Catching up with your characters after a long break

Passenger Liner 1925

Passenger liner 1925 Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

I’m in a whimsical mood so this is a whimsical post. I’m working out strategies – the best way to reconnect with my characters after a long break. Maybe some of these may help you if you are in the same “boat” and writing an historical novel. This is not the desperation of What to do when you can’t write. No, nothing like that. It’s more like one of us has been on holidays. Say, me. I’m back in town leaving my calling card Debbie Robson, Writer from the 21st century.

There it is on the silver platter. It’s the first, I notice this morning, but will probably soon be buried under an abundance of fancy calling cards because my character is young, very pretty and from one of the wealthiest families in Sydney. And she’s available. Well, her mother and father think she is.

I’m thinking maybe a cooee might help. I have a strong voice that carries. I could cooee across the sandstone mountain range. Way down below are tree ferns, a tinkling waterfall. Look, there are my characters walking along the opposite ridge. Their figures are outlined against the setting sun like an old fashioned travel poster. Soon they will heading back for dinner at The Carrington in Katoomba.

How about a letter? That threatened species that is disappearing as fast as good quality writing paper. “I’m writing to let you know that your best friend Louie is safe and well, in Paris. With Christopher’s help she booked a berth on the SS Osterley. Yes, she’s not even in Sydney. Don’t worry, Sarah. I’ll take care of her.”

In reality (well in the novel) Sarah will be distressed and concerned for her friend and I will leave her in that state for at least a week. Oh, the cruelty of novelists! But don’t worry the manuscript is not called Paris Next Week for nothing.

Actually I’ve decided I’m going to flee as well. I think I’ll catch up with Louie first. Right now I’m on this God awful cruise liner with screaming kids everywhere. Beside me are people with iPhones, iPads and Notebooks taking photos of nothing. I bribe a steward and free of baggage and misconceptions, I step into the small tender that is bobbing in the waves. We are leaving the stacked monstrosity behind. Sunlight is dancing on the water and ahead is the Osterley, dark hulled and very long, quite alien to my eyes. As we get closer I can see women in cloche hats and pencil thin dresses leaning on the rails to call out to me. I smile and call back, thrilled to be leaving the 21st century behind.

Following the paper trail and/or reading and searching google & wikipedia

Feature._Bibliotheque_St._Sulpice_BAnQ_P48S1P09080

Saint-Sulpice Library (now Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec), Saint-Denis Street in Montreal. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I’ve mentioned the paper trail before. It’s something that fascinates me but something I try to avoid when I’m writing. See How to Get Distracted Writing Historical Fiction. Today I am recovering from a small operation and I am not in the mindset to work on my fiction so I do what I normally do when I can’t write for various reasons. I read.

Less than a year ago I discovered crime fiction. Not the crime fiction that most people read but the crime fiction written by women in the 1950s and 1960s. For an historical novelist it is a wonderful world to discover, particularly for someone like me that has hardly ever read mysteries. The storylines are simpler than today’s books (burdened as they are with CSI, multiple plotlines, advanced technology etc). Instead these novels are peopled with interesting heroines and filled with everyday details that have now become historical fact. Think 10 cent jewellery stores and the road to Geneva early evening with not another car to be seen.

I began with Holly Roth (who is still my favourite) and devoured Shadow of a Lady, The Content Assignment, The Mask of Glass and The Sleeper. I was recently in Tasmania visiting the Salamanca Markets and was lucky enough to find a book by Helen McCloy, He Never Came Back, published in 1954 for only $2, (a 1961 green Penguin). I began reading the book and was not distracted until I got to this line on page 51. (A friend of the main character, Sara Dacre, has disappeared and she is worried. She is discussing what has happened with her aunt Caroline and an elderly man).

“It’s like bridge,” said Caroline. “You have to keep everything in your mind at once – past, present, and future. Book murders are more amusing than murders in real life, but, when it comes to disappearances, I don’t think any books have touched the real cases. Lord Bathurst, Marie Celeste, Charlie Ross, Dorothy Arnold. And Judge Crater.”

