My talk on the research of Tomaree

On March 10th I will be giving a talk at Toronto FAW on the research behind Tomaree. Now that it is nearly 10 years since the book came out, the long view helps me put a few things in perspective.
Firstly I am so grateful that I began researching the book when I did. Officially that was 2 January 2002. My friend Wayne Sampey had kindly put together a group of local residents for me to question. I was blown away because I had only been expecting one or two and here I was with a whole group of strangers. I believe the discussion was recorded and I remember it as a lively one.
Back in 2002 there was still quite a few residents that I could interview about their personal reminiscences that I believe really helped with the tone of my book. Also two US soldiers were still alive and corresponding with them was marvellous. In my talk I hope to illuminate how they did help make Tomaree a better book. And more importantly the real Peggy and Tom were alive and living in California when I began the book in earnest.
Time is not kind of course and most of the people that were adults during World War II are now gone. One of the things I value now more than ever is the letters I exchanged with the real Peggy until her death in 2010. She read the beginning of Tomaree when it finally came out and said she was too moved by the first encounter between Tom and Peggy, to continue reading. I hope that I captured something of that first conversation that eventually led to a young Australian women giving up all that she had known, including her family and country, for a new life in America.
I believe I am speaking for about forty minutes. Of course I have hours and hours of memories regarding my experience of researching the novel but I hope I can touch on the main points and help give others the tools to bring the past alive.


Centenary commemorations of Dr Elsie Inglis and of the Scottish Women’s Hospital Movement


Descendants of pioneering Scotswoman Dr Elsie Inglis gathered at her grave today (within Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh) to mark the centenary of her death and pay tribute to her remarkable accomplishments in establishing and running the Scottish Women’s Hospitals during World War One. Photo source: Lenny Warren / Warren Media

The story of Elsie Inglis and The Scottish Women’s Hospitals is an amazing story that should be more widely known and I was so pleased to hear, earlier this year, that there would be Centenary commemorations for this marvellous woman at St Giles Cathedral on the 29th November. Although I couldn’t attend I was very excited to receive an invitation.

When war broke out in 1914 the Government put out a call for doctors and nurses to help on the front line. “Elsie was more than willing to play her part. She went first to the military authorities in Edinburgh and then to London to the War Office itself to offer her services, only to be told: “My good lady, go home and sit still.”

Of course she didn’t sit still. She went on to form what soon became known as the Scottish Women’s Hospitals which “served the war effort from 1914 to 1919 and were not finally disbanded until 1925. They started off in Calais supporting Belgian soldiers, but their main locations were four hospitals in France, two in Corsica, two in Greece, one in Macedonia, two in Romania and six in Serbia. There were also a number of satellite hospitals and dressing stations.

As a writer, discovering the existence of the SWH was life changing and of course led me to write a novel inspired by the movement and Australian women who worked at the field hospital in Ostrovo, including the novelist Miles Franklin. I am indebted to Alan Cumming for keeping me company on this journey of discovery and to Ann Wells for the gift of the booklet that was given out at the commemoration and from which I have quoted. Also for the use of the photo above. Luckily for historians and writers there are quite a few good biographies and memoirs written by members of the SWH. Contact me through this website and I can give you my full list.


Setting realistic writing deadlines

Deadline_logoOr not! So, it seems that I have left myself two weeks to complete my second draft of Paris Next Week. I’m not panicking though. Generally I find that the second half of a manuscript is less of a mess than the first half. I’m hitting my stride and have usually by this stage of the work, sorted out my characters.

What I have to do in the next two weeks is to read the rest of the manuscript, approximately 110 pages and check continuity and readability .(I’m not doing a lot of word by word scanning – that will be done in a later draft). The main thing I want to do in this second draft is to get rid of the remaining 106 hashtags which highlight points of research that I must check.

For instance the last three hashtags were:

The date the Clifton Gardens Hotel was built. 1871.
The date the amphitheatre at Bradleys Head was built. Yes, I know! Easy for some of you – in 2000 for Mission Impossible II.
An English perfume not too earthy and not too flowery that was around before WWI. White Rose by Floris.

