to recreating AND transforming Adrian’s loss of his leg in a dream. Here is what I wrote inspired by the painting above:

“…Sometimes too the beautiful woods near Amiens loom large in his dreams. Often he is alone, strolling not fighting. August 1918. A summer’s day in northern France. A feeling of peace, contentment and then a sniper parts the green that conceals him and sends an arc of bullets that tears the ground up in front of him, rips Adrian’s right leg apart and slams into his hip and shoulder. It would be better to dream of the way it was but his mind has condensed and transformed the incident until it is almost completely unrecognisable. At least he’s not surrounded by men dying beside him and he is thankful for that. They inhabit the other dreams. Not this one.”

By researching the landscape of Amiens I had found the place where my character loses his leg but it also gave me the opportunity (because of the beauty of the place) to set it against the muddy, soul destroying landscape of a previous battle. Adrian’s most terrible nightmares are from the Battle of Passchendaele where his battalion was bogged down in the mud and only 90 from 508 remained at the end but it is not where he receives wounds (at least not physically) that almost kill him and cripple him for life. Hopefully my future readers will appreciate the irony.

The Power of language and using the right words

I can be a ditz sometimes and very vague as my family and friends will tell you. I recently ordered a coffee whilst in the middle of writing a crucial scene. Fifteen minutes later no coffee. I went up to ask if it was coming and they told me it had been put on my table (behind my laptop) around ten minutes ago. Never noticed a thing! And then today two incidents – both hanging on single words – made me stop and really consider how much we actually take in even when we think we aren’t paying attention.

This morning  working on a new chapter I ordered a coffee (1/2 strength latte) and a bottle of water. The young waitress was standing by my table holding a bottle of water and she asked me did I want one cup or two. I answered: ‘Oh, I’ve already ordered my latte.”  She said: “No, the water.” I replied. “One glass please (as I was by myself). She put one glass down and I thought: Yep, I am a ditz and went back to my writing.

A moment later she moved to the table nearby holding another bottle of water and several glasses and said: “Did you want two cups.” And I realised what had happened. She’s obviously been brought up (although she sounded like a regular Aussie) calling glasses cups for some strange reason. For me a glass is what you put wine, water, soft drinks and liquor in. A cup is what you put tea, coffee and hot chocolate in but that was definitely what she called the glasses.

Move ahead to this evening at Brisbane airport. I have arrived and arrangements have been made for me to catch a connecting bus. On my itinerary is the instruction that when arriving at the airport I must report to the service desk of that company to be booked on the bus. Well I spent fifteen minutes looking for the service desk. There were the usual suspects of hire cars and transport companies but not the company I was looking for. I asked two Virgin employees and they had no idea where it was. I showed them my intinerary – no luck. Finally someone directed me outside and what I thought was a bus shelter for the regular buses was a booth with that company’s name under the roof.

Yes, I know. If I had put my glasses on I might have seen the name from a distance and walked down there but I didn’t because I was actually looking for a service desk which I think to most people’s minds is found inside whereas a booth is often outside. Hence my confusion. That’s language for you!

A lot of the time of course everything goes smoothly and we don’t stop and wonder about such things but when they don’t it’s amazing how the wrong use of language – in both these instances single words – can lead us astray.

As a writer I am very particular about word usage, especially those particular words that signify and are redolent of an era. In Tomaree I spent quite some time checking up “okay”, among other words. (My main character was Amercian.) In researching word usage of WWI for The Grey Silk Purse it is surprising to find that it was common when writing letters and diaries to use “&” for “and”. I’m not sure when that stopped. I mean we still do it occasionally but not as consistently as some diary writers from that time.

All this has brought me back to my writing and the question: Am I chosing the right words – the most effective words – to convey my story and weave a convincing web around my readers? I hope so! What I can safely say is that after today I’ll be extra careful!