I knew of Marie Celeste of course and being female was immediately more interested in the disappearance of a woman than a man, so I honed in on Dorothy Arnold in google and came up with this entry in wikipedia. And so the paper trail unwinds and the book is left open at page 51.

It seems Dorothy Harriet Camille Arnold “was an American socialite who disappeared while walking on Fifth Avenue in New York City in December 1910. The circumstances surrounding her disappearance have never been resolved and her fate remains unknown.”

I read the entry and discovered a link to List of people who disappeared mysteriously and of course clicked on it. How many people can resist a link like that, I ask you? Definitely not me. As I’m researching and writing a trilogy set in Paris and Sydney in the 1920s, I clicked on the link to the 1920s and scanned through the names. Among them was Glenn and Bessie Hyde. I already knew about them from a novel I read a number of years ago. And as I type these words I’m off on another paper trail (web search) to find the title of the book. Voila! Grand Ambition by Lisa Michaels. It is an enthralling book and I highly recommend it.

I checked the other names and read about The Lost Battalion. Having recently completed a final edit of a novel set during WWI this was of particular interest. In 1921 Charles Whittlesey 37, “American soldier and Medal of Honor recipient who led the Lost Battalion in World War was last seen on the evening of 26 November 1921, on a passenger ship bound from New York City to Havana, and is presumed to have committed suicide by jumping overboard.”

On reading about the Lost Battalion I discovered that a pigeon named Cher Ami was responsible for saving the lives of 194 men by delivering a message whilst badly wounded, 25 miles to the rear of the action in just 25 minutes. How good is that?

Although the 1920s list is fascinating (and I will probably go back to it later) my eyes were drawn to the 1930s and the name Barbara Newhall Follett. She “was an American child prodigy novelist. Her first novel, The House Without Windows, was published in 1927 when she was thirteen years old. Her next novel, The Voyage of the Norman D., received critical acclaim when she was fourteen. In 1939, aged 25, she became depressed with her marriage and walked out of her apartment with just thirty dollars. She was never seen again.”

Of course you can probably guess what I did next. I read all about the child prodigy and decided I wanted to read her novel The House Without Windows. You can download it here. And so in the nature of paper trails (web searches) which often seem to be very Alice in Wonderland or Oscar Wildeish, we began with a 1950s crime novel and followed the trail to an American socialite, a long list of missing persons, took a detour rafting down the Grand Canyon, found a Lost Battalion, a Medal of Honour winner, an amazing pigeon, a child prodigy and ended up with what? A book of course! And I’m off to read the Helen McCloy after being rudely interrupted by a paper trail four hours ago.

My Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

old typewriter

A little while ago Anthony Scully of ABC Open invited me to do a post on writing tips for historical fiction. It has been quite a journey working out my tips and whitling down my list to five. Along the way I contacted Justin Go, the author of The Steady Running of the Hour. His webpage details the research journey the writing of his novel took him on. I hope you enjoy my tips and would love to hear yours. Writing Historical Fiction.

My Adventures with the Australian Women Writers Challenge

aww-badge-2015

Australian Women Writers Challenge

The Australian Women Writers Challenge was founded by Elizabeth Lhuede to support and promote books by Australian women. I joined the challenge in 2013 and it has certainly been a journey for me. I am now much more aware of the books written by women and not just Australian women. This year I joined the challenge as a volunteer, as well as a reviewer. I am doing the monthly roundup of Historical Fiction and it is fascinating to see what is being read and reviewed in this genre.

Here is a link to the wrap up.
January 2015 Roundup: Historical Fiction
It’s not too late to join. Hope to see you there!

A Writer’s Life: What to do when you can’t write

Source Wikimedia Commons

Doh! Frustration

By “can’t write” I mean actually kicking and screaming I can’t write writer’s block, my brain is not working or I am sick so I can’t write. This scenario is very different from the I can’t write because I don’t have time – it’s Christmas, the study is being painted or I’m starting a new job or a relative is sick. These situations are really “I have decided not to write at the moment” although we still lament the fact we can’t write to our friends and family.

In 1987 whilst I was writing my first novel I had to have my appendix out. I was two thirds of the way through the manuscript set in the Wye Valley at a youth hostel for school children. Every week a new lot of school children arrived with several teachers to look after them. Just before my appendectomy this new group were assembled on the doorstep of the beautiful old hostel (a former priory) overlooking the Wye river.

