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.

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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.

Getting the facts right and/or those pesky hashtags

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So when did you all get letterboxes?”

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

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

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

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.

Digging deep into Sydney’s past

Excavation_at_York_Street_northBasement and underground station deep actually! Did you know that under The Strand Arcade was the Ambassador’s Cafe? It was opened in late 1923 and the cafe was in the newspapers off and on throughout 1924 because of the illegal sale of liquor. You can imagine me jumping for joy when I discovered this. In point of fact this last week I’ve been seriously thinking of changing the opening chapter to January 1924 instead of October. Maybe even have my main character Sarah visiting the cafe on that fateful night in February. Just a thought…

At the moment I’ve written only four and half pages. This is the first novel that I have actually started without doing at least several months research beforehand, which is why I’m in a bit of a pickle. Very early on I was planning a garden party to be hosted at Sarah’s house in October with her controlling mother in her element and Sarah dodging as many eligible and boring bachelors as she can. But I’m guessing that not many garden parties in the twenties would have been hosted in the middle of summer. If I go ahead with the change in timeframe to accommodate all those lovely police raids I will have to forfeit the garden party.

I am now stuck wondering what social event the mother could organise in January – if any at all! You see this is just one of the many challenges historical writers face when they are recreating the past as accurately as they can. Challenges surface, more research is needed and then you stumble on an interesting fact that can trigger a scene, an event, even a very important location in the storyline.

I stumbled on the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in 2010 and what those women achieved during WWI ended up being a major theme in The Grey Silk Purse. In Paris Next Week, my new manuscript, my theme is the lost generation of the twenties – the frenetic surface glitter of their lives which I believe was a actually a psychological recreation to the great losses of WWI. How I can depict that aspect of history and still create an enjoyable novel is the task I’ve set myself, as well of course as getting to know Sydney in 1924.

It’s early days yet but I already know that Hyde Park was a mess from construction of St James Station so I can’t have Sarah and her beau conducting a romantic walk there. The very famous Australian restauranteur Azzalin Orlando Romano worked at the Ambassador’s cafe before opening his own restaurant. There was a police raid on Maxine’s – a dance hall in 1924 (another scene in Paris Next Week very possibly) and according to Jack Lindsay there was at least one coffee shop called Mockbells but more details are proving elusive. Something called The Blues was the new dance craze and there was a Hungarian cafe in Castlereagh Street. Heady stuff! This is where I long for the Tardis to just nip back to 1924. Oh to scout around and be a fly on the wall! I can only hope to do Sydney in 1924 justice.

Stay tuned.

Beginning the long journey of writing a new novel

Paris Next WeekYes, I know, I’ve just finished my manuscript The Grey Silk Purse and have made my first submission but I’m nervous. As a diversionary tactic I’m researching a new novel. I even have a title – Paris Next Week.

I’m at the absolute beginning which is always exciting. I have a vague idea about the plot and I have the two main locations – Sydney and Paris in the 1920s. I’ve just picked up my first book to read. It is Women, the Arts, and the 1920s in Paris and New York edited by Kenneth W. Wheeler and Virginia Lee Lussier and even after a quick glance it looks like the perfect ticket. The ship hasn’t docked yet but I already have a list of books to take on the voyage and some of these books may even help determine aspects of characterisation and plot.

That’s the fun of researching. You read to learn about something new. It may be Serbia in 1917, Port Stephens in 1942, England in the middle ages and as you find out more information you often stumble across an amazing fact that alters your writing completely.

Originally at the very start of The Grey Silk Purse I had a vague idea that my main character would be a nurse in Salonika, although something nagged at me that this profession wouldn’t suit my Miss Summerville. I began reading about the Australian nurses working there during WWI and discovered that other Australian nurses were working in Serbia, of all places! When the Australian troops were sent to France a lot of our girls were sent to the little known Macedonian Front. I began to read about Serbia in earnest and very quickly stumbled upon the wonderful Olive Kelso King who drove an ambulance. That was more like it. This is what my girl would have been doing!

Through reading I discovered not only the beautiful and very important location Lake Ostrovo for my novel but what my character did during the last year of the war. I read six memoirs of women involved in the Scottish Women’s Hospital and I drew from their knowledge to set the scenes for the most crucial chapters in the book – the why and wherefore of life in a field hospital. I can’t imagine the completed manuscript without all these facts now common knowledge to me. I don’t reveal them all of course but they are crucial to a lot of decisions I made (or my character makes) during the course of her war work.

I now have an even greater admiration for the women who were involved in this terrible conflict. We often talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We can now see that returned soldiers from all major offensives were victims but how did the women cope? We know the men either ended up in asylums or drank excessively after both world wars but what happened to the VADs, the ambulance drivers and the nurses when they returned to civilisation? That question is the driving force of the novel and it’s one I really couldn’t have asked without at least the basic facts behind me. So happy research reading. You’ll never know what you may stumble upon!