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.

Waiting for Eleanor Dark

Slow Dawning by Eleanor DarkI‘ve been doing that for quite a while now for two very different reasons but I had better start at the beginning. I first discovered that I really wanted to read Eleanor Dark‘s first novel way back in the early 1990s. I was researching my third manuscript set between the wars and as the tone of the times (as I like to think of it) is always very important to me I generally try and read at least a few books written during the time that I am researching. By then I had read Prelude to Christopher and thought it marvellous so I was quite interested in reading Eleanor Dark’s very first novel. I can’t recall the exact details but it became obvious that there were limited copies available and I think I had to either try and buy a copy online (which I never attempted) or read the book at the Mitchell Library. Also impossible with a young child and a very unsympathetic husband.

Life moved on. For me there was a divorce and a move up the coast, a World War II novel (Tomaree), a contemporary novel (Crossing Paths: the BookCrossing Novel) and then a manuscript set during World War I (The Grey Silk Purse). As research for that book I thought I would finally attempt to read Slow Dawning and this is when the waiting really began.

In July 2011 whilst researching transport during WWI, I requested Slow Dawning along with another book. I did this online during the week to make sure both books would be available for me after I got off the Newcastle train and arrived at the Mitchell Library in Sydney. On arrival I was told that Eleanor wasn’t there. I said I requested it. The staff nicely informed me there was a delay of about half an hour. She couldn’t be quickly located.

By the time the book turned up I was deep in my other research and only gave the novel a cursory glance. I was still at this stage thinking I could read it in several sittings or just glance through it and dismiss it (particularly after what Eleanor Dark’s biographer had written about the book). I did neither. I decided I really wanted to read it but wasn’t sure how I could achieve this as I knew by 2011 that the book couldn’t be bought online. Surprisingly no second hand book shop on the net had it available for sale (and still doesn’t). I reluctantly returned the book and thought I would have a look at it again next time I was at the Mitchell and hopefully not as busy.

On Saturday, 26 January this year I arrived off the train, keen to have another look at Slow Dawning. It was my main focus this time. I went to the desk to pick the book up and they told me it wasn’t there and would take  a while for them to find it. I said this had happened last time and why couldn’t it be ready when I put a special request in for it? They didn’t know. I was frustrated and beginning to wonder why this book AND ONLY THIS BOOK kept me waiting. It arrived and I began to read Slow Dawning. Because of the delay in arriving I didn’t have much time with the book and was now more determined than ever to read it.

I took it to the front counter and asked if I could photocopy the book. They said yes and calculated the cost – approximately $30. Being a starving artist I didn’t have the money to spare that weekend but promised myself I would be back in a few months to finally read Eleanor Dark’s first novel. What a mission!

On Saturday 1st June I had an awful trip down on the train, missed my connection and had a wait at Gordon station. By the time I arrived at the Mitchell I was already very frazzled and precious time had again gotten away from me. I went to the front counter to pick up the book (as before ordered online for a quick pickup) and was told AGAIN the book wasn’t there! They couldn’t locate it. WELL… you can imagine what sort of mood I was in! I made a fuss (as much of a fuss as anyone can make in the hallowed rooms of the Mitchell Library). I was asked if I wanted to make a complaint. I said yes I did, mainly, I explained because obviously there was something wrong with the cataloguing of this particular book. I filled out the form (still haven’t heard anything back) and waited.

Finally after about thirty five minutes of twiddling my thumbs the book was in my hands and I went into the photocopying room to carefully copy each page. I began by putting twenty dollars on my card to do the photocopying with and the machine just ate my money. By this time I was practically in tears! The Library staff must have thought I was mad but eventually the money was allocated to my card and I spent over half an hour photocopying each page. Finally I was able to read Eleanor Dark’s first novel. Here is my review:

Slow Dawning by Eleanor Dark

I have the book but I’m still not happy! I recently downloaded for free Betty Wayside by Louis Stone. This novel is from 1915 and is quite dated now but anyone can read it. The same should apply to Slow Dawning. In my opinion it has been forgotten because both the author and her biographer dismissed it as a potboiler. I argue that it is much more that that. I believe Eleanor Dark had serious intentions for this book but with the long delay in publication and the fact that sales were disappointing, she dismissed it as a potboiler to cover her disappointment. What serious novelist with literary aspirations sets out to write her first novel purely for money, particularly a book with a prophetic paragraph such as this:

“It was in this way that she had seen her fellow-women. They would climb at last, she dreamed, to a height where they would perform not only the artistic or intellectual work to which their natures inclined, but the normal functions of wifehood and motherhood as well – carrying a double burden as only they were privileged to carry it. A terrible fight, and a slow one, but epic in its magnificence. Generations it would take, and thousands of women would be the most bitter enemies of their own sex.”

No, I really think Dark had fairly high hopes for this first of her babies, especially when you consider her next novel Prelude to Christopher. You DO NOT as a writer, I believe, intend to write a potboiler as your first published work and then write something of such high standing as Prelude to Christopher as your second.

But the waiting for Eleanor is not over. This book should be made available for the general public to read. It is the first book, a very enjoyable novel, of one of Australia’s major writers. It should be accessible to all and the cataloguing problem needs to be fixed. Hopefully, something will be done about this sad state of affairs and Slow Dawning will eventually be available for everyone to read.

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!

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!

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.

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!!

On Memory

an island boatrower's hands

One of the things that drives me as a writer, my passion I suppose you could call it, is to recreate the past incorporating memories of those that were there or there through their parents’ recollections. It is very important to me to uncover these personal details that can make the past come alive – because not everything is recorded in history books.

Nine years ago I began interviewing many elderly residents of Port Stephens to help me understand what Nelson Bay was like during WWII for my novel Tomaree. This time I am writing about WWI so I am relying heavily on first hand accounts of people that of course have since died. Luckily, I have though, two helpers who are very much alive: Vera Deacon and Helen Marshall. Both have memories going back to the Thirties and Forties and as Mayfield didn’t change too much from 1920 until about 1935 or so, I am able to use a lot of those memories.

Vera Deacon is an island girl. She grew up on Dempsey and Mosquito islands - islands that no longer exist. (They have been covered in slag and turned into Kooragang Island). As a young woman she was always on the water rowing everywhere, along the channel, between the islands and to work at Mayfield. Her hands can be seen above – boatrower’s hands.

And Helen Marshall (who helped create the Mayfield walks) http://libguides.newcastle.edu.au/content.php?pid=251354&sid=2089250 has a prodigious memory going back to around 1933. Helen has been marvellous in helping  me map out three walks that my main characters Miss Summerville and Adrian Langley take in my novel The Grey Silk Purse. We have had some wonderful discussions about Waratah House and Argyle House, two properties that have been demolished years ago. We have also talked about the colour of Platts Channel, the way a gate faced surrounding Argyle House, also the Black Wharf off Ingall Street and Shelly Beach (both long gone). I only hope I can do her and Vera’s memories justice.