Fiction writers as researchers and historians

Site of SWH camp from NW_-1

Site of SWH camp from NW – Photo courtesy of Nikiforos Sivenas

Yep! That’s what often happens to us historical fiction writers. We frequently become, by necessity, researchers and historians. Because I chose to write a novel set partly in Northern Greece and Serbia during the last 18 months of WWI, I am now fairly knowledgeable about the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, particularly the unit at Ostrovo.

Recently I started a page here on this blog to track the Australian women who worked with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. With the help of other researchers and historians I have now updated the list.

The bulk of the list is made up of biographies from the tireless Alan Cumming at the Scottish Women’s Hospitals website. A number are also from Jennifer Baker’s Looking for the Evidence website.

I now have some more searching to do. A new friend Nikiforos Sivenas, whose very elderly father still remembers the women of the Scottish Women’s Hospital field unit at Ostrovo, has kindly supplied photos and a list of all the women who worked at the Ostrovo Unit. It will take me some time but I hope to search all the names to find out whether they are Australian or not. I also plan to read Australian Doctors on the Western Front by Robert Likeman and The Women of Royaumont by Eileen Crofton to locate more. I just need a few more hours in my day!

My Adventures with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Scottish Women’s Hospitals Unit at Ostrovo – Source: Wikimedia Commons

I can’t believe that it’s nearly five years since I began thinking about a novel partly set in one of the field hospitals of the Macedonian Front. On Australia Day 2010 I did my first little field trip to scout for a family home for my main character. I walked Tyrrell and Wolfe streets that day but a month or two later decided on Mayfield, a suburb of Newcastle on the Hunter River. I barely knew a thing about the Macedonian front, that forgotten series of battlegrounds from WWI, but was determined to find out more. I skimmed through The Gardeners of Salonika by Alan Palmer, read up about the Australian nurses, orderlies and ambulance drivers who were there in Jan Bassett’s book Guns and Brooches. I also did more general reading about the war (including the excellent The Virago Book of Women and the Great War edited by Joyce Marlow) and found out details about the lives of not just Australian nurses but VADs.

My research into Australian VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments – a sort of orderly, nurses’ aid and dogsbody) gave me information that turned out to be crucial to my plotting of The Grey Silk Purse. I actually had to change my storyline. In my early stages of research I decided my character Phyllis Summerville would become a VAD (her personality doesn’t lend her to the profession of nursing) and she would soon after be posted to France in the thick of all the fighting. WRONG! Australian VADs remained in Australia, working at hospitals looking after shell-shocked and disabled Australian serviceman, shipped home from the fighting. During 2010 I began interviewing residents about Mayfield after the war – obviously relying on memories their families may have passed down.

Through my research I met two very dear friends who helped me bring Mayfield to life – the late Helen Marshall and Vera Deacon, who is very knowledgeable about life on the islands in the Hunter River. In 2011 I decided to keep a blog of my struggles with the immense and intricate research that was needed for The Grey Silk Purse. On 16th June I wrote in my very first blog post: “At this stage it looks like my main character may be working at one of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.” I had been inspired after discovering about the amazing Olive Kelso King and decided, yep, my girl would be working at one of the field hospitals of the SWH – Miles Franklin’s field unit as it turns out.

In 2012 I had a lot of research points to sort out. For instance, discovering as many Serbian words as I could that my main character would have spoken. (She was given a small Serbian phrasebook after her ambulance driver training). What was her driver’s uniform like? In which battle did my character Adrian Langley lose his leg? Would my young maid sleep at Summerville, the family home where she worked or would she go home? Were the Summervilles wealthy enough to have a chauffeur?

Around this time I met John Vandenberg, a wiki adviser and user, who gave me a crash course and said that if I didn’t put the Ostrovo Unit up on Wiki, the likelihood was that no-one else would. That started the ball rolling. I added Olive Kelso King as well, Dr Mary de Garis and just recently Dr Agnes Bennett. I knew, with dismay that there was no wiki entry for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals at that time. For me, it was just too big an undertaking – although by this time I had read many books on the subject.

Luckily last year I discovered Alan Cumming’s website www.scottishwomenshospitals.co.uk and he has done wonders in profiling the organisation, including travelling to Serbia. He has also been involved in a short film about the SWH. Last year Alan and I were able to work on the wiki entry for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. I will be doing a biography on Kathleen Dillon soon. Although not Australian I relied quite heavily on her experience, as Head of the Transport Unit based at Yelak, for an important section in my manuscript. I am now actively seeking relatives of Australian women who worked for the SWH and will collaborate with Alan Cumming to get them up on his site. It has been a wonderful adventure discovering all about the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and I hope I can do more to raise awareness of this incredible and fascinating organisation. Please don’t hesitate to contact me. See this page for more information: Australians Working with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.

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.

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!

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!