In praise of secondhand bookshops and/or the search for the perfect book

Yesterday I was feeling out of sorts and terribly restless after a miserable Friday night so Saturday morning I was on a mission. I had to find the perfect book to keep me company. I wanted John Berger and I wanted him now, namely Here is Where We Meet: a story of Crossing Paths. I love the title. Obviously. (If this isn’t obvious see About Me).

Did my two local libraries have it? No! So off I went to Rice’s Bookshop, an institution in Newcastle, now in its 43rd year of trading. They didn’t have any of Berger’s books but I did find Rupert Brooke: Life, Death & Myth by Nigel Jones. God knows when I will get to read it as it is 461 pages long but it looks much more approachable than another biography I have of the famous poet, the man who many people considered to be the most beautiful in England.

Brooke has fascinated me for a long time and in 1997, after I read a collection of his poems, in particular his last entitled Fragment, he began to haunt my thoughts for weeks. Eventually I exorcised him by writing a long poem entitled Conversation with a Dead Poet.

Anyway, no Berger but a good book to read. Undeterred I headed off to Indigo Books further up Hunter Street. There I found a number of Berger’s but not the one I wanted. The excellent To the Wedding was there but I have read that and there were two others that didn’t interest me and were not the perfect book for a grey Autumn Day.

I  did find three possible contenders though, all short books and two authors unknown to me. The three books I bought from Indigo were another Ian McEwan,The Comfort of Strangers, one of his early ones; Waiting for Leah by Arnost Lustig, a Czech author writing about a Nazi prison camp in northern Bohemia in 1944; and The Quartet by Francois Emmanuel, a writer and psychiatrist from Belgium. One of his novels won the Prix Victor Rossel. This novel is about a sinister dossier and the links between big business and the darkest hour of Europe. Thank God for secondhand bookshops.

You will – eventually – find my reviews of all four on goodreads, the three short ones in the not too distant future. (Reviews done 31/5/12).

I hate Microfilm readers!

Firstly, I can never feed the film on and get it started. It takes me forever. I am not very co-ordinated and as I struggle with the stupid reel I feel like I’m back at school. Secondly I need the print quite large so I spend my time going up and down each page so I don’t miss anything. And guess what? After half an hour of winding and bobbing up and down I’m suffering from motion sickness. So, not surprisingly, I only lasted an hour reading the October and November issues of the Newcastle Sun, 1917 yesterday morning but found a lot to giggle over.

One of my favourite things is something called Men and Women Personal Paragraphs with snippets of information such as: “Mr and Mrs Penny returned to Newcastle from Inverell today.” Or try this one: “Mr and Mrs  P Gordon Campbell of Mayfield are spending a short holiday in Inverell.” Good to know!

And then there are strange ads for weird things like Fishers Phospherine, the Misses Tidey and Tinsley selling hats, Parisian Designed Frocks. Yes please. (Actually they didn’t look bad). There was a Mme Petrona in the movie The Panther Woman which sounds like it might give Sex and the City a run for its money and a news item entitled “Twice married woman thought husband dead.” I suppose she thought it was worth a try!

By this time I’m totally over the dreaded microfilm readers and haven’t found any ads for two cafes I know existed in Newcastle in 1922 – Tyrrells and Mitchisons. No more torturing myself on the reader. Instead next Saturday I’m going to do some research old style. I’m going to be flipping through newspaper clipping books, turning the pages leisurely and not listening to the crank of a microfilm reader.

Thank God for the snippers club at the Newcastle Family History Society at Lambton. They are a group of enterprising women who meet, chat and patiently snip out domestic and miscellaneous newspaper articles from the Newcastle Morning Herald and other local papers. Yes, I’m going there next Saturday morning and you might not hear from me again for weeks. After all I went there two years ago looking for the New Moon Dance Club who hosted the 1930 New Year’s Eve Dance Party at the Trades Hall in Newcastle and instead stumbled upon an article about a lost silver purse that inspired my current work in progress!

