About Debbie Robson

Author, booklover, bookcrosser and firm believer in synchronicity. There is no such thing as coincidence! I am currently working on a trilogy set in Sydney and Paris during the 1920s and a screenplay set in Sydney in 1937.

Faces of 1924

For three and a half years I’ve been looking at photos of the 1920s, especially looking at women and fashion, for my manuscript Paris Next Week. What did the women do in Australia in 1924? How did they fill their days? I’m still not completely sure but some of them in Sydney attended afternoon tea at Ambassadors, and fundraising events at the Hotel Australia, They went to the beach and to parties and balls. One excellent photo I discovered on flicker was of two women attending a tennis party on Australia Day 1924 at Victoria Barracks.

There’s a lot of grainy images of socialites to be discovered in Trove but they are studio portraits and don’t seem to offer up glimpses of personality. I have come across a wonderful photo of picnickers in front of their car, a picnic spread out and the styles of their clothes interestingly displayed but, still, it is an ad for Arnotts biscuits and not an insight into the psyche of the people photographed.

The photographs of Mina Moore come closer to what I’ve been searching for – a glimpse of that’s person’s life in their eyes – particularly an image of Vera Dwyer, author. As a result of discovering that photo I read two of Dwyer’s novels. As a result of discovering the photo above I am now in a quandary because I’ve just discovered that the young woman looking straight at the camera looks quite a lot like a young Katherine Mansfield.

The young woman is Kathleen Mangan the youngest daughter of the artist Frederick McCubbin. She grew up at Mount Macedon (not far from Hanging Rock) and sitting next to her interestingly is Joan Lindsay, the author of Picnic at Hanging Rock The image is from Mangan’s memoir Daisy Chains, War Then Jazz but unfortunately there is no mention of Joan Lindsay so there is no way of knowing if they were acquaintances or good friends. And I’ve spent hours trying to discover any further connection. Any help on this would be greatly appreciated.

I’ll leave you with Mangan on Mount Macedon:
“I always had a sort of love-hate relationship with Mt Macedon. It could be a scary place at times, especially when the wind came down from the top of the mountain and raced through the treetops. At night-time it was frightening when this occurred, particularly when the house trembled and the wind moaned through the rafters beneath the roof. But when the wind dropped and the clouds came swirling past our windows it was even more eerie. Everything became so hushed and still when the clouds locked us in. The only sound was the dripping of moisture from the eaves and the loud beating of your own heart then you saw, or imagined you saw, grotesque forms in the clouds, leering at you through the window.”

 

Newcastle Writers Festival 2017

It’s this weekend and I’m very excited. This is a cross post with my other blog Starving in a Garret and for us starving artists and lovers of literature there are a lot of free events. Actually, all the events I’m attending are free. Here is my selection:

Friday 7th April
11am to 12pm Yarn Spinners. A celebration of Dymphna Cusack, Florence James and Miles Franklin. Marilla North in conversation with Ann Hardy.

2pm to 3pm From the Page to the Screen. With Vanessa Alexander, Mark Barnard and Michelle Often. Host George Merryman.

Saturday 8th April
11.30am to 12.45pm Inside Publishing. With Meredith Curnow, Benython Oldfield and Geordie Williams. Host Jane McCredie.

2.30pm to 3pm Book Launch. Jan Dean will launch Magdalena Ball’s new book.

3.15pm to 4.15pm Book Launch. Judy Johnson discusses and reads from Dark Convicts her new book. Host Jenny Blackford.

4.15pm to 5.15pm Short and Sweet: Reviving the novella. Nick Earls in conversation with Chris Flynn.

Sunday 9th April
10am to 11am Time Travellers. Historians on their craft with Tom Griffiths and Grace Karskens.

11.30am to 12.30pm Drawn from Life. Poetry inspired by the everyday. With Eileen Chong, John Foulcher and Maggie Walsh. Host Jenny Blackford.

1.15pm to 2.15pm The Importance of Women’s Voices. With Emily Maguire, Sara Mansour, Tara Moss and Tracey Spicer. Host Jane Caro.

