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 what they called a particular hotel.”

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 

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.

Forgotten Australian novelists

J.W. Heming

J.W. Heming – Source: Collecting books and magazines.com

How do books/novelists get forgotten? I’ve been pondering this for a while now and have come up with a formulae. Well, the ingredients for a formulae and someone needs to assign values and calculate. I think it would include, in no particular order (that’s for the formulae writer to decide):

Early death of novelist. An original/exciting/groundbreaking novel is published. Word is getting around the traps and then the author dies before establishing a reputation. A perfect example is Deirdre Cash (1924-1963). Writing as Criena Rohan, the young Australian published two novels The Delinquents and Down by the Dockside and would be almost completely forgotten if her first novel had not been made into a 1989 movie. If she had not died so young, the mysterious third novel The House with the Golden Door would definitely have survived and hopefully been published, helping to establish a less tenuous reputation.

Gender bias, if the novelist is a woman, leading to a lack of reviews and recommendations and later anthologising, as examined at length in Writing a New World: Two Centuries of Australian Women Writers by Dale Spender. (Although things are now looking up as the shortlist for the 2015 Short Story Prize for emerging writers is made of 8 women and only 4 men).

The writing style of the author and/or the changing tastes of the reading public Was it avant garde? Too extreme for the masses that were the reading public of, say, 1924. If we could only get a hold of that elusive book written in 1923 we would discover that it’s author should never have been forgotten. See my review of Jean Curlewis’s Beach Beyond.

A reclusive and/or difficult author. As pointed out in the excellent article: Turning Pages: The lost or forgotten classic novels that should be back in print – a difficult author can sabotage their own fame and that of their novels. “Some authors might have been better-known if they were less reclusive (Gregory Day’s pick, the poet George Mackay Brown, spent most of his life in the Orkney Islands); or less independent and bloody-minded (Geordie Williamson’s pick, the eccentric James Hamilton-Paterson, is admired by Michael Ondaatje​ and Barry Humphries).”

Not successful in winning any major prizes or competitions. Once your novel has won a competition such as the Miles Franklin your name is registered for all time and your book guaranteed a place in Australian literary history. Although at Sydney Review of Books Nicolas Jose eloquently states: “There is a difference between literary history and living literature. Winning the Miles Franklin may gain you a place in the historical record. But there’s no reason why today’s reader should be bound by the decisions of yesterday’s judging committee. It is as interesting to ask why a writer or a book may not work for us as to insist that it is a great work because someone once gave it a prize.”

Meeting the needs of the moment only. This generally won’t ensure a book’s long term survival. A very good example of this is the Australian pulp fiction (yes Australian!) of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. As Andrew Nette explains at Kill Your Darlings – “It was throwaway fiction in every sense of the word: cheap; printed on rough paper; featuring lurid cover art designed to make the books stand out at news stands and kiosks. It also had a healthy dose of cultural cringe, with the majority of the stories set elsewhere – usually America.”

Of course tastes change and not even quality writing can always be assured of survival. In my research on the 1920s I came across some Forgotten Australian Women Novelists. Of course the 1920s is a long time ago so I moved my research period forward and began to wonder who were the top male and female authors 1940-1950. From publication listings accessed by the very helpful AustLit we have below a list of the top five male Australian authors:

J.W. Heming
Carl Dekker
Bob Mackinnon
Kevin M. Slattery
Philip Richmond.

The top five female authors for the same period are:

Maysie Greig
Jennifer Ames
Marie Ford
Mary Mitchell
Edna Finlay

I’m afraid I’ve never heard of any of them. Their popularity hasn’t saved them for posterity. Luckily over the last ten years or so there has been a concerted push by a number of institutions to save selected worthy books and novelists from being completely forgotten. There is the excellent Text Publishing Classic Series, Sydney University Press’s Classic Australian Works, Allen & Unwin’s recently launched House of Books, and other reprints.