Lost in Time

People don’t change over the years but the environment they live in does. When Ishobel Ross, a cook from the Isle of Skye, arrives in London in July 1916 it is amazing how much she gets up to in the city without a car! She is sightseeing – taking in the theatre, a trip to Aldershot, shopping at Selfridges, visits to St Pauls, Marble Arch, and tea at Fullers. The list goes on and I’m exhausted reading it. Finally on the 29th she writes “Got word today (from the Scottish Women’s Hospitals) to report at Victoria Station on Tuesday morning.”

Got word? How? Obviously not by SMS or mobile call but I’m left pondering the alternative. Did the SWH ring Ishobel at her hotel? Send a telegram? From my research into the Twenties in Sydney it is amazing to someone from the 21st century how often they got mail in the early part of the last century: twice in the metropolitan area and for a time a delivery on Saturday which beggars belief. Telegrams too seem to arrive very quickly, including the dreaded ones from the War Office – “We regret to inform you…”

Did the SWH send a boy running through the streets of London with a message? Who knows? There is, of course no way of knowing now. As they say “you had to be there.”  And taking that line of thought I can imagine a 22nd century historian possibly stumbling over emails, letters, the odd diary, containing such lines as: “Met this great guy last night. Too good to be true so I googled him.”

Google may be around for another 100 years. Or it may be lost in time in the way of “got word” and “shanks pony” – a term my Mine Manager/diarist great-great grandfather Richard Pope frequently used in the 1880s. “Took ‘shanks pony’ into Silverton from Broken Hill.” A special breed of horse you are wondering? No, it means to walk. So there you are, you were way off course just as I maybe off course when I speculate on Ishobel’s “got word”.

The past is another country. They definitely do things differently there.

Virginia Woolf and I

We go back years! I first came to her writing because of A Room of One’s Own. I read it (like most women do) when embarking on my writing career. It was actually very sound advice and when I came to buy my first home as a single woman I was going to have that study if it killed me! I got the study at Eleebana and I now have one in my new home but not enough bookshelves I’m afraid. I now have boxes and boxes of books in the garage but I have somewhere to write besides my favourite cafe.

Last week I discovered that Virginia Woolf not only gives good advice but can be relied on in regards to the weather. A few weeks ago I started writing a new chapter entitled The News (all of my chapters have titles instead of numbers) and when describing the weather wrote: “It was cold but sunny.”  A very hopeful statement on my part I thought having lived through a London winter so I made a mental note to somehow check the actual weather for the 15 December 1917 later on. A few days after this I discovered there were actually two bombing raids in London that month which had me reeling in a orgy of research; as you do when an unexpected real life event turns up that puts a new twist on your writing.

After finding a marvellous book on the WWI blitz by Ian Castle http://books.google.com.au/books/about/London_1917_18.html?id=siHifpXFa6kC&redir_esc=y I looked up which library held the first volume of Virginia’s diaries (not for loan) and at Newcastle Library I sat and read her first words for the 15 December 1917: “A cold but sunny day.” Thank you Virginia!

And another thank you for an account of the first of the bombing raids on 6th December which helped me to bring my character’s account to life. According to Virginia’s diaries she was awakened by L to a most instant sense of guns. “As if one’s faculties jumped up fully dressed.” She goes on with a very vivid diary entry for the morning’s events.

As I said, Virginia and I go way back and I’ve now gone back further with her as I have begun to read her very first novel Melymbrosia written in 1912. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/741136.Melymbrosia

Writing Challenges and Passions

When I’m writing two very important things have to be there for everything to fall into place. 1. The writing of the manuscript has to challenge me in some way and 2. I  must be passionate about my subject matter. The Grey Silk Purse is my sixth book and both these things definitely apply. In my earlier novels this wasn’t quite so obvious to me. I was just writing a book! But now after writing prose for thirty years, themes and concerns do become clearer.