I was so excited to get back to the writing after my operation. I actually had a week off work and envisaged getting so much done. I turned on my computer and the blankness was overwhelming. The new group wouldn’t speak to me. It was as if they hadn’t arrived and the rest of the characters weren’t talking either. They were incommunicado. After a few failed attempts at stringing words together, they all just literally packed their bags and left. I was distraught.

I realise now of course that I was suffering some sort of reaction from the anaesthetic. For weeks in bed at night I felt like I was sinking from the head down. I couldn’t concentrate and I definitely couldn’t write. It was so frustrating and a bit worrying. It lasted I think about a month until I found a way out of the haze my brain was in and was able to coax the words back.

The only other time I have experienced the “kicking and screaming I can’t write” was last month and I am only now just getting the words to flow again. What happened? Well, just before my planned holiday to New Zealand, I had a manuscript assessment done by the wonderful novelist Belinda Castles. I received the assessment only days before my cruise and decided that I would tackle it after I got back mid November. I would be renewed and rested and excited. The perfect mindset for a major rewrite. I arrived home on a Wednesday with an awful virus caught from a passenger on board (many at our table were sick) and didn’t have the energy to even open my laptop. I avoided emails for days. Editing was definitely out of the question! For three and a half weeks as it turned out. I have only just begun the rewrite this week and I am finally excited and confident.

What did I do on both occasions to fix the problem? It’s simple and obvious. I read. Well in regards to the assembled school teachers and children I didn’t actually read. To start with I just looked at a book of watercolour sketches of the area of England and Wales where my manuscript was set. I gazed at the beautiful scenes (meadows, woods and streams) and after a day or two managed to read a small amount of text. Soon after I discovered a way back into the manuscript through the landscape that my characters were either living in or visiting.

Last month I reached for the short stories of F Scott Fitzgerald (which I’m still reading) a non fiction book about Sylvia Plath’s month in New York in 1953, a speculative fiction novel and also some short fiction which I devoured. The standout was Andrei Makine’s A Life’s Music. It was so good to read elegant sentences and straightforward plots.

As a writer I marvel at other writers who say they don’t read. How can they learn and improve their own writing if they don’t touch base with how other authors construct sentences, decide on points of view and characterisation and of course evoke a setting? This writer is completely mystified. I frankly don’t think it’s possible and don’t ever intend to try. The only problem I’m faced with in my reading is not finding the time to read but who to read.

At the moment I am very much aware that I need to streamline my manuscript and the books I’ve been reading lately have definitely given me some ideas how to do it. With these new ideas and Belinda’s assessment I am ready to go. Here is what I read November and early December. I wish my readers a Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year and of course happy reading! My Goodreads bookshelf.

How fiction/historical fiction can save historical fact

Barquentine City of Sydney – formerly steamer City-of-Sydney_SLV_Green, Source: State Library of Victoria Author: Allan C. Green 1878 – 1954

From oblivion is what I mean. One of my main aims in being a writer is to preserve little known facts and make them sing in my fiction. I might have touched on this before but there were two facts (above all others) that I wanted to preserve in Tomaree and that was to do with the US servicemen based in Australia. But let me start at the beginning.

Tomaree is inspired not just by a real life love story but by a fascinating time in Australian history when approximately half a million US serviceman were stationed in Australia during World War II. There are a lot of facts in Tomaree – details of the Fly Point camp, the way Nelson Bay used to be in 1942 (just a jumble of small shops) details of campaigns in the Pacific and much more. But the two facts, that may seem trivial, but I wanted to include are: 1. that the American serviceman hated all our loose change. They couldn’t abide it heavy and jingling in their pockets – the threepenny, halfpenny, pennies etc. As related to me by a Nelson Bay Resident, the soldiers would dig their hands in their pockets offer up the change to the nearest small child and say, “Here kid, buy yourself an icecream.”