3.00pm to 3.00pm Crossing Boundaries. Jaclyn Moriarty in conversation with Emily Booth.

I can’t wait and I might see you at one of the many events!

Reading just as fast as I can

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Yes, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing these last two months. Like a long distance runner, I’m trying to put as much distance as I can between myself and the first draft of my manuscript Paris Next Week.

Why, you wonder? Well I’m not one of these people that can put a manuscript away for say nine months or a year. (For me that’s like those dreadful people who leave Easter eggs in the fridge for months! It’s just not happening!) Instead I find that the best way to bring new eyes to my work, after a short period of time, is to read a variety of books. As many as possible.

So what have I been reading since 23rd December last year? Well most are in the pic above and as you can see at a glance they are mostly NOT historical fiction. (And that I’m behind in my reviews.) There’s a self help book, an Australian novel written in the 1920s, a short introduction to a trilogy set in 1919 and the first book in the trilogy (yes, I know, historical fiction). There’s a collection of short stories by a popular English author, a biography, an autobiography, a memoir set in Greece, a crime novel set in London in the 1990s and a romance set in the US in the 1960s.

Looking at the list now I can see (although it was done mostly unconsciously) I have selected quite a range. I’m also currently reading a poetry collection and a collection of the Sunday Times 2016 short story competition finalists.

What I’m aiming for is immersing myself with writing that is very different from my own. Poetry is particularly good for this – the unusual word usage, juxtapositions and the sheer mesmerising difference between poetry and prose. Will it work? I’ll get back to you on that shortly.

The slow progress of a first draft

Pages written 1

Well, as you can see it’s a very crumpled messy piece of paper but it is the start of my manuscript with the working title of Paris Next Week. As you can also see the first two and a half pages were written over three years ago on the 5/8/2013. Being Australian that means the 5 August not the 8 May. On the 25/2/2014 I ended up with 43 and a half pages. Not a bad start but overall the slowest first draft I’ve ever written, However keeping a record such as this does help remind me of several things.

Firstly, as you can see near the top of the page there is a gap of three months. Not sure why now but probably had to stop and really think about what was happening with the novel and to check that I was heading in the right direction after the excitement of getting those first five pages down.

Secondly I can see now where I took breaks of over a week or two for research. These are breaks that I couldn’t be avoided by using hashtags (see my earlier posts). In May 2014 I took two weeks off looking for a suitable chateau by a river in France. In early October of the same year I took a week or so off researching Kings Cross. And then from late October 2014 to early July 2015 I didn’t write a page. I was doing a major rewrite of a previous manuscript for a couple of months and then during the first half of 2015 I was quite ill suffering from a severe flareup of eczema.

During 2015 and early this year I also wrote three short stories featuring a brand new character called Zach. More breaks to research Sydney Theatres and quite a long break researching 1920s actresses and their famous roles and also looking for 10 locations that my main character Sarah’s grandmother would have been tempted to sketch in the 1860s in Paris. Whew!

Pages written 4

Above is the home run with the very last entry written sidewise just last week, 4 and a half pages finishing the final chapter entitled S S Ormonde. I also did some editing checks and eliminated two words that I used a frightening number of times – one was the word ‘word’ and the other ‘beautiful’. I’ll be doing a lot more of this type of editing in the next draft but these two jumped out at me and I felt compelled to reduce them drastically.

And this is what makes it all worth while. A list of all the chapters and a rough page count.

List of chapters

35 chapters, 255 pages and 70,687 words. The page numbers are pretty much screwed after chapter 27 because I did add a page here and a page there to some scenes that had to be rewritten but it is close enough. This sheet is one thing I don’t keep up for the next few drafts as the manuscript is in a state of flux with rewriting and researching going on but I do tend to write another one of these up for the final draft.

Would love to hear how you all keep a record of your drafts. Probably not as old fashioned as this but the result will be the same – words into sentences, paragraphs into scenes, transformed into chapters to form a complete first draft of a manuscript. Happy writing and a Happy New Year!

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

auster-and-austen

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

640px-Boulevard_du_Temple

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