I and my fellow colleagues at Australian Women’s Writers Challenge are also doing our bit to help raise awareness of underrated or forgotten novelists. Sue at Whispering Gums has recently reviewed The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw. Henshaw wrote one of my all time favourite books by an Australian – Out of the Line of Fire. The novel burst into our consciousness in 1988 and was one of the most acclaimed novels of the 1980s. And then the author disappeared from the literary world. Another forgotten novelist is Fredric Manning who wrote, (for me anyway) the unforgettable WWI novel The Middle Parts of Fortune which thankfully Lisa has reviewed at ANZ Litlovers. Hopefully her review will lead to more readers of Manning’s thought provoking novel and the publication of The Snow Kimono, a host of new readers for Henshaw.

Just in case you are wondering, here are details about our top two novelists from AustLit “John Winton Heming was the author of some 50 pulp novelettes and claimed to have written perhaps two thousand short stories. Heming published in different genres and under a variety of names and pseudonyms.” And our top female. “Maysie Greig was a journalist with the Sydney Sun newspaper from 1919 to 1920. There is some evidence that Greig published the same works, often under different titles, under different names in England and the United States.”

I am currently reading The Drowning Maze by Jean Curlewis published in 1922. Watch this space for the review. The only trouble is, I will have to add the book first. Jean Curlewis, is a forgotten novelist as far as Goodreads is concerned, at least until recently and yours truly.

Forgotten Australian women novelists

Marjorie Clark

Marjorie Clark aged 20

It’s only the last ten years or so that I have really questioned how few Australian women novelists there were (or at least we know of today) writing in the years 1900-1950. Before then I just accepted the exceedingly low number as normal and relative to the times. Australia was a small country, population wise. It was a given that in those years it would have been much harder for women to get published and then harder still to keep writing with the demands of a husband and children. And nearly all not as lucky as Eleanor Dark with a studio of her own. No surprise there weren’t many. Or so I thought.

As I began to read more widely on the subject, I discovered that quite a few had slipped through the net of history. They wrote, they published but were forgotten (or ignored) by those who came after to make up the lists of worthy novelists of the 20th century. What I’ve only recently discovered is how many were left off the lists! A surprisingly large number. I have had to do a complete 360 in my thinking and marvel at how many were actually writing and regret that so many came to be forgotten and in most cases completely out of print.

Dale Spender in her book Writing a New World: Two Centuries of Australian Women Writers chronicles those who have slipped through the net and for me (researching Australia during the 1920s) it was wonderful to read about these women. I also mention this in my blog How fiction/historical fiction can save historical fact and touch on my discovery of Jean Curlewis and her writing. An excellent essay on this fascinating writer is here.

Consulting Spender again this month I have made up a shortlist of forgotten Australian women novelists I would like to read. They are:

Elinor Mordaunt 1872-1942

Mary Eliza Fullerton 1868-1946

Mabel Forrest 1872-1935

Marie Bjelke-Petersen 1874-1969

Agnes Littlejohn 1865-1944

Julia Levy 1881-1959

Hilda Bridges 1880-1971

Lillian Turner 1867-1956

Velia Ercole 1903 -1978

None of the authors’ works are available to buy. At least as far as I have been able to discover, except for Velia Ercole’s second novel Dark Windows at a cost of approximately $90 including postage from the US. (I did wonder what it was doing there). However, several libraries hold titles by the above authors so I’m hoping I will be able to borrow some of their books soon.

The titles I’m particularly interested in (because they appear to deal with Australian city life) are The Wild Moth by Mabel Forrest (a very interesting and talented woman), Jewelled Nights by the very prolific Marie Bjelke Petersen. I would also like to read Devotion by “Juliet”, the pen name of Julia Levy, who I couldn’t find much information about. Also Our Neighbours by Hilda Bridges a Tasmanian writer, along with her brother who was Tasmania’s most prolific writer with 36 novels.

Lastly but not least (as the book won the Bulletin novel competition for 1932) is No Escape by Velia Ercole (Margaret Gregory). It is set in the 1930s and explores the experiences of an Italian doctor adapting to life in rural Australia. Although not really fitting my bill for a book that will help my research of life in Sydney or Melbourne in the 1920s, it sounds very interesting.