No. 2 is that wherever the soldiers were stationed in Australia, it was common for local residents to send a small boy (never a girl from what I read in a history book on the subject) into the street looking for a Yank to invite him home to tea. My Amercan Signals Officer is approached by such a small boy but has to refuse because he already has a dinner invitation. I feel very privileged to have the means to keep these sort of little known but important facts alive for the reading public of today. It’s what motivates me to seek out historical fact (like many historical fiction authors I’m guessing) and weave it into my fiction.

In a strange way too, fiction also preserves historical facts for readers. For some time now I’ve been researching Sydney in the 1920s. There are actually not many non fiction books available on the subject. Frustrated, I turned my attention to fiction but wondered where all the female fiction writers were who were writing at that time. There didn’t seem to be many listed in anthologies and literary records. At first I thought there was simply no significant female authors writing during the first two decades of the last century. I have since read Dale Spender’s Writing a New World and discovered that is not the case. They have been deliberately left out of literary collections and reviews – but that’s another blog. In this one I want to highlight how I have found historical fact in fiction.

As mentioned I turned my attention to fiction to help me research the 1920s and luckily discovered Ethel Turner’s daughter Jean Curlewis. Last month I read her third novel Beach Beyond set near Palm Beach and written in 1923. This week I have just finished her first novel written in 1921 – The Ship That Never Set Sail. Here is what I have been looking for the last six months – a real, vibrant Sydney – the Sydney of 90 years ago!

Here she is writing about Darling Harbour:

“They were gazing right down on to the littered decks of ships – they could almost have dropped pebbles into the holds – they caught intimate glimpses of donkey-engines and capstans and flying bridges and fo’c’stle hatches at a proximity impossible at the Quay. The huge funnels towered up right beside them. They could count the cases and barrels and mysterious bulging sacks and great green clusters of bananas scattered on the wharves – gaze down into the dull green water, deep-hued as a peacock’s tail with a film of oil from some passing steamer. All the vast detail of the fifth port of the Empire was spread beneath their eyes: “the beauty and mystery of the ships”; all Darling Harbour stretching like a river between its vessel-teeming banks into the very heart of the city.” Marvellous and better than any history book!

There are also descriptions of White City, now long vanished, a ball on board a warship, something called a gypsy tea, the Blue Mountains when it was smaller and quieter with barely any cars on the road, and Pittwater. A wharf at Newport is mentioned and a pier “that ran out from a green garden full of white pigeons, scented verbena and mauve blue Love-in-a-Mist.” This is very near where I used to live but of course the garden is long gone. I’m so thankful to have found Jean Curlewis. Her words have been helping me to recreate in my mind another Sydney. I hope to track down more lost authors, to read, review and discover the Australia they lived in.

Author platforms and protecting your intellectual property

iconsWe are constantly told that we need to work on our author platform – as many social media sites as possible. Well that’s fine. That’s the way the world is in the 21st century but how to find the time to maintain them all that is the big question! Of course it is a matter of personal preferences as to which ones you chose of the many. Personally, I have found that Pinterest, WordPress, Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook, StumbleUpon and LinkedIn are the most useful for me – the first five in particular.

But I’m not writing this blog to say get on all these now. I actually want to talk about a problem that seems to be overlooked. And that is protecting your intellectual property. In Goodreads, more so than Amazon, I’ve found that unless an author completes their profile and identifies which books are theirs, things can get really confusing.

I am a librarian on Goodreads, a Goodreads author and a participant of the wonderful Australian Women Writer’s Challenge. What’s been happening recently for me is that I have read several books where the author’s profile is not up on Goodreads. This may not appear to be a big problem for a lot of authors. It’s just one of the platforms they don’t have time for. But what they don’t realise is that when their profile is not completed a search of their name (without a profile) will bring up all the books for that name and some of the titles will not be theirs! In other words the author is not claiming and separating from other authors, their intellectual property.

As I am, like a lot of authors:
Working full time
Writing my novel,
Doing my research,
Reading
Maintaining my author platforms
Answering emails
Blogging. And, as well:
Participating in the AWWC
And of course, trying to have a personal life…
There is not really much time for extra stuff.

That’s why I am endeavouring to help in a small way. I hope to assist all the poets that I have featured at my community page www.starvinginagarret.com in making sure Goodreads reflects what they themselves have written. I am also either putting up profiles of authors who don’t appear on Goodreads but whose book or books I have just read. And sometimes this might be an author who has died but whose work I feel deserves a new audience such as Jean Curlewis. (I still have to put up her three other books).

