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.
Basement and underground station deep actually! Did you know that under The Strand Arcade was the Ambassador’s Cafe? It was opened in late 1923 and the cafe was in the newspapers off and on throughout 1924 because of the illegal sale of liquor. You can imagine me jumping for joy when I discovered this. In point of fact this last week I’ve been seriously thinking of changing the opening chapter to January 1924 instead of October. Maybe even have my main character Sarah visiting the cafe on that fateful night in February. Just a thought…
At the moment I’ve written only four and half pages. This is the first novel that I have actually started without doing at least several months research beforehand, which is why I’m in a bit of a pickle. Very early on I was planning a garden party to be hosted at Sarah’s house in October with her controlling mother in her element and Sarah dodging as many eligible and boring bachelors as she can. But I’m guessing that not many garden parties in the twenties would have been hosted in the middle of summer. If I go ahead with the change in timeframe to accommodate all those lovely police raids I will have to forfeit the garden party.
I am now stuck wondering what social event the mother could organise in January – if any at all! You see this is just one of the many challenges historical writers face when they are recreating the past as accurately as they can. Challenges surface, more research is needed and then you stumble on an interesting fact that can trigger a scene, an event, even a very important location in the storyline.
I stumbled on the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in 2010 and what those women achieved during WWI ended up being a major theme in The Grey Silk Purse. In Paris Next Week, my new manuscript, my theme is the lost generation of the twenties – the frenetic surface glitter of their lives which I believe was a actually a psychological recreation to the great losses of WWI. How I can depict that aspect of history and still create an enjoyable novel is the task I’ve set myself, as well of course as getting to know Sydney in 1924.
It’s early days yet but I already know that Hyde Park was a mess from construction of St James Station so I can’t have Sarah and her beau conducting a romantic walk there. The very famous Australian restauranteur Azzalin Orlando Romano worked at the Ambassador’s cafe before opening his own restaurant. There was a police raid on Maxine’s – a dance hall in 1924 (another scene in Paris Next Week very possibly) and according to Jack Lindsay there was at least one coffee shop called Mockbells but more details are proving elusive. Something called The Blues was the new dance craze and there was a Hungarian cafe in Castlereagh Street. Heady stuff! This is where I long for the Tardis to just nip back to 1924. Oh to scout around and be a fly on the wall! I can only hope to do Sydney in 1924 justice.
Yes, 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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
People don’t change over the years but the environment they live in does. When Ishobel Ross, a cook from the Isle of Skye, arrives in London in July 1916 it is amazing how much she gets up to in the city without a car! She is sightseeing – taking in the theatre, a trip to Aldershot, shopping at Selfridges, visits to St Pauls, Marble Arch, and tea at Fullers. The list goes on and I’m exhausted reading it. Finally on the 29th she writes “Got word today (from the Scottish Women’s Hospitals) to report at Victoria Station on Tuesday morning.”
Got word? How? Obviously not by SMS or mobile call but I’m left pondering the alternative. Did the SWH ring Ishobel at her hotel? Send a telegram? From my research into the Twenties in Sydney it is amazing to someone from the 21st century how often they got mail in the early part of the last century: twice in the metropolitan area and for a time a delivery on Saturday which beggars belief. Telegrams too seem to arrive very quickly, including the dreaded ones from the War Office – “We regret to inform you…”
Did the SWH send a boy running through the streets of London with a message? Who knows? There is, of course no way of knowing now. As they say “you had to be there.” And taking that line of thought I can imagine a 22nd century historian possibly stumbling over emails, letters, the odd diary, containing such lines as: “Met this great guy last night. Too good to be true so I googled him.”
Google may be around for another 100 years. Or it may be lost in time in the way of “got word” and “shanks pony” – a term my Mine Manager/diarist great-great grandfather Richard Pope frequently used in the 1880s. “Took ‘shanks pony’ into Silverton from Broken Hill.” A special breed of horse you are wondering? No, it means to walk. So there you are, you were way off course just as I maybe off course when I speculate on Ishobel’s “got word”.
The past is another country. They definitely do things differently there.
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!!
Well, the mystery surrounding the massacre of what I’m guessing was an outpost of the Ostrovo unit, has deepened. No more details via Stella Miles Franklin and nothing at all in the biography of Dr Agnes Bennett by Cecil and Celia Manson. Nothing either in a referenced work Australians and Greeks, Volume 2 by Hugh Gilchrist. But it doesn’t really matter as I’m fairly sure the event occurred towards the end of 1917 – well before my characer arrives on the scene. Still it would help my writing to understand the historical context and how such a thing happened.
Despite this slight setback, I have actually been picking up some very interesting facts and historical details along the way: information about the day to day running of the unit, the politeness and old world charm of the Serbian officers, the large numbers of Australian women who were doing war work at the Macedonian Front. Even the odd Serbian word as well, which may prove useful if my heroine happens to fall in love with a Serbian orderly. It’s a possibility!
At the moment my girl is still on board HMAT Kanowna which has recently (October, 1917) stopped off at Durban and Cape Town. At this very moment (well today as far as my writing goes – actually 15th November, 1917) she has just spent a few hours wandering around Sierra Leone before she must embark for the last leg of her voyage to England and a confrontation with her difficult aunt. Will post again when she arrives in London.
Are writers paranoid? Well, it turns out I am. Six weeks ago I spent the day researching at the Mitchell Library. Most of my time was spent reading the diary of James Ray Lewis who was on board the the transport ship Euripides departing Sydney 31st October, 1917 but I also requested A History of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals by Eva Shaw McLaren. I was told very nicely by the staff of the Mitchell that the book was off site and wouldn’t be available for a few days. As I had caught the train down from Newcastle, I explained that I wouldn’t be back for some time to view the book again. The library staff told me to simply request the book online a few days before I needed it. No worries.
Last week with my writing going well, I realised I needed to do more research into the Serbian Front during WWI. It was time to request the McLaren book again. I logged on to the State Library and much to my surprise found this 1919 book was IN USE. Weird but that’s okay, it was a Saturday. Unbelievably someone was reading it. Tried on Monday. Again IN USE. The next day my imagination was turning feral. Who else was researching the Scottish Women’s Hospitals? Someone was planning a major novel with their heroine involved in the war in Serbia! OH MY GOD!
Rang the Mitchell today and was told, yes, it was still in use. Of course the penny dropped and I asked, “Did that someone happen to be me, Debbie Robson?” and they said yes. I explained I did request it some time ago etc etc. Very obligingly the staff have now organised the book for me for Saturday along with Eleanor Dark’s first novel Slow Dawning. Looking forward to reading up about the Ostrovo hospital unit but nervous too. The unit was very close to the action and I believe many of the staff were killed. Very daunting! Not sure if I’m up to the challenge (never mind the fact that the real women were) but I’ll find out soon.
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!