The World’s Worst Travel Agent

Yes, that’s me when it comes to moving my main character from A to B, ie England to Salonika during the last few days of 1917 to early 1918. Should I have her spend most of the travel time on board say, a French liner/hospital ship with the possibility of it being attacked by a submarine? During one week in April of 1917 55 ships were sunk in the Mediterranean. So maybe not…

Or then I can have her going overland to Le Havre, Rome, Taranto and then by ship via Corfu to Salonika but where did she stay on the way? On board the train or in small hotels? The mind wanders and at this rate she’ll never get there! She is stamping her foot in frustration and I’m dithering around like a maiden aunt. But then of course I know what is ahead of her: driving an ambulance along a torturous road with men crying out in pain in the back, freezing cold such she has never known in Australia, horrible sights that no-one should have to witness and young orderlies, VADs and nurses did witness, sometimes for years, more often than not working incredible hours that would compromise their health in later life. Yes, it’s all ahead of my Miss Summerville and I’m petrified for her. No wonder I am delaying sending her to Macedonia.

In fact I’m quite nervous about the writing of her Serbian diary. How did the real women live through it all? I am in awe of  women such as Sister Alice Kitchen who served through the whole of the war, Sister Ross-King who was awarded a Military medal for her bravery on the night of the 22nd July when her Casualty Clearing Station was bombed. And the wonderful dressing station sister Agnes Dorothy Kerr. Even just your average nurse who often worked up to 18 hours a day, particularly when  a convoy of wounded men arrived! They deserve to be remembered.
http://www.theage.com.au/news/opinion/lets-remember-the-bravery-of-thousands-of-australian-nurses/2007/04/23/1177180564828.html?page=fullpage

Now it’s back to getting my girl over there and into action. I know she is going to be fearless!

More Heroic Women

Now that my main character has just stepped ashore in England (on the 28th November, 1917) I have switched my research to find out more about the last year of the war. Along the way I have met more heroic women. I am only a third of the way through Women on the Warpath by David Mitchell but within the pages of this book I have already met some wonderful, inspiring women:

The indefatigable Pankhursts who took on Womens Suffrage (of course), the Huns and the Bolsheviks, particularly Sylvia who worked tirelessly for poverty stricken women in the East End of  London, among many other good works. Lady Muriel Paget who formed a hospital unit  that was sent to Russia. Lady Leila Paget who organised a hospital unit in Serbia and liaissed with the Bulgarians to open an emergency clinic in Skopje.
Sarah Macnaughton  who set up a soup kitchen at Furnes in Flanders and Mrs. St Clair Stobart who was the leader of a coloumn through the terrible Serbian Death March of late 1915.

One of my aims in writing The Grey Silk Purse is to highlight what it was like during WWI for women with a driving need to help others. It was a time when women really made a difference. Opportunities arose because of the war and the shortage of men, and these amazing woman and thousands more grabbed life with both hands and achieved startling results.

It’s a mystery

After posting my last blog a mystery has developed. On Saturday 13th July I spent the day at the Mitchell, after first viewing the World Press photos and the SMH Photos1440 http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/events/exhibitions/2010/photos_1440/items/image05.html I went carefully through A History of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals by Eva Shaw McLaren looking for a reference to the tragedy at the Ostrovo Unit. Nothing. Just a mention of the unit being moved. Now I know from our excellent historian Susanna De Vries’s book Heroic Australian Women in War, in a chapter on Agnes Bennett and Lilian Cooper, that the skeleton staff of the unit were massacred by the Bulgarians and our very own Miles Franklin was referenced. I am waiting for my local library to get a copy of De Vries book that features Miles Franklin – The Complete Book of Great Australian Women for more details.

In the meantime I decided to go back again yesterday to the Mitchell and had a very interesting day. I went through two old directories (1914 and 1919) of the Newcastle, Cessnock, Maitland districts and also leafed through Flora Sandes’s two autobiographies. Sandes was the first woman to be commissioned as an officer in the Serbian Army. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flora_Sandes I also went through Stebbing’s At the Serbian Front in Macedonia – again no details of the massacre of the unit. The mystery deepens.

Lastly I went through the 1917 diary of Miles Franklin which proved to be fascinating – particularly descriptions of the camp. Matron was a terror evidently and the work in the kitchen exhausting. Unfortunately I ran out of time to read the 1918 diaries but am  looking forward to reading the chapter on MF in De Vries’s book and delving deeper into what happened to the unit.

On heroic women

At this stage it looks like my main character may be working at one of the units of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. I have been reading about the amazing Olive Kelso King and her experiences in Greece and Serbia. I am staggered by what she achieved during her war service. I’ve also been researching the two Australian doctors involved with the SWH – Dr Agnes Bennett and Dr Violet Cooper. Suddenly I am nervous at putting my character into the middle of the danger and terrible working conditions of the Eastern Front in 1918. Never mind that these women actually lived and worked there! I am worried about having to face it all just on the page!

I am, unfortunately in some respects, very thin-skinned and was crying in a cafe last week when I read again about Vivien Bullwinkel and the massacre at Bangka Island. I mean I know that Vivien was the only survivor of 21 nurses gunned down at Radji Beach and I was okay when I first read about what happened but then was done for when I came to Matron Drummond’s word:

“Girls, I love you all and I’m proud of you. Walk into the water with your chins up. Don’t be afraid.” You can’t get more heroic than that!

Yep, it’s not going to be easy putting my character into a similar sort of danger. It’s going to be challenging not just emotionally but in getting the historical context accurate.  Now back to the past!