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.

How Many Drafts of Your Novel Should You Do?

My answer is six and that is probably my average. If the book proves problematic then I’ve reached eight but that’s generally my maximum. I’ve heard other writers speak of astronomical numbers such as 18, 27, 34 and even fifty odd.  I immediately think how do they do that many drafts? But me being a suspicious person, when I hear such amazing figures I often wonder what they consider constitutes a draft. Say, maybe a quick adjustment of a few words here and there, a scan and then start again? Is that what they call a draft? Put the thing away for a week or so, pick it up again, flick through, change another paragraph and that’s draft 25 for you? I don’t know of course. I can only tell you what my methods are so here goes…

Draft 1 is obvious of course. That’s where you get the main storyline down including what scenes to put in, what to leave out and from whose point of view. Last Tuesday I completed the first draft of my work in progress The Grey Silk Purse. Strictly speaking it is not a complete first draft. It is missing one final chapter and the epilogue which is a letter. Both I can’t do at this point until I’ve done heaps more research.

And this is where the 2nd draft comes. I will now go back, look up and check 95 # points of research such as the uniform of staff working in a stationery shop in Newcastle in 1920. In my novel Tomaree. In Crossing Paths I actually don’t remember that I had as as many things to check. I managed to do most of my fact-checking as I went along.

Before I generally start writing a novel I have already done a fair amount of research. Whilst writing the first draft I’ll check as many points as I can but when fact checking starts to really slow me down that’s when I put a # in and move on.  With the second round of research I will often have to change the narrative slightly to accommodate facts I have recently discovered. I will also tidy up my prose and check overall length of chapters. Is that scene really necessary kind of thing. With The Grey Silk Purse I have a massive construction problem two thirds of the way through. I will tackle that and will also have to keep a good eye on it in the next draft.

In the 3rd draft I will usually start drilling down, checking my word usage (okay for that particular character or time etc) my paragraphs (are they too long?) I also check how the writing flows. This is a good time to actually really look at any scenes or chapters that still trouble you. Can I do without it altogether or do I need to rewrite? Any extensive rewrites at this stage will have to be checked closely because they will not have been read anywhere near the amount of times of the rest of the work. This is where I often check odd things like the colours of the diaries in The Grey Silk  Purse. There are four different diaries that feature in the manuscript and they are all different colours.  I will probably check the word count of each diary and that I’ve got the colour correct for each one (particularly as these are referenced later in the novel).

It is usually around the 4th draft that I like to print the whole manuscript out and work at it on paper,  pretending I’m a ruthless editor working through page after page, slowly but very carefully. It’s where you really get to see how the manuscript will look in hard copy.

It’s funny how many things you can pick up and fix in this different format.  You’ll find it is very handy when looking at dialogue. I also generally write my edits on the page and then do another draft putting them in to my word document. This will then be the 5th draft.

In this draft I will not only put in my changes but do a global search for a particular word that I think I might have used too much.  (This is why it is a good thing to keep your manuscript all in one document!) I’ve done this with all my novels and it is never the same words that keep cropping up. It is generally different words for different books. When you realise you’ve got 162 “wondered”s you can then push yourself to find alternatives. (In this 900 word essay I have 13 “check/ed/ing”s. Maybe too many but hey this us what this piece is about.)

The 6th draft (if all is going well) is the final read through. It’s a chance to read the manuscript for the umpteenth time.  (Because if you are like me you will often re-read it a lot of times before you even start the second draft).  You can check every word for typing errors and watch out for those slippery little suckers the closing quotation marks which (for me anyway) have a habit of disappearing at a great rate. Are there any missing? Can you find any more typos? Realistically you will not find them all so that’s where a friend can come in handy and do a read through for you. Another pair of eyes will always pick up things you’ve missed. That’s my experience anyway.

And now your baby is ready for an amazing journey. Kiss it goodbye and wish it luck.