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!

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!

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