A writing life: happy accidents and how they occur

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Le Train Bleu by Vincent Van Gogh Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is how it happens. I am currently reading a beautifully written book about Agatha Christie’s disappearance in December 1926 entitled On the Blue Train by Kristel Thornell. It’s a subject that has fascinated me since reading Agatha Christie’s autobiography and the possibility that the famous author suffered from a rare form of memory loss – the fugue state. Her disappearance is an incident that Christie barely referred to afterwards and never explained. I’ve only now just found out that Miss Marple first appeared in a short story in 1927. I find this telling. An alter ego created to help her cope with the disintegration of her marriage which precipitated her flight in the first place? We’ll never know of course but Thornell offers up what might have happened during those eleven days.

I thought at first that the title referred to depression – the blue train of depression. An odd expression that I had never heard of but early in Thornell’s book there is mention of a novel set on a train that Christie was working on at the time of her disappearance.Two days ago I googled The Blue Train and discovered Le Train Bleu.

“The Calais-Mediterranee Express was a luxury French night express train which operated from 1886 to 2003. It gained international fame as the preferred train of wealthy and famous passengers between Calais and the French Riviera in the two decades before World War II. It was colloquially referred to as Le Train Bleu in French… and The Blue Train in English because of its dark blue sleeping cars.”

Perfect! I am so excited by this. I am right now nearing the end of the first draft of a trilogy set in Sydney and Paris in the 1920s. By the end of the first novel my character is on her way to Southhampton periodically locked in her cabin by her abusive husband. Somehow she must escape him on the docks and find her way to Paris where her best friend Louise is now living with her husband, a Russian Jew named Lucien Grinberg.

This is what makes writing so exciting, a discovery like this. I now need to find out how I can get her on that train and visiting the Riviera, obviously spending time celebrating her freedom. Back to Hemingway who has written some wonderful stories about the rich and famous, my favourite Love in the Night is actually set in the French Riviera in the 1920s. May all the writers reading this blog have lots of happy accidents or synchronicity as I prefer to call it.

The strange things historical novelists do

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Image source: Stations of the X Facebook

Yes, we do some very odd things like spending a week looking for a gargoyle, or wait maybe it’s a griffin. But let me start at the beginning.

I have recently begun a new chapter entitled Unmasked. It is 1924 and my newly married character Sarah is beginning to realise that her husband of two days is not the man she thought he was. After a scene at a ballroom in the Wentworth Cafe she wakes up in a strange and dingy flat. She is alone and has no idea where she is. She opens a window, looks out and sees a bizarre sort of creature on top of a large building opposite. You can just see the hunched figure in the image above on the right hand side of the building.

I break for research. A hashtag won’t do. I dig around in Wikipedia and find this information about griffins: ‘The griffin, griffon, or gryphon (Greek: γρύφων, grýphōn, or γρύπων, grýpōn, early form γρύψ, grýps; Latin: gryphus) is a legendary creature with the body, tail, and back legs of a lion; the head and wings of an eagle; and an eagle’s talons as its front feet. Because the lion was traditionally considered the king of the beasts and the eagle the king of birds, the griffin was thought to be an especially powerful and majestic creature.”

More googling and I discover that the griffins at Centennial Park have been restored, which is great but doesn’t help me. I do some further digging into the King’s Theatre but there’s nothing about the griffin. I swear I’ve seen a photo of it somewhere. In desperation I contact Lost Sydney on Facebook and they come up trumps with the photo below, actually from the Stations of the X Facebook group.

griffin-on-theatre

Image source: Stations of the X Facebook

Isn’t it great? Surveying the top of the Cross with the right amount of attitude and disdain. Finally I’m getting somewhere. I just need a bit more info on Darlinghurst Road at that time and a possible/likely building to stick Sarah in. I dig out my photocopied pages made much earlier from four books: Kings Cross Album by Butel and Thompson, Kings Cross: a biography by Louis Nowra, In the gutter looking at the stars by Nowra and Sayer and Kings Cross: a pictorial history by Whitaker. In the pages from the Louis Nowra book I discover, yep, you guessed it! The map says Kings Cross Theatre 1928. I think that can’t be right! I actually panic and rather than go completely through all my photocopies pages I enlist the help of the lovely people at the Historical Novelist Society on Facebook and post the top photo. The consensus is the photo dates from 1920. I’m in the clear but wait!

