Finding the right historical details

magnifying glassI‘ve always believed, as the cliche says, that the devil is in the details. I love to seek out little known facts that can’t be found in historical accounts, newspapers and non-fiction works. Whilst writing my book Tomaree I interviewed upwards of 100 elderly people on their experiences of living during WWII. Most of them loved to chat and I wish now that I had had the time to talk to them about their whole lives, rather than just aspects of it. But unfortunately I was a single Mum working part time and I could only spend a few hours every fortnight or so up at Port Stephens where the novel was set.

Some of the stories I heard still resonate – the elderly lady whose mother, in the first years of the last decade, used to drive her pony and trap filled with home grown products from Anna Bay to Stockton, along a stretch of sand at low tide. Sometimes she got caught with the rising tide and a neighbour would have to mind my interviewee. Some time around the 1920s, I think, the sandbar was washed away after a massive storm and then the locals had to travel the long way around to Stockton or Newcastle after that.

There was also another Port Stephens resident who, as a young boy, remembered the American soldiers giving him money for ice-cream. I asked why and he told me it was because they hated all our small change, the threepennies, halfpennies etc that used to weigh down their pockets. “Here kid, go buy yourself an ice-cream.” You won’t find this fact in most non-fiction accounts of WWII involving Americans serving in England and Australia but some elderly people will remember that that’s what they often did.

As a novelist who is very interested in details such as these, I spend quite a lot of time hunting down such facts to make the past come alive. Interviewing people who have been there is a wonderful source of gems – such as a friend of mine’s uncle, a Rat of Tobruk, (he must be one of the last) who acquired a camera by trading with an Italian prisoner of war. When he got the film developed there were pictures of Rommel and his men. A case of truth being stranger than fiction.

I have sent my friend Gina, an oral historian in training, off with a list of questions. Not many of course as her uncle is 93 but I’m hoping she can get a few things down so his memories won’t be lost forever. This is one of the reasons I have started Starving in a Garret a collaborative workspace and sanctuary. One of the things I want to achieve is to find people interested in being oral historians and point them in the right direction. Recently a much loved GP died, I’m not positive but I’m guessing that most of the stories he could have told about being a doctor in Newcastle in the middle of the last century, have died with him.

I’m