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 Three are as yet unpublished and I’m starting the rounds next month for my sixth.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!

Finding the right historical details

magnifying glassI‘ve always believed, as the cliche says, that the devil is in the details. I love to seek out little known facts that can’t be found in historical accounts, newspapers and non-fiction works. Whilst writing my book Tomaree I interviewed upwards of 100 elderly people on their experiences of living during WWII. Most of them loved to chat and I wish now that I had had the time to talk to them about their whole lives, rather than just aspects of it. But unfortunately I was a single Mum working part time and I could only spend a few hours every fortnight or so up at Port Stephens where the novel was set.

Some of the stories I heard still resonate – the elderly lady whose mother, in the first years of the last decade, used to drive her pony and trap filled with home grown products from Anna Bay to Stockton, along a stretch of sand at low tide. Sometimes she got caught with the rising tide and a neighbour would have to mind my interviewee. Some time around the 1920s, I think, the sandbar was washed away after a massive storm and then the locals had to travel the long way around to Stockton or Newcastle after that.

There was also another Port Stephens resident who, as a young boy, remembered the American soldiers giving him money for ice-cream. I asked why and he told me it was because they hated all our small change, the threepennies, halfpennies etc that used to weigh down their pockets. “Here kid, go buy yourself an ice-cream.” You won’t find this fact in most non-fiction accounts of WWII involving Americans serving in England and Australia but some elderly people will remember that that’s what they often did.

As a novelist who is very interested in details such as these, I spend quite a lot of time hunting down such facts to make the past come alive. Interviewing people who have been there is a wonderful source of gems – such as a friend of mine’s uncle, a Rat of Tobruk, (he must be one of the last) who acquired a camera by trading with an Italian prisoner of war. When he got the film developed there were pictures of Rommel and his men. A case of truth being stranger than fiction.

I have sent my friend Gina, an oral historian in training, off with a list of questions. Not many of course as her uncle is 93 but I’m hoping she can get a few things down so his memories won’t be lost forever. This is one of the reasons I have started Starving in a Garret a collaborative workspace and sanctuary. One of the things I want to achieve is to find people interested in being oral historians and point them in the right direction. Recently a much loved GP died, I’m not positive but I’m guessing that most of the stories he could have told about being a doctor in Newcastle in the middle of the last century, have died with him.

I’m hoping to work towards building a team of oral historians that can interview people and compile a list of their memories of the local area (as well as details of their life of course) that can be donated to the local studies unit of their closest library. Memoirs and local histories are being written right now but I’m sure that there are wonderful, elderly people out there who are slipping through the net. I’m posting this blog to Starving in a Garret as well so please check there for progress on this project.

My Five Favourite Books of All Time

RelojDespertadorActually I shouldn’t say of all time. More appropriately I should say that this choice is from this point in time, late March 2013! Mary Tod tagged me in her post
Mary Tod, a writer of history
and this is my response. The list is not in order that the books were read and except for No. 1, not in order of importance. The 2nd to 5th books shuffle themselves around according to my current mood as do my top 20.

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
I first read this dark, tormented work in late1985, early 1986 and was overwhelmed. It was like nothing I had read at that time. I remember it as a vacuum of words that just sucked me into the book. It was inexorable in its hold on me. When I finished the novel I was devastated by the “choice” that Sophie does make; something that I didn’t fully understand until well after the last page. Afterwards all I could think about was writing to the author and telling him that I was so inspired by the book that I wanted to finally try my hand at a novel. The trouble was I had no idea how to start the letter. And then in the January the Challenger disaster occurred. I wrote with commiserations and then praise for his book. Unbelievably William Styron wrote back with a letter that I still treasure. This book will always remain my No. 1 because it is why I write novels.

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
This book is so much fun. I just loved the time slips, the what ifs and the clutter of Victorian England all rolled into one. Although it is a very long book, I actually read most of it the day of the Newcastle Floods in June 2007. We were without power for over twenty four hours and with no electricity I spent most of the day at a nearby hotel reading it. The flood and To Say Nothing of the Dog are now inseparable in my mind!

Man in the Dark by Paul Auster
This review is mine from Bookcrossing. The book had such a profound effect on me that I started a bookring. The book was read by 14 people from around the world and travelled for a year – one of my most successful bookrings. It is a poignant, unforgettable novel.

Atonement by Ian McEwan
What a wonderful book! The prose is very dense encompassing almost minute by minute details for the characters involved but when the final confrontation is reached the effect is devastating. We know exactly what each character has gone through in the intervening time. I love the twist at the end and didn’t see it coming. The movie was an amazing adaptation.