I decide today to go through a lot of the images on the Stations of the X Facebook page and discover that the beautiful Alberto Terrace (too nice for Sarah to wake up in) is about where I thought I could place her. I need something dingier and that probably means William Street and no griffin! Back to the drawing board. I still love the griffin though. Anyone who knows what happened to it and/or can suggest a dingy row of terrace houses nearby, please contact this slightly crazed historical novelist.

The books we reach for when we are writing

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The two books I grabbed after I finished a very long and tricky chapter the other week were Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude and Jane Austen’s Persuasion, my favourite Austen. Why the Auster? That is not immediately obvious to me and is probably the underlying reason for this blog post but we shall see what comes to light as I write.

As for Persuasion I know exactly why I wanted to borrow this exceptional book. Yes, I’m embarrassed to say, borrowed. I don’t have my own copy. The reason is a scene in the book that I will find in a moment. It is the scene where you realise this is not quite the same author who wrote Pride and Prejudice. She has moved one step closer to her character’s thoughts and feelings. In fact she’s almost inside Anne’s head in the paragraph I desperately want to read again.

It is a wonderful piece of writing that I remember as surprisingly modern. This time I want to find out what words and tone she used to actually phrase Anne’s awareness of not just the physical proximity of Captain Wentworth but that his heart may be returning to her as well. Here they are discussing the love story of Captain Benwick and Fanny Harville which ultimately ended with the latter’s death:

“…A man does not recover from such a devotion of the heart to such a woman. He ought not, he does not.”

“Either from the consciousness, however, that his friend had recovered, or from other consciousness, he went no farther; and Anne who, in spite of the agitated voice in which the latter part had been uttered, and in spite of all the various noises of the room, the almost ceaseless slam of the door, and ceaseless buzz of persons walking through, had distinguished every word, was struck, gratified, confused and beginning to breathe very quick, and feel an hundred things in a moment. It was impossible for her to enter on such a subject; and yet, after a pause, feeling the necessity of speaking, and having not the smallest wish for a total change, she only deviated so far as to say,

“You were a good while at Lyme, I think?”

And it’s all there, isn’t it? The noisy world intrudes and makes it hard for Anne to concentrate but somehow she does amidst feeling gratified, confused and a hundred other things besides. I think some part of me remembered that confusion of a noisy world yet ultimately the realisation of hope that Anne is feeling in that moment.

My character on the other hand has hoped to search out her new husband at a fancy dress ball and find him dressed to her liking. When he turns up very male and swashbuckling about to reduce her to a damsel in distress she realises that, in the midst of a crowded ballroom, she has been fooling herself as to her sexual orientation. Now that’s all very well but why the Auster? What answers does it hold for me?

I am not confused about my sexual orientation but I am fascinated with identity. My novel is about the perception of identity. The Invention of Solitude is about the study of a distant and difficult father and the second half, The Book of Memory, is a meditation on memory as a writer and father. The texts Auster refers to for answers are erudite and often include the dispossessed. For me the second half of the Invention of Solitude seems to be a search for his identity now that he is a father himself. I really love the way he gathers those texts together looking for answers. Some of these are: Mallarme writing about the life and death struggle of his son, Collodi’s Pinocchio versus Disney’s Pinocchio, a letter that was never sent from Nadezhda Mandelstam to Osip Mandelstam dated 10/22/28 and the bravery of Anne Frank.

Good books are like friends. They console, offer help and sometimes have the right answers. Here, this is one way of writing that scene. Here is the moment an unappreciated and unloved character realises there may yet be a chance of love. Here is an author looking for answers in the work of others. Just as I am doing now. And reading them returns me to my work.

Trusting your instinct when researching historical fiction

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So, I’ve recently argued the case for hashtags. Is checking a pesky historical fact holding your writing up? No worries just stick in a # and keep writing. Well, sometimes, that just doesn’t work. In my previous post I touched on my hunt for ten sketches of Paris in the 1860s that my character would do as a young Australian woman new to Paris. I stopped writing to actually start finding those ten sketches.

