The strange things historical novelists do

kings-cross-theatre-rose-series

Image source: Stations of the X Facebook

Yes, we do some very odd things like spending a week looking for a gargoyle, or wait maybe it’s a griffin. But let me start at the beginning.

I have recently begun a new chapter entitled Unmasked. It is 1924 and my newly married character Sarah is beginning to realise that her husband of two days is not the man she thought he was. After a scene at a ballroom in the Wentworth Cafe she wakes up in a strange and dingy flat. She is alone and has no idea where she is. She opens a window, looks out and sees a bizarre sort of creature on top of a large building opposite. You can just see the hunched figure in the image above on the right hand side of the building.

I break for research. A hashtag won’t do. I dig around in Wikipedia and find this information about griffins: ‘The griffin, griffon, or gryphon (Greek: γρύφων, grýphōn, or γρύπων, grýpōn, early form γρύψ, grýps; Latin: gryphus) is a legendary creature with the body, tail, and back legs of a lion; the head and wings of an eagle; and an eagle’s talons as its front feet. Because the lion was traditionally considered the king of the beasts and the eagle the king of birds, the griffin was thought to be an especially powerful and majestic creature.”

More googling and I discover that the griffins at Centennial Park have been restored, which is great but doesn’t help me. I do some further digging into the King’s Theatre but there’s nothing about the griffin. I swear I’ve seen a photo of it somewhere. In desperation I contact Lost Sydney on Facebook and they come up trumps with the photo below, actually from the Stations of the X Facebook group.

griffin-on-theatre

Image source: Stations of the X Facebook

Isn’t it great? Surveying the top of the Cross with the right amount of attitude and disdain. Finally I’m getting somewhere. I just need a bit more info on Darlinghurst Road at that time and a possible/likely building to stick Sarah in. I dig out my photocopied pages made much earlier from four books: Kings Cross Album by Butel and Thompson, Kings Cross: a biography by Louis Nowra, In the gutter looking at the stars by Nowra and Sayer and Kings Cross: a pictorial history by Whitaker. In the pages from the Louis Nowra book I discover, yep, you guessed it! The map says Kings Cross Theatre 1928. I think that can’t be right! I actually panic and rather than go completely through all my photocopies pages I enlist the help of the lovely people at the Historical Novelist Society on Facebook and post the top photo. The consensus is the photo dates from 1920. I’m in the clear but wait!

I decide today to go through a lot of the images on the Stations of the X Facebook page and discover that the beautiful Alberto Terrace (too nice for Sarah to wake up in) is about where I thought I could place her. I need something dingier and that probably means William Street and no griffin! Back to the drawing board. I still love the griffin though. Anyone who knows what happened to it and/or can suggest a dingy row of terrace houses nearby, please contact this slightly crazed historical novelist.

Lost – Elizabeth Bay Mansions. Found – the artwork of Gladys Owen

View from Darling Pt across Rushcutters Bay to Elizabeth Bay

View from Darling Point across Rushcutters Bay to the Elizabeth Bay mansions 1879 – source City of Sydney Image Library

Yep! This photo above has caused me a lot of grief. But let me start at the beginning. I am currently researching high society in Sydney during the 1920s. Until recently I thought (naively as it turns out) that I could simply read up about the wealthy and then fashion up a house and lifestyle for my main characters. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? How wrong was I!

This is a black hole in our history. Our novelists were not writing a Sydney Great Gatsby – they were, for the most part, writing about life in the bush. Later, the subject has hardly been touched on, which has impacted on the amount of research I now have to do. I was just realising all this a few weeks back when I decided I might have to look into the history of houses in the area to pinpoint and research the lifestyles and choices of the people (particularly the daughters) that lived in them.

Tantalisingly all these high society people are floating around in Trove in gay abandon. They are having farewell parties (off to the Continent, San Francisco, Hawaii). Hosting charity functions, balls, afternoon tea parties, enjoying the sea breeze at Hotel Cecil, Cronulla and all manner of other social activities. I swear they travelled and partied more than we do but what did they do day after day? How were the hours in their day actually filled when you were wealthy (you weren’t travelling on the Continent) and you didn’t need to work? Enter the picture above.

I chose five houses in the Elizabeth Bay area to research, working mainly on the images. It was late at night, I found this photo and reference to a short history of Ellizabeth Bay Mansions and being tired, I didn’t write the reference down – simply saved the photo. I thought I’d go back the next day and look into the reference. Could I find it the next day? OF COURSE NOT! The photo was there but no reference.

A few days later I visited the Mitchell Library and experienced first hand the very misguided changes that have been made to this historic library. Because of staff cuts, there were only two staff members on to help with people wanting to access the special collections. I was requesting maps of Darlinghurst Road in the 1920s and also looking for those notes on Elizabeth Bay Mansions. With the new changes to the Library I was told to put my requests in at the State only to find that what I wanted was at the Mitchell. I ended up going backwards and forwards between the two libraries four times.

I was very frazzled – almost as much as when I was Waiting for Eleanor Dark. In the confusion I missed requesting a book that I did come upon about Elizabeth Bay mansions. Another trip down to Sydney! But I did find the wonderful woodcuts and etchings of Gladys Owen. I was given an enormous folio tied with a ribbon and I was mesmerised going through images of Spain, Italy and England created between 1919 and 1960. This is what the Mitchell should be for. To look at special collections in the building where these collections are housed. It is with relief I heard that the recent changes and staff cuts are going to be reversed!

Searching in the past for that indefinable something

Denison Street Darlinghurst

Darlinghurst 1924 from the Demolition Books

I think we’ve all done it as some stage and not especially in the past – spent time looking for something, not knowing what that something is! What exactly am I looking for, we ask ourselves. We stop for a moment, think about it and then begin again none the wiser.

I’m searching in Sydney’s way back past for either an old house that has been turned into a block of flats or perhaps a particular row of terrace houses. I’ve been gazing at photographs of the old villas of Darlinghurst at this wonderful website, My Darlinghurst. I’ve also been looking at certain streets, especially Darlinghurst Road. The City of Sydney Archives are great for that purpose, particularly the demolition books. I stumbled on their existence when I was looking for cafes in 1924. (I still need a small one in Pitt Street.) I will shortly begin searching the 1,866 Darlinghurst images here.  I should surface in a week or so.

My search for the perfect flat for Raye Reynolds my doomed artist is starting to get frustrating but I know what the problem is – I want not just her flat but something of the street as well. Maybe just down the road is the Kings theatre, or a park where she goes sketching or a cafe where she scrapes together the money for a pot of tea. So I know I’m looking for a flat plus something else. I’m hunting for a detail that will help fix the flat in the reader’s mind. Maybe its a massive frangipani tree out the front. Now that’s a thought! Or maybe something else.

I wasn’t sure what that indefinable something was when I was researching the Ambassadors Cafe late last year. See this post. I knew I was spending too much time researching but my writing was stalled. I found out where the cafe was, what it looked like and the band that played there in in early 1924 (the last detail I didn’t even end up using). The very last thing I found out before the scene almost wrote itself was that there were private rooms off the main dining area! Private saloons! I put my six characters in the private room. Even worked out who sat where. There were introductions as a few didn’t know each other. They sat down at the oval table, began to talk and the chapter was away!

Think of me as I disappear in the demolition books. I’m sure I’ll come back with something interesting!