The Human Stain by Philip Roth
This is my review from Goodreads. I have featured this book before in my blog and it will probably pop up again. It’s a perfect example of why I love to read! Now back to the
Australian Women Writer’s Challenge!

On Losing a Dear Friend

photoFrom the moment I started writing in the early 80s, talking to elderly people has been a very enjoyable part of my writing life. The first person I remember interviewing was a friend of the family of my first boyfriend. I was now a married woman (not to the first boyfriend) and beginning a novel that was later abandoned. From memory she was very interesting to talk to. (Her name escapes me now.) She had grown up in an old log cabin somewhere in the sticks and as a middle aged woman had written parodies of the romantic short stories featured in the Woman’s Day and the Woman’s Weekly at that time. The stories were actually accepted much to her amusement. I can’t remember her name but after our short interview I didn’t see her again.

In late 1982 or early 1983 I interviewed two wonderful WWI soldiers living in a retirement village in Collaroy.  One of them was a veritable minefield and I still have the notes I took from speaking with him. He was a sniper and told me some fascinating details not found in any history books. One interesting fact that concerned soldiers digging in under fire I actually used in my long short story The Running Lady published in Reveille in 1988.

In 2002 I was very lucky to be able to interview many elderly residents of Nelson Bay and Shoal Bay in regards to the US soldiers stationed there during WW2. At one stage I was driving up there once a fortnight to speak to someone about those fascinating times and I was always made to feel welcome. I think they enjoyed talking to me and I definitely enjoyed listening to them, including among many Mrs Blanch and Mrs Norburn.

In January 2010 I came up with the idea for a new novel and almost immediately I decided to set the novel, with the working title of The Grey Silk Purse, in Mayfield. I was unemployed for the first few weeks of that year and I spent a lot of time walking the streets and taking photos of beautiful old houses. I was also doing a lot of research on the net about the history of Mayfield. Two names repeatedly came up – Vera Deacon and Helen Marshall. I contacted Gionni di Gravio, the archivist at Newcastle University and asked him if it was okay to contact both of them. He said yes and told me where they lived.

I didn’t record the date I first rang Helen Marshall but we hit it off immediately and from May 2010 on I saw her quite regularly. I would visit her beautiful home in Elizabeth Street and mercilessly ask her questions. She loved talking about the old Mayfield and she would describe walks she went on with her father. I loved hearing about Mayfield as it was in the 30s and 40s and her memory was prodigious.

On one occasion she helped me map out a walk my character took near Platts Channel. She described in great detail a gate that led into the property of Argyle House (later the Murray Dwyer Orphanage). I explained what my character was doing. Helen described the gate for me, the latch and that there was lantana nearby. She could still remember the smell of the lantana. When I mentioned which way my heroine was walking home – up the steep slope by the side of the property to reach Bull Street – Helen told me that my heroine wouldn’t be opening the gate if she was going that way. I asked why and Helen explained that you only needed to open the gate to walk through the property if you were walking along by the channel. I was astonished that she could remember so much about a gate from around 1933 or so! I said as much and we had a good old laugh.

She also had very detailed memories of Waratah House which her father sketched before it was pulled down. On one of my visits Helen helped me mark out a map of the land near Platts Channel choosing the approximate location of Argyle House, Waratah House, the potteries, the ponds, the wheat field, a well and the dairy. (Not an easy feat with Industrial Drive and extensive industry transforming the landscape.)

Another day we actually designed the garden of the fictional house Summerville in Crebert Street. I still have the sketch in her hand. We also had some lovely talks over the Greg Ray books and an excellent book about the Middle East campaign of WWI. But apart from all this we were the best of friends. She wasn’t just an elderly lady with a fund of knowledge. She was someone that I knew I would have been life long best friends with in a parallel universe. As it was I only had less than three years to have lovely chats with Helen but I valued my time with her. I now miss her terribly.  Her quick wit and her kindness were a joy to me and I know it will take me quite some time to get used to the loss of her friendship. I can still hear her saying happily: “You clever girl!” or “You are devious!” when I explained some plot intricacies in my writing. I know she enjoyed our talks and I definitely did. I’m so grateful that I knew her, if only for a short time.

Writing the final draft of your novel…or maybe the second last draft

Words taking flight!

Words taking flight!

Sometimes it’s hard to tell! I’m currently on the 4th draft of The Grey Silk Purse. I believe it is the second last draft but then I thought the 5th draft of Tomaree was the last way back in around 2004. The last was actually finished (the 8th) in 2008 so you see it’s a tricky business!

Ideally, of course, when a writer believes they are on the home stretch they should put the manuscript away for a few months and only then have another look before completing the final draft. I wish! I’d love to have the luxury of being able to do that but, frankly, I would go mad! Not writing is not a option for me!