I’m still missing one and as you can see from the above pic, I’m currently working out the order of the sketches that Sarah will view them as she walks around her grandmother’s room. Two she will remember: one from earlier in the novel and one from several years before. Currently the sketches are listed as I decided on them.

Now that I have begun hanging the sketches, so to speak, I have realised how right I was in delving deeper. Yes, I’ll still throw in the odd hashtag but as so often happens in writing – the scene has become so much more than I envisaged. Lena’s sketches have become her granddaughter’s roadmap to Paris. They also suggest the struggles Lena had in not only learning to sketch but learning her way around Paris.

Here is a little snippet of the chapter so far:

‘The next sketch, now that I study it, is much more accomplished than the previous one.  “What a marvellous looking building,” I say of a quaint little house surrounded by taller buildings.

“I doubt whether it is there any more. Haussmann probably had it demolished.”

“Who?”

“Oh, Darling, I don’t want to talk about that bureaucrat. But I lived near there. That is Rue Saint Hilaire.”

Rue Saint Hilaire I repeat to myself and then move to the next sketch by Nana’s big window. It is of an amazing medieval building, possibly a grand house, studying the bas reliefs between the windows, set seemingly into the stonework of the building.

“Hotel Colbert. But you couldn’t stay there.”

“You couldn’t?”

“It was a private mansion.”

I’m about to ask Nana to explain but she waves a dismissing hand at me.

“I could feel that it wouldn’t be there for much longer so I sketched it but waited  until I could do it justice. It was my second last sketch of Paris.”’

And now I’m off to find that tenth sketch. Happy researching peeps!

Researching Paris and/or another early poem

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Image source: Wikimedia Commons

I’m researching Paris in the 1870s and don’t quite know where to start. What part of Paris would a young Australian girl live in during that time? Paris is the early part of a Grand Tour of Europe that Lena Dubois is enjoying when her mother dies suddenly. She is alone in a strange city with only a smattering of French. What arrondissement does she end up living in and as an artist what buildings and landscapes would she chose to sketch? Fast forward to 1924 and ten of these sketches are now hanging up on the wall of her bedroom. But what are the sketches of? Now that’s the question and I’m having a lot of fun working on it.

To kick my research off, I’m currently reading a marvellous book called Paris: a journey through time by Leonard Pitt. Looking through the old photographs of Paris – Maubert and Saint-Severin, Boulevard Saint-Germain and Montagne Saint-Genevieve, From Odeon to Saint Germain-des-Pres, Rue Beaubourg and Nearby Streets, Rue Etienne-Marcel, Avenue de l’Opera and Les Halles reminded me of one of the most famous photographs of Paris – Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 1838. I was so intrigued by the photograph the first time I saw it that I wrote the poem below.

*BOULEVARD DU TEMPLE, PARIS, 1838

In the pages of a book I find
a shoeshiner and his customer
in the deserted street and where
are the doves? Cooing from the
windowsill near the photographer
now a long way from camera obscura
with this picture of a quiet
Paris street. What next? A view
of the Great Pyramid in albumen
and wet plates at the goldfields;
dead blue and grey soldiers
in black and white and now
moving pictures flicker past
until we have battlefields
in our living rooms: our square
argus-eyed friend always on
the spot. Yet I’d rather
discover beauty unadorned, know
the cameramen, the crew have all
gone home and left me to contemplate
how time has slipped away
from a quiet Paris street.

*First published in Muse 

The Cats Will Come, my grandmother and her diary

Mum Court with cats

Timing really is everything. Not just in what we read – the right book at the right time – but also when we discover or rediscover something. At the age of twelve or thirteen I inherited my grandmother’s beautiful carved chest. I can’t remember what was it in. Papers I think that my family removed but somehow I also inherited some books of hers, a teddy and what I thought was a very small gardening journal. I put the tiny notebook in the carved chest which now contains, photos, children’s schoolwork, music sheets, treasured newspaper clippings and at one stage my first completed manuscript.