These have been done and I now have 103 hashtags to go! Of course what I should have done to avoid this last minute deadline was to break down the number of weeks before my deadline and to set a realistic word count for each week. But hey, life has got in the way and time has flown. Hopefully you will be little less tardy with your planning.

The act of researching – time, place and memory

Chateau Chalon

Image – artwork by Maureen Boyle

About two years ago I bought a photographic print by Maureen Boyle. She had quite a lot of prints on display – small and large of photographs she had taken in France and I was taking my time choosing. After all, I was aware that I might be selecting an image for a scene or scenes of a manuscript not yet written. I asked her endless questions. Some scenes were of Paris, from memory, others were taken in the Jura region and several of a chateau were what particularly drew me.

But let me step back a little. In November 2013 an idea came to me about writing the earlier history of a character that appears in my novel Tomaree. She would be nineteen or twenty in the year 1924 and we would find out what happened to her in those early years to shape the character she would become in 1942. In 2015 I realised that I was actually writing a trilogy and that in the second book Sarah would travel to Paris and research the movements of her grandmother in the 1870s. I knew that a chateau would feature in the second novel but where would the chateau be and what would it look like?

A chateau not far from Paris fascinated me but then I discovered Maureen’s photos of Chateau Chalon in the Jura district of Eastern France. I looked at several, well I think I did, of the chateau and finally selected a white framed print 8 x 5. I think it is a marvellous photo, put it in my spare room and promptly forgot about it.

Life intervened, as it always does and I didn’t finish the first full draft of Paris Next Week until a week before Christmas last year. I am now embarking on a second draft – tidying up the prose and checking some 281 points of research that need to be verified, expanded on or simply deleted because they are not relevant to the 1920s. I.e. “comes a cropper”; I hash tagged this remark made by my character Christopher Hyatt as I wasn’t sure how old it was. Turns out it’s pretty old and safe for my character to say. Hastag deleted. Current count is 247.

Back to the photograph. On the evening of Bastille Day, at the French Friday markets in Newcastle I met Maureen again and went through her photographs. I picked up one of the chateau and I told her that I had bought possibly the same chateau, but from another angle. She said she had taken a lot of photos that day. As I studied the photograph she showed me the same photo but much larger. Excited I bought the larger photo. The details were so much clearer of course. Not only was there a little Juliet balcony but a small enclosed tower next to it. I took the photo home that night and yes, you guessed it, I had bought the same photo.

No, I don’t have a bad memory. I have a particularly good visual memory. It just seemed to me as I contemplated the photograph for the second time that it was a different photograph. I was of course seeing it with new eyes. I like to think that this is a nudge to look much closer at something that has become an everyday part of my life. After this, it will be very hard now to chose another chateau.

PS I’ve just discovered that this is a photo of a house near the Chateau. More digging is now obviously required.

HNSA Satellite Event at Sutherland Library

Last week I had a wonderful time discussing researching, writing and publishing at Sutherland Library with, from the right, Julieanne Miles-Brown, Isolde Martyn, Elisabeth Storrs, Diane Murray who chaired the event and myself. The title of the event was ‘Follow that Horse! All you ever wanted to know about researching, writing and publishing historical fiction’.

In regards to researching Diane asked each of us a number of questions including: What do you do when you have your story timeline all planned out, your characters and events all in place and you either can’t find the information you want or the information you do find conflicts with the rest of your story? What do you do if you cannot get the facts exactly right? How do you still make your story ‘real’ and what are your preferred methods of research?

On the subject of writing we discussed: When the research starts to run into months or years beyond your expectations, how do you maintain your momentum?  – how do you keep interested enough to finish writing the story even when you are totally over the character and the storyline?  And what is the average time it takes you,  from start to finish, once you decide to write a particular story, to get it to a final draft?

And finally on publishing the questions were: What is your particular winning formula for getting your books into print? How do you push your work out into the world? And for you is publishing about making money or seeing your story in print?

It was definitely a lively and enjoyable discussion and I was very pleased to be involved. I’m sure the HNSA Conference in September will be a resounding success. The countdown is on!




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


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


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.


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.

Trusting your instinct when researching historical fiction

Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 9.44.08 pm

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.”


“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


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.


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