An alternative the experts say is a change of scene. Wouldn’t a European trip be lovely? Paris, Rome, several mountains in Switzerland, a week in Venice. A mediterranean cruise I’m sure would clear a few cobwebs. One can dream!!
Crossing out those two options, what can be done to clear the air so that we can approach our manuscript with fresh eyes? My suggestion and what I am currently doing is:

Read someone who writes completely differently from ourselves; preferably someone whose style, sentence constructions, choice of subject matter is alien. 

Immediately for me two writers step forward. The first is Philip Roth. In my review of The Human Stain I talk about what it is like to read a Philip Roth. It is like being picked up by the scruff of the neck and dragged along. You can kick and scream against the intensity and speed that you are travelling but somehow you just can’t put the book down.

The other writer is John Banville. In his magnificent novel The Sea the reader is relentlessly tossed and scoured by his prose which sweeps the reader from the shore to the depths of the ocean, often dragged mercilessly under to surface gasping for breath.

Either of these writers will do nicely to give me a fresh eye! I chose John Banville and here is my review of Eclipse, the first book in his Alexander Cleave trilogy.

Eclipse by John Banville

I’m not sure if I’ll make it through the other two books before going back to The Grey Silk Purse but I will try!

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!

Originally posted on Australian Women Writers Challenge:

In 2012 the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge time machine travelled from fifteenth century Venice to contemporary Australia.  We ventured around the world, dropping in at Mogmog in the Pacific; Bangladesh; Spain; and Mt. Wellington in Tasmania.  It demonstrated that Australian women authors are a diverse group of people writing about a broad variety of subjects.

What is history?  I take a very broad approach to this question.  Basically if it is an attempt to truthfully depict something that actually happened in the past then I embrace it as a history.  What is truth?  I leave that up to you to decide.  A biography or memoir relates the story of what has happened to a person in the past – perhaps only the quite recent past. That is history.  Bernadette Bean drew attention to the sub-genre of true crime in her Crime, Mystery, Suspense and Thriller roundup. If the history…

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Debbie Robson:

Wonderful photos and a real sense of the museum.

Originally posted on The Cultureur, A Luxury Travel and Culture Blog:

Perched atop a stunning hill in the Santa Monica Mountains, the Getty Center overlooks the vast cityscape of the greater Los Angeles area. Its exceptional contemporary architecture, wide array of pre-20th century art, colorful gardens, and panoramic views are its crowning glories. Richard Meier, the architect, built almost the entire complex with travertine stone, giving it a sterile, slightly futuristic vibe.

With an intricate interplay of light and shadows, shapes, and architecture, photographers can get lost in the possibilities and near limitless compositions. The character of the complex changes throughout the day, from the early hours of dawn to the last fleeting rays of sunset. While day time allows for better shots of the architectural details, night time offers some of the most breathtaking panoramas of the City of Angels.

The Getty Museum is one of my favorite places in LA. With never a dull moment or chance of boredom, you can bask…

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2012: My reading year or fiction vs. poetry vs. non-fiction vs. memoir

LargeWBatduskThe last week of the year or in my case, the last day of the year is often a time of looking back and saying what was the best book, the best photograph, the best film etc . My favourite photograph of 2012? Easy peasy. A quick scroll down my camera roll on my iphone and there we go – the image above, Warners Bay, Lake Macquarie at dusk. Last year’s was trees again – my current gravatar. My son took my favourite photo of my grandchild. My favourite film was the French film The Intouchables. My favourite book – well that’s an entirely different matter and one that I can’t make a quick response to.

Firstly though I thought I’d start by doing an update on my blog from October. It’s the one with a picture of 14 books on it.  The blog was entitled “What I’m Currently Reading”. I have since dispensed with most of the books, some summarily in the manner of a reader in a top publishing house with an enormous submissions pile -Singleton’s Mill being one of those. The White Peacock by D.H. Lawrence didn’t suit my purposes but from Sons and Lovers I was able to glean a line or two of discussion for one of my character’s – Clary, a young doctor and also enough details for my main character Phyllis to decide not to read it:

“Today Clary came to the main lounge where I was having afternoon tea armed with two books. He offered me Sons & Lovers. I opened the first page & came to the opening lines about Hell Row, colliers & gin pits, whatever they were. The book was dreary & long-winded by the looks of it.”

She choses the Buchan instead. I’m with her on that as I also decided not to read the Lawrence.  But here’s my review of The Thirty Nine Steps . Around the same time I officially abandoned Fifty Shades of Grey.