Just recently my online friend Eva Lomski was enquiring about a WH Davies quote that I used in my first unpublished manuscript. I promised I would hunt it down expecting to find the two light purple manilla folders containing “A Strange Peace” in the chest. The folders weren’t there but I dislodged the tiny beige notebook and put it aside. I finally found the manuscript the other day and I’m glad that I now have stored it safely where I can find it.

Back to the notebook. I read through it last week and discovered that it is actually a diary not a gardening journal and that my grandmother was very clearly not well during much of 1968. What I wasn’t expecting was to find myself there – a young granddaughter Debby (spelt incorrectly) who frequently visited on a Sunday with her parents Nan and Jimmy.

I might have even seen my name there years ago when I first came across the notebook but probably didn’t think much of it. This time things were different. In the notebook I can imagine myself as I was, a little girl whose place as an only child was secure. Visits to her grandmother were seen in the light of her parents’ behaviour and reactions – her mother’s lack of interest in the garden; her father’s love of cats. But on Friday 27th December the diary entry reads: “Debby came home for 2 nights and day.”

I only remember staying with my grandmother once and I have never been able to remember if it was only for one night but here it is in my grandmother’s spidery writing. I was eleven years old and alone with her in the old house and garden. I remember waking up and she wasn’t there. She was out in the garden. She was old but she was up before me, digging and stooping over flowers.

I look back now and realise that it was up to me to decide what to think about my grandmother. It was my opinion of who she was and mine alone. Mad gardener and lover of cats. I was finally seeing her, really seeing her for the first time. Years later, not surprisingly, the poem came very quickly.

*THE CATS WILL COME

The cats come to her alone
except for grandmother
stooped, whispering their names
and when they come they form
an avalanche of fur
against the wire screen door
collapsing in a tangle of tails
a swish of slick coats
then slink to bowls of milk
lapping the evening away.

A lace curtain flutters
in the chequered sun
while grandmother cossets
roses, chrysanthemums
and hydrangeas heavy
with dew in the early light
orange in the old kitchen
that greets her grandchild
just roused from sleep
waking to a world slipping away.

*First published in Westerly Magazine

Researching v. Writing and/or maximising your writing time

Researching vs. WritingSometimes life gets the better of us – looking for or starting a new job, the birth of a grandchild, even a scene that you can’t find inspiration for and your writing stalls. This is when those pesky hashtags come into their own.

You may only now be adding them to your draft. Ideally it is best to add them from the very first draft but better late than never, as the old cliche goes. See my earlier post. Either way you should now have a general idea of things you need to check. That’s when it’s handy to make lists and start borrowing books on those subjects when the writing isn’t flowing.

My local library know me as that strange woman who orders the oddest books on inter-library loans. Here’s four of my lists above. A lot of the books on the TO READ list will be interesting to skim through but they may not get rid of a single hashtag. They may, though, supply me with an idea or a possible scene.

I recently leafed through a marvellous book on Art Nouveau by Judith Miller. In it I found a marquetry side table, a silk panel and a glass carafe with a bird on the lid. I also found an amazing lamp with a bird pattern on it, a sea green glass vase, a brooch featuring a two swans interlocked and a bronze nude seemingly wading through rushes.

In the book there were details of each item, the country of origin, the artist and the year. These details, of course, DON’T go into the manuscript. But they are a guide for me as to whether they are suitable or not. What goes in is what my character Sarah sees at Lilith’s flat or what the family might call treasured objects such as the lamp or the brooch. i.e the swan brooch and the bird lamp. Sarah might recognise some things of course – that a side table is marquetry but she is not a specialist on furniture and art of the art nouveau period, although this is the period her mother might have been doing a lot of buying for the family home.

Armed with this new information on furniture and objects, I dealt a death blow to three hashtags in Lilith’s apartment. One of the objects was a lamp. I then searched lamp in my manuscript and discovered another hashtag #acetylene lamp. After some quick hunting I decided what I really wanted was a kerosene lantern. Bingo, another # bites the dust. I then worked on a hashtag relating to an outdoor lamp. I googled a few pictures and chose a square lamp for a porch light and then on the spur of the moment got rid of #easy chair and replaced it with a walnut armchair. Six hashtags gone! That leaves 222 to go. Now back to that fancy dress ball.