In regards to separating titles that is a delicate process that I only do in collaboration with the author. I cannot presume to know all the titles they have written. So authors make sure Goodreads reflects who you are and what you have written. You mightn’t want to have to tackle this but you do want readers to find your books easily – and that, finally, is what a successful platform is about.

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.

Keeping track of the chapters you’ve written

chaptersHello, I’m back! The mistress of old school. The beauty of this piece of paper is that all the chapters (or most of them) are visible at a glance. Writing programs will obviously show much more but that can be distracting. Along with my notebook and my record of pages written (see previous post) this is actually all the paper I deal with in writing. The rest is on my laptop. Oh and one draft I print out and edit on paper.

I usually keep this record only on my first draft and my last. The chapter list not only helps me keep a track of my chapters but the length of them. Luckily for me I name my chapters and by looking at the list I can see, for instance, that The Casino is 6 1/2 pages and Berry’s Bay is only 4 1/2. I can also look at the flow of the scenes. Generally, for me anyway, a chapter that is a bit short is often a problem chapter and needs more attention. The Winter Garden, for instance, does seem to be a bit short to me when I consider what happens in that chapter and the page count of the others.

Everyone is different in how they write of course but for me this list is too impractical for the next few drafts. My second, third and fourth drafts are the ones where I’m constantly adding or deleting pages. Therefore it would drive me (and most people) mad writing such a record out each time.

For the last draft though, it is very useful. I generally write it out again noting the changes in the chapters and also adding a word count for each chapter which gives me a final manuscript tally. If you don’t already keep such a record you might find it handy! I would love to hear what types of writing records you keep!

 

Charting the progress of your manuscript

progress sheetAs you can see from the above I’m old school! Well, at least as far as keeping a record of my writing progress goes. Paris Next Week is my seventh manuscript. Yes, I love bashing my head against a brick wall! The first three manuscripts I can’t actually remember keeping a record of each page written. I’m pretty sure it all started with Tomaree. I was, by that time (early 2002) becoming more organised and setting goals. The main goal was – a page a day! A page a day is of course a manuscript in a year but as you can see from the very battered piece of paper covering the last three months, I’m only averaging slightly half that. I am, though, happy with my progress.

Of course there are many programs now that a writer can use to chart their progress and keep all their notes organised. I won’t discuss them all here as I don’t use them, lol. Here is my project management tool below:

notebook

It’s a notebook! Yep! In I keep very scattered notes but as I write I generally circle what I need to research further. I keep this with me at all times. When I’m reading research material I often jot notes down quickly. If a line from a character starts reverberating in my head, such as the simple words: “Money follows you.” from the wealthy Lilith, I jot that down too. Any more than a sentence though and I’ll have the laptop out pronto.

The main purpose of this post though is advice that covers all forms of record keeping and that is be generous! It really does help keep you motivated. I found this out by Tomaree and it’s my common practice now. Don’t worry if you’ve only written a few lines (generally you’ll find at the start of a new scene or chapter) put down half a page! If you look closely at the sheet above, you’ll see lots of 1/2 pages. You’ll find too that even being generous when you do a page count, reconciled with what you’ve written, you’ll still be missing a few pages – page breaks of course!

My sheet is very simple. It’s just the date, the title of the chapter and the amount of pages. From above you can see that I wrote 10 1/2 pages this March, only 2 1/2 pages in April, 10 1/2 in May and I have so far written another 10 1/2 this month. April I was on holidays painting doors and architraves in my house and my Mum came to stay. I was also checking over my Darlinghurst research. In May the next chapter required a bit of research in France and I’m currently researching crime scene practices in the 1920s regarding the discovery of a dead body.

By keeping this simple record you can actually see your month by month progress and highlight the months, where perhaps you have fallen behind. If I’m doing a lot of research, I will often note that research on the days I’m not writing. After all, it is progress too! If you don’t keep a record of each page written, give it a try. Don’t forget to record those half pages, keep at your writing and watch the pages mount up!