For insight into nurses’ lives during WWI and general conditions of Australian servicewomen caught in the frontlines, I would highly recommend Nightingales in the Mud by Marianne Barker. Although I only read the section on the Aussie girls in Serbia it seemed to me excellently researched and well written.

The River Baptists I thoroughly enjoyed and now have another Belinda Castles on my shelf to read . I also enjoyed Early One Morning, Robert Ryan’s very painstakingly researched book on two famous operatives of WWII. I really admired Jan Bennett’s book The Facing Island when I finally let myself settle between the pages and get used to the fact  that I was reading the words of a dying woman. However, I decided not to read the very much alive Ivana Lowell’s Why Not Say What Happened? memoir. Why? Now that’s a good question!

It seems I really don’t enjoy memoirs unless they are by a woman who has served in Serbia during WWI or an  elderly man from 200 years ago (Jean-Jacques Rousseau) and then they do get read! Why Not Say What Happened wasn’t set in Serbia so was dispensed as quickly as Singleton’s Mill – just not interested, although I thought I might be when I borrowed it. Reveries of the Solitary Walker on the other hand was a gem!

Moving through the pile, the Florence Scovel Shinn and the Dessaix essays are still on my bookshelf to read but during the last two blogs some other books have snuck in and demanded my attention and I’m very pleased they did; a book of poetry in particular beating a few of the fiction titles to the post. Peter Bakowski’s Beneath Our Armour is a wonderful example of simple, clear and precise poetry where every single word counts and after reading the collection I decided I definitely need to read more poetry to feed my fiction writing, if that makes sense.

The other four books that skipped the queue are:
Pandora’s Bottle by Joanne Sydney Lessner which I read on my iphone.
The Music of Chance by Paul Auster, a 1001 book that had to be read quickly for a BookCrossing virtual book bag.
The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples by Shirley Hazzard - an excellent book bought from Maclean’s bookshop at Hamilton.
And an Erotica anthology by Skive Magazine, lighthearted and a lot of fun unlike that other book!

So it seems I need to read more poetry, memoirs of Serbia beat other memoirs simply by subject matter. The non-fiction I choose to read depends pretty much entirely on the setting and time frame of my WIP and lastly fiction wins hands down! No suprises there, really. And my favourite book and most respected read of 2012?

Nikki Gemmell’s With My Body. Beautiful writing on a powerful theme! Highly recommended.

My twitter community and why they are so important to me.

I went to the #NewyTwistmas party at Honeysuckle Thursday night attended by 60 plus and had a wonderful time meeting fellow peeps, most for the first time. I chatted to so many interesting people, including @CCLETS a dedicated potter, @whereismymuse a poet and @kimcoo and her husband who are relationship counsellors. It is a community that know me as a writer. That’s who I am – @lakelady2282, BookCrosser, author, amateur photographer. I tweet photos and the progress of my WWI novel The Grey Silk Purse. I also tweet/retweet about books, writing and history. That’s me!

To my friends and family, I am something else. With my family I’m mum and grandma. With my girlfriends I’m just a single woman in my fifties complaining about the lack of interesting men. (I have this theory that 75% of the single male population in their forties and fifties have been beamed to another planet and nobody’s noticed. But that’s another story.) My friends know I write but I don’t think they are aware of how much my writing means to me and in that sense they don’t know me.

My twitter people do. My wonderful Crossing Paths publisher @SkiveMagazine knows how important writing is to me and I love tweeting about his mag. The latest edition is an erotica collection so peeps get out there and buy it. Also @drdrdr09 knows. He became aware of how much I was agonising over finding an historically accurate way to get my main character from Le Havre to Salonika, late 1917 (avoiding submarines and nasty Germans). I tweeted in frustration to my twitter community and he stepped into the breach (WWI speak) and we had a fun time tweeting back and forth.

In my “normal” life, I mentioned to my friends the other day that I was having trouble with my epilogue. There was dead silence and then a change of conversation. In all fairness what can most non-writers say to such a statement? Some people would suggest a writing group. After all you get to sit down with “real” people and discuss writing problems but I’ve tried a few groups and they weren’t for me. (I once joined a screenplay writing group and one of the participants said, “I hate writing dialogue. Do you think that will be a problem for me?” She was serious). I didn’t go back.

For me twitter is my writing group, my photography group, my friends group, my “did you hear they found the cave from Island of the Blue Dolphins?” group. It is my arts world in a way that Facebook (that funny other social media with all the thumbs up things) has never been. It is where I’m lakelady2282 and it’s where on Friday morning I tweeted I had lost my job. I didn’t message my friends. I still – as of writing this article – haven’t posted it to Facebook. Without thinking I just tweeted. It was the community that I wanted to tell.