Getting the facts right and/or those pesky hashtags

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Everyone is different of course and I’d love to hear how other writers do it. Mark their manuscripts where more facts need to be added or checked, I’m talking about. After the first draft of Tomaree I had over three hundred points to check. I can’t remember how I highlighted them. It might have been the first manuscript I began using hashtags but I know I had a long list that I wrote out and worked my way through over the next few drafts.

During the writing of Crossing Paths I had a lot of research assistants in the form of international bookcrossers. #site of traffic buildup in France after the tunnel from England? #popular make of car driven in Canada by an upwardly mobile young female executive? #the layout of Green Gables farm? One of my dear friends and bookcrosser Bill Staubi answered that one (and some other tricky ones) through emails and the forum at www.bookcrossing.com

Whilst writing one of the many later drafts of Tomaree I had a luncheon with some of the elderly female residents of Nelson Bay to check one or two pesky points. By this time we were firm friends and the conversation went something like this:

“So, one final thing. I’m just checking about letter boxes.” (The letters of my two young lovers were being passed in a letter box of Peggy’s neighbour, Sarah Linden, the main character in my current manuscript).

“Oh, darling, we didn’t have letter boxes in 1943.”

“What?” (Insert shocked expression on yours truly.) “What did you do about the mail?”

“We just picked it up from the post office, dear,” says another of my elderly ladies.

“So when did you all get letterboxes?”

(Insert animated conversation around the table. The consensus was 1946/1947 but definitely after the war.) I then had to rethink and rewrite how the letters would be passed/left between Peggy and Tom, her American GI boyfriend. I decided on a blue pot (from memory) that Sarah had around the side of her house.

With my last manuscript I Remember the White, a lot of my chasing the facts/hashtags has been chronicled in this blog and I seem to have been in tight control of all those pesky, time consuming points that needed to be checked. The main one that proved very frustrating and almost elusive, as Robert Watson will remember, was how to transport my heroine from Sydney to Salonika in late 1917. Submarines were making things very difficult so road and rail was involved.

With my current manuscript Paris Next Week in its first draft, I’m afraid I’ve been a bit blaze and as a consequence disarmed. This is a seemingly light novel told in the first person about two very wealthy girls, Sarah Montague and Louie Gilbraith who live in the exclusive suburbs of Elizabeth Bay and Darling Point in the 1920s. Lots of parties, beautiful clothes, stunning houses and the party to end all parties. Just the other day, getting near the final chapter or two of the novel, I thought I’d check the state of the hashtags. OMG! 214 and its only a 50,000 word manuscript! They must have snuck up on me. Just checked today. 228! They have been breeding. Well those pesky hashtags will have to wait until further drafts but more in my next blog.

Writing and the subconscious mind

John Sell Cottman Greta RiverThe subconscious for me, as a writer, is like a treasure chest. I might have deliberately or “unconsciously” stored stuff away that over the years I’ve forgotten about. It might be, for instance, a note to myself to read a book that for the life of me, I can’t see at the present moment that I need to read. Or as in the case of The Night Garden a book my subconscious has chosen for me.

It might be a memory or a fact that stays with me but I don’t know what to do with. In the 1990s I was doing research for my third manuscript with the working title of the The Nightingales. It was set over a period of twenty or so years from 1914 to 1937. Somewhere amidst all the pages I read and photocopied, was an account of a WWII army captain (from memory) who was on leave and on his honeymoon. The tyre blew out on their car whilst they were driving to their hotel. His bride died at the scene and later he killed himself in his hotel room. A simple thing for him to do as he had with him his full service kit.

The incident was seared into my subconscious but I didn’t expect I would be able to do anything with it. After all it was years after the period I was researching and at that time I wasn’t writing short stories. It wasn’t until 2013 that a friend asked me for a short story for an anthology he was putting together. The incident of the dead captain came straight to mind. Here was my chance to finally put him to rest. From that short story has come a new character and what I hope will be a series of short stories that I’m currently working on.

