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

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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 

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.

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!

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.

Catching up with your characters after a long break

Passenger Liner 1925

Passenger liner 1925 Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

I’m in a whimsical mood so this is a whimsical post. I’m working out strategies – the best way to reconnect with my characters after a long break. Maybe some of these may help you if you are in the same “boat” and writing an historical novel. This is not the desperation of What to do when you can’t write. No, nothing like that. It’s more like one of us has been on holidays. Say, me. I’m back in town leaving my calling card Debbie Robson, Writer from the 21st century.

There it is on the silver platter. It’s the first, I notice this morning, but will probably soon be buried under an abundance of fancy calling cards because my character is young, very pretty and from one of the wealthiest families in Sydney. And she’s available. Well, her mother and father think she is.

I’m thinking maybe a cooee might help. I have a strong voice that carries. I could cooee across the sandstone mountain range. Way down below are tree ferns, a tinkling waterfall. Look, there are my characters walking along the opposite ridge. Their figures are outlined against the setting sun like an old fashioned travel poster. Soon they will heading back for dinner at The Carrington in Katoomba.

How about a letter? That threatened species that is disappearing as fast as good quality writing paper. “I’m writing to let you know that your best friend Louie is safe and well, in Paris. With Christopher’s help she booked a berth on the SS Osterley. Yes, she’s not even in Sydney. Don’t worry, Sarah. I’ll take care of her.”

In reality (well in the novel) Sarah will be distressed and concerned for her friend and I will leave her in that state for at least a week. Oh, the cruelty of novelists! But don’t worry the manuscript is not called Paris Next Week for nothing.

Actually I’ve decided I’m going to flee as well. I think I’ll catch up with Louie first. Right now I’m on this God awful cruise liner with screaming kids everywhere. Beside me are people with iPhones, iPads and Notebooks taking photos of nothing. I bribe a steward and free of baggage and misconceptions, I step into the small tender that is bobbing in the waves. We are leaving the stacked monstrosity behind. Sunlight is dancing on the water and ahead is the Osterley, dark hulled and very long, quite alien to my eyes. As we get closer I can see women in cloche hats and pencil thin dresses leaning on the rails to call out to me. I smile and call back, thrilled to be leaving the 21st century behind.

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.

Fiction writers as researchers and historians

Site of SWH camp from NW_-1

Site of SWH camp from NW – Photo courtesy of Nikiforos Sivenas

Yep! That’s what often happens to us historical fiction writers. We frequently become, by necessity, researchers and historians. Because I chose to write a novel set partly in Northern Greece and Serbia during the last 18 months of WWI, I am now fairly knowledgeable about the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, particularly the unit at Ostrovo.

Recently I started a page here on this blog to track the Australian women who worked with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. With the help of other researchers and historians I have now updated the list.

The bulk of the list is made up of biographies from the tireless Alan Cumming at the Scottish Women’s Hospitals website. A number are also from Jennifer Baker’s Looking for the Evidence website.

I now have some more searching to do. A new friend Nikiforos Sivenas, whose very elderly father still remembers the women of the Scottish Women’s Hospital field unit at Ostrovo, has kindly supplied photos and a list of all the women who worked at the Ostrovo Unit. It will take me some time but I hope to search all the names to find out whether they are Australian or not. I also plan to read Australian Doctors on the Western Front by Robert Likeman and The Women of Royaumont by Eileen Crofton to locate more. I just need a few more hours in my day!

My Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

old typewriter

A little while ago Anthony Scully of ABC Open invited me to do a post on writing tips for historical fiction. It has been quite a journey working out my tips and whitling down my list to five. Along the way I contacted Justin Go, the author of The Steady Running of the Hour. His webpage details the research journey the writing of his novel took him on. I hope you enjoy my tips and would love to hear yours. Writing Historical Fiction.

My Adventures with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Scottish Women’s Hospitals Unit at Ostrovo – Source: Wikimedia Commons

I can’t believe that it’s nearly five years since I began thinking about a novel partly set in one of the field hospitals of the Macedonian Front. On Australia Day 2010 I did my first little field trip to scout for a family home for my main character. I walked Tyrrell and Wolfe streets that day but a month or two later decided on Mayfield, a suburb of Newcastle on the Hunter River. I barely knew a thing about the Macedonian front, that forgotten series of battlegrounds from WWI, but was determined to find out more. I skimmed through The Gardeners of Salonika by Alan Palmer, read up about the Australian nurses, orderlies and ambulance drivers who were there in Jan Bassett’s book Guns and Brooches. I also did more general reading about the war (including the excellent The Virago Book of Women and the Great War edited by Joyce Marlow) and found out details about the lives of not just Australian nurses but VADs.

My research into Australian VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments – a sort of orderly, nurses’ aid and dogsbody) gave me information that turned out to be crucial to my plotting of The Grey Silk Purse. I actually had to change my storyline. In my early stages of research I decided my character Phyllis Summerville would become a VAD (her personality doesn’t lend her to the profession of nursing) and she would soon after be posted to France in the thick of all the fighting. WRONG! Australian VADs remained in Australia, working at hospitals looking after shell-shocked and disabled Australian serviceman, shipped home from the fighting. During 2010 I began interviewing residents about Mayfield after the war – obviously relying on memories their families may have passed down.

Through my research I met two very dear friends who helped me bring Mayfield to life – the late Helen Marshall and Vera Deacon, who is very knowledgeable about life on the islands in the Hunter River. In 2011 I decided to keep a blog of my struggles with the immense and intricate research that was needed for The Grey Silk Purse. On 16th June I wrote in my very first blog post: “At this stage it looks like my main character may be working at one of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.” I had been inspired after discovering about the amazing Olive Kelso King and decided, yep, my girl would be working at one of the field hospitals of the SWH – Miles Franklin’s field unit as it turns out.

In 2012 I had a lot of research points to sort out. For instance, discovering as many Serbian words as I could that my main character would have spoken. (She was given a small Serbian phrasebook after her ambulance driver training). What was her driver’s uniform like? In which battle did my character Adrian Langley lose his leg? Would my young maid sleep at Summerville, the family home where she worked or would she go home? Were the Summervilles wealthy enough to have a chauffeur?

Around this time I met John Vandenberg, a wiki adviser and user, who gave me a crash course and said that if I didn’t put the Ostrovo Unit up on Wiki, the likelihood was that no-one else would. That started the ball rolling. I added Olive Kelso King as well, Dr Mary de Garis and just recently Dr Agnes Bennett. I knew, with dismay that there was no wiki entry for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals at that time. For me, it was just too big an undertaking – although by this time I had read many books on the subject.

Luckily last year I discovered Alan Cumming’s website www.scottishwomenshospitals.co.uk and he has done wonders in profiling the organisation, including travelling to Serbia. He has also been involved in a short film about the SWH. Last year Alan and I were able to work on the wiki entry for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. I will be doing a biography on Kathleen Dillon soon. Although not Australian I relied quite heavily on her experience, as Head of the Transport Unit based at Yelak, for an important section in my manuscript. I am now actively seeking relatives of Australian women who worked for the SWH and will collaborate with Alan Cumming to get them up on his site. It has been a wonderful adventure discovering all about the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and I hope I can do more to raise awareness of this incredible and fascinating organisation. Please don’t hesitate to contact me. See this page for more information: Australians Working with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.