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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
We 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,
Maintaining my author platforms
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.
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.
Hello, 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!
As 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:
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!
I can do this! I’m a novelist! But why? Now that’s a good question but I’d better start at the beginning. As I might have mentioned, I had barely done any research when I began writing my manuscript Paris Next Week last August. I needed two Sydney suburbs fairly close to the inner city so I chose Elizabeth Bay for Louie Galbraith and Darling Point for my main character, Sarah Montague. I actually can’t remember why but with this decision I had put my main character further away from Sydney and all that was happening there.
This wasn’t a problem until I started moving my characters around the city and also became better acquainted with them. It turns out that Louie’s family are richer than the Montagues and she therefore has a more generous allowance than Sarah. She also has a chauffeur at her disposal. Sarah is forced to sometimes catch the tram (poor darling) and often walks to some of her meetings with her best friend. This is a bit of a stretch if she was walking from Darling Point – an hour as opposed to the more realistic thirty minutes from Elizabeth Bay.
Recently I have been investigating the mansions of both suburbs. Libby Watters at the Woollahra Local History Centre has been a wonderful help. With a map and a list of Darling Point mansions she supplied, I have discovered that Darllng Point is the grander suburb, with several outstanding properties such as the fairytale Greenoaks above. It’s one of four spectacular castle like houses in the suburb, including the amazing mansion called The Swifts. I grabbed this for Louie’s home only the other week and with this decision and the chauffeur, I decided to swap the girls’ suburbs. Once I had the extra wealth and the suburb, AND the castle here is the paragraph that came from all the manoeuvring. It is Sarah pondering on Louie’s house I’ve called Eastbourne (The Swifts in disguise) :
“It has crenellations everywhere, ready for battle with little chimneys shaped like turrets and a portico that could shelter a whole wedding party in a thunderstorm. It is an amazing house masquerading as a castle in Scotland and the magnificence of it has always shadowed Louie in a way. It’s strange that I should only have just realised this but it is what I’ve been thinking since our talk at Darlinghurst.
She loves the house and grounds. I know she does but she also fears what the house represents. I can’t blame her! I’m thankful I don’t live there because I’m sure I would feel the same way and I think that’s why we always played at Highcliffe when we could. Not just because we loved clambering up and down the switchback stairs to the garden. We used to get to the bottom and look up. And although Highcliffe looks the most impressive from that view, it still manages to look friendly rather than imposing. Whereas Eastbourne does imposing AND grand exceedingly well. What daughter could look up to that? And what sort of man does the house call to? The wrong sort of man, I’m sure. The sort that says to himself, “Ah, here is money to burn.””
The suburbs are now aligned and all is right with the world of my characters. At least for the time being!