My new enigmatic character has memories from the first World War. This week I needed some idyllic memory that a soldier could go back to briefly, before he moved on to the next world. What came to my conscious mind? A bluebell wood I visited somewhere in England in 1976. I did some googling but they weren’t the sort of images I was looking for and the bluebell woods weren’t located in suitable places either. It was then I remembered a card of a bluebell wood I saved from twenty years ago.

It was a painting. Early morning I’m guessing with a green path leading to a wooden gate and bluebells spilling over the foreground. The light is diffused, almost healing in its otherworldliness. The painting was perfect to help me set the scene in my writing and I am so glad I saved the card.

These days I am more aware of things like this. If I get a little nudge to really take note of something, I obey my subconscious and write it down in my notebook, bookmark the page or as I’m doing now incorporate it into my blog.

Here is another nudge from my subconscious. It occurred last week at the Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibition of The Greats from the National Galleries of Scotland. Yes, here were a lot of paintings I had seen in art books during high school. 70 incredible sketches, paintings and watercolours spanning a period of 400 years from the Renaissance to Impressionism. Out of all these amazing artworks what stopped me in my tracks? The modest watercolour above – A pool in the River Greta near Rokeby.

The first thing I noticed was how modern the watercolour appeared to my eyes. Amazing to think Cotman painted it over two hundred years ago! Why did it have such an impact on me? I’m sure it is not just because it appears very modern. Maybe the beauty of the location and the name – Greta? There is a Greta north from where I live. It is a beautiful spot too. I can keep on speculating but the why of it ultimately doesn’t matter. I trust my subconscious. I’m sure it has its reasons.

Trove: the writer’s best friend

Absolutely fabulous best friend. Writers often do very strange things in the name of research. Take for instance me. In the early days of writing my manuscript Paris Next Week, I decided on the suburbs my main characters would live in. Sarah Montague would live in Elizabeth Bay and her best friend Louie Gilbraith would live in Darling Point, a surburb east of the centre of Sydney and just east of Elizabeth Bay. See my earlier post Playing Musical Chairs With Sydney Suburbs on how I came to that decision. Now all I needed was a suitable house for both.

Enter my best friend. It wasn’t too hard finding a suitable mansion on google for Louie but Sarah’s house proved elusive. I don’t know how many searches I did on google for Elizabeth Bay houses/Elizabeth Bay mansions/Old houses in Elizabeth Bay etc. I wasted hours trolling through 21st century real estate and countless images of the iconic Elizabeth Bay House. Nothing suitable. Around this time I had started using Trove and bingo! 103 search results, predominantly the first half of the last century. I had my house for Sarah along with a lot of internet sites such as the Historic Houses Trust, the State Library and the Government Printing Office. Invaluable.

Need to find what wealthy Australians got up to in the 1920s? Try Tea Table Gossip which I only discovered through the newspapers scanned at Trove. “Mrs W A Sargent of Greycliffe, Darlinghurst has returned from her trip to Victoria.” “Miss Gertrude Toohey will sail for South Africa next week. Early in March her marriage with Captain Justin Pargiter, M.C., of the 27th Light Cavalry, will take place.” Priceless!

As Trove itself explains: “Trove helps you find and use resources relating to Australia. It’s more than a search engine. Trove brings together content from libraries, museums, archives and other research organisations and gives you tools to explore and build.Trove is many things: a community, a set of services, an aggregation of metadata, and a growing repository of fulltext digital resources. Best of all, Trove is yours, created and maintained by the National Library of Australia.”

AND it is not just Australian content. Trove has content from the rest of the world. I was recently searching for details on the Burlington Cafe in Sydney. No luck on google so I choofed off to Trove. Sure enough I found one image of the cafe in 1919 and because I hadn’t ticked Australian content I came across a lot of US content as well. For instance: “Burlington, N.C.Cafe Owners form strong bond” an article published in McClatchy-Tribune Information Services, 2004 April 4.

I’m off now to find a house in Avalon in 1923 suitable for a big, possibly drunken party. Wish me luck but I don’t really need it as Trove has my back!