Whilst troving for details and books of the above authors, I came across three more forgotten authors in this essay in the La Trobe Journal. Jean Campbell has not been completely forgotten although you can’t borrow or buy her first novel Brass & Cymbals for love or money. I’ve tried, believe you me. Unless my memory is playing tricks I don’t remember reading about Marjorie Clarke (writing as Georgia Rivers) in the Spender book. Her photo is at the top of this blog and she looks to me like a “kindred spirit”. I hope to be able to read She Dresses For Dinner. The third writer is Doris Kerr writing as Capel Boake, who died quite young. Her output was small and the one novel of hers I really want to read, I will probably never be able to. “‘The Flying Shade’, set in Melbourne and depicting art student life in studios and cafés in the city, was finished by early 1921, but was never published.”

Lastly I’ll finish with Vera Dwyer who I discovered in a book of Australian women photographers. Her portrait, taken by May Moore, is striking and when I read she was a writer, I was drawn to discover more about her. I’ve since read two of her books, The Kayles of Bushy Lodge and The Banished Lovers, both of which I bought at abebooks.com. Several more of her books are available which is strange considering she is one of the least known of the forgotten novelists. (Is that an oxymoron?)  I don’t remember her being listed in the Spender book and she’s definitely not in Drusilla Modjeska’s Exiles at Home: Australian women writers 1925-1945.

Please watch this space in my journey to read these forgotten Australian women novelists. Hopefully I won’t experience the dramas I had trying to read Eleanor Dark’s first novel Slow Dawning. More details here. Wish me luck.

PS Last Saturday I found a book for $5 at the Lifeline shop at Charlestown. It looked old – a pale blue cloth hardback entitled Annette of River Bend by Irene Cheyne. I opened the book to find it was published by Angus & Robertson in 1942. Another forgotten Australian woman novelist.

Following the paper trail and/or reading and searching google & wikipedia

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Saint-Sulpice Library (now Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec), Saint-Denis Street in Montreal. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I’ve mentioned the paper trail before. It’s something that fascinates me but something I try to avoid when I’m writing. See How to Get Distracted Writing Historical Fiction. Today I am recovering from a small operation and I am not in the mindset to work on my fiction so I do what I normally do when I can’t write for various reasons. I read.

Less than a year ago I discovered crime fiction. Not the crime fiction that most people read but the crime fiction written by women in the 1950s and 1960s. For an historical novelist it is a wonderful world to discover, particularly for someone like me that has hardly ever read mysteries. The storylines are simpler than today’s books (burdened as they are with CSI, multiple plotlines, advanced technology etc). Instead these novels are peopled with interesting heroines and filled with everyday details that have now become historical fact. Think 10 cent jewellery stores and the road to Geneva early evening with not another car to be seen.

I began with Holly Roth (who is still my favourite) and devoured Shadow of a Lady, The Content Assignment, The Mask of Glass and The Sleeper. I was recently in Tasmania visiting the Salamanca Markets and was lucky enough to find a book by Helen McCloy, He Never Came Back, published in 1954 for only $2, (a 1961 green Penguin). I began reading the book and was not distracted until I got to this line on page 51. (A friend of the main character, Sara Dacre, has disappeared and she is worried. She is discussing what has happened with her aunt Caroline and an elderly man).

“It’s like bridge,” said Caroline. “You have to keep everything in your mind at once – past, present, and future. Book murders are more amusing than murders in real life, but, when it comes to disappearances, I don’t think any books have touched the real cases. Lord Bathurst, Marie Celeste, Charlie Ross, Dorothy Arnold. And Judge Crater.”

I knew of Marie Celeste of course and being female was immediately more interested in the disappearance of a woman than a man, so I honed in on Dorothy Arnold in google and came up with this entry in wikipedia. And so the paper trail unwinds and the book is left open at page 51.

It seems Dorothy Harriet Camille Arnold “was an American socialite who disappeared while walking on Fifth Avenue in New York City in December 1910. The circumstances surrounding her disappearance have never been resolved and her fate remains unknown.”