With my first novel, just putting my ideas down was enough of a challenge. I mean could I even finish the damn thing let alone write coherently? With my second novel this was even more true because I began writing the enormous (still unpublished second manuscript) when my second child was five months old. I have vivid memories of Elise in a capsule and me struggling to borrow a heap of library books before she screamed the place down. And later of clasping her as a toddler between my legs to stop her from crawling off whilst I desperately tried to finish some photocopying for my research into the Broken Hill Proprietary Co.

With my third manuscript the construction of the novel defeated me (for the moment) but themes were emerging. Themes of loss – loss of place, loss of memory. Of abuse and madness. With my first published book (and fourth manuscript) Tomaree the writing challenge was how to blend the past with the present; how to move smoothly from 1942 to 1972 and back again many times. Luckily the passion kicked in (a passion to raise awareness of the wonderful Australian GI brides who gave up everything for love).

For my last novel Crossing Paths, the challenge was enormous! To create eight very different characters and give them succint personalities. I’m not sure that I succeeded but I gave it a fair old try. And the passion was of course for the wonderful world of BookCrossing.

Now I am facing a new writing challenge and it is quite daunting – to recreate life as an  ambulance driver working in the Macedonian front of 1918; my passion to highlight the wonderful work of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and other heroic women such as the Australian Olive Kelso King.
Wish me luck!!

The Ostrovo Unit

Well, the mystery surrounding the massacre of what I’m guessing was an outpost of the Ostrovo unit, has deepened. No more details via Stella Miles Franklin and nothing at all in the biography of Dr Agnes Bennett by Cecil and Cecilia Munson. Nothing either in a referenced work Australians and Greeks, Volume 2 by Hugh Gilchrist. But it doesn’t really matter as I’m fairly sure the event occurred towards the end of 1917 – well before my characer arrives on the scene. Still it would help my writing to understand the historical context and how such a thing happened.

Despite this slight setback, I have actually been picking up some very interesting facts and historical details along the way: information about the day to day running of the unit, the politeness and old world charm of the Serbian officers, the large numbers of  Australian women who were doing war work at the Macedonian Front. Even the odd Serbian word as well, which may prove useful if my heroine happens to fall in love with a Serbian orderly. It’s a possibility!

At the moment my girl is still on board HMAT Kanowna which has recently (October, 1917) stopped off at Durban and Cape Town. At this very moment (well today as far as  my writing goes – actually 15th November, 1917) she has just spent a few hours wandering around Sierra Leone before she must embark for the last leg of her voyage to England and a confrontation with her difficult aunt. Will post again when she arrives in London.

Adventures with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Are writers paranoid? Well, it turns out I am. Six weeks ago I spent the day researching at the Mitchell Library. Most of my time was spent reading the diary of James Ray Lewis who was on board the the transport ship Euripides departing Sydney 31st October, 1917 but I also requested A History of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals by Eva Shaw McLaren. I was told very nicely by the staff of the Mitchell that the book was off site and wouldn’t be available for a few days. As I had caught the train down from Newcastle, I explained that I wouldn’t be back for some time to view the book again. The library staff told me to simply request the book online a few days before I needed it. No worries.

Last week with my writing going well, I realised I needed to do more research into the Serbian Front during WWI. It was time to request the McLaren book again. I logged on to the State Library and much to my surprise found this 1919 book was IN USE. Weird but that’s okay, it was a Saturday. Unbelievably someone was reading it. Tried on Monday. Again IN USE. The next day my imagination was turning feral. Who else was researching the Scottish Women’s Hospitals? Someone was planning a major novel with their heroine involved in the war in Serbia! OH MY GOD!

Rang the Mitchell today and was told, yes, it was still in use. Of course the penny dropped and I asked, “Did that someone happen to be me, Debbie Robson?” and they said yes. I explained I did request it some time ago etc etc. Very obligingly the staff have now organised the book for me for Saturday along with Eleanor Dark’s first novel Slow Dawning. Looking forward to reading up about the Ostrovo hospital unit but nervous too. The unit was very close to the action and I believe many of the staff were killed. Very daunting! Not sure if I’m up to the challenge (never mind the fact that the real women were) but I’ll find out soon.