I read the entry and discovered a link to List of people who disappeared mysteriously and of course clicked on it. How many people can resist a link like that, I ask you? Definitely not me. As I’m researching and writing a trilogy set in Paris and Sydney in the 1920s, I clicked on the link to the 1920s and scanned through the names. Among them was Glenn and Bessie Hyde. I already knew about them from a novel I read a number of years ago. And as I type these words I’m off on another paper trail (web search) to find the title of the book. Voila! Grand Ambition by Lisa Michaels. It is an enthralling book and I highly recommend it.

I checked the other names and read about The Lost Battalion. Having recently completed a final edit of a novel set during WWI this was of particular interest. In 1921 Charles Whittlesey 37, “American soldier and Medal of Honor recipient who led the Lost Battalion in World War was last seen on the evening of 26 November 1921, on a passenger ship bound from New York City to Havana, and is presumed to have committed suicide by jumping overboard.”

On reading about the Lost Battalion I discovered that a pigeon named Cher Ami was responsible for saving the lives of 194 men by delivering a message whilst badly wounded, 25 miles to the rear of the action in just 25 minutes. How good is that?

Although the 1920s list is fascinating (and I will probably go back to it later) my eyes were drawn to the 1930s and the name Barbara Newhall Follett. She “was an American child prodigy novelist. Her first novel, The House Without Windows, was published in 1927 when she was thirteen years old. Her next novel, The Voyage of the Norman D., received critical acclaim when she was fourteen. In 1939, aged 25, she became depressed with her marriage and walked out of her apartment with just thirty dollars. She was never seen again.”

Of course you can probably guess what I did next. I read all about the child prodigy and decided I wanted to read her novel The House Without Windows. You can download it here. And so in the nature of paper trails (web searches) which often seem to be very Alice in Wonderland or Oscar Wildeish, we began with a 1950s crime novel and followed the trail to an American socialite, a long list of missing persons, took a detour rafting down the Grand Canyon, found a Lost Battalion, a Medal of Honour winner, an amazing pigeon, a child prodigy and ended up with what? A book of course! And I’m off to read the Helen McCloy after being rudely interrupted by a paper trail four hours ago.

My Adventures with the Australian Women Writers Challenge

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Australian Women Writers Challenge

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!

A Writer’s Life: What to do when you can’t write

Source Wikimedia Commons

Doh! Frustration

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.

How fiction/historical fiction can save historical fact

Barquentine City of Sydney – formerly steamer City-of-Sydney_SLV_Green, Source: State Library of Victoria Author: Allan C. Green 1878 – 1954

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.

Vera Atkins won’t leave me alone!

Special Operations Executive

Special Operations Executive

Yes, I do mean Vera Atkins of Special Operations Executive Section F fame. I first heard of the SOE agents probably around fifteen years ago when I began researching WWII for my novel Tomaree. I have been fascinated with the amazing women of SOE ever since.

About 18 months ago on goodreads I read about a book entitled A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and missing agents of WWII by Sarah Helm. I marked the book to read and thought that someday, when I had a bit of time, I would read it. After all, I am currently researching Sydney in the 1920s and when I am not reading books on that subject I am participating in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 so Vera would definitely have to wait!

Well it seems she wouldn’t wait! As a writer I do not ignore that funny hunch, the information that appears unrelated to my research but falls into my lap and even photographs that I can’t ignore. They do often turn out to be important in some way. But, let’s face it, how can female WWII agents and the woman that recruited and mentored them, have anything to do with my current manuscript? I have no idea but I can’t put the book down!

It seems inconceivable now the circumstances that these agents operated under – constantly having to move from place to place and fully aware that they may be captured at any time. Of approximately 400 men and women of F section that were couriers, radio operators and organisers, over 100 did not return.  39 SOE women were sent undercover, 13 did not return – a loss of one in three which is tragic. 

I can’t wait to find out how Vera Atkins (travelling to Germany after the war) eventually uncovered the fate of all but one of the missing F Section agents, all the while remaining a mystery herself that Sarah Helm must uncover.

Stay tuned for a review of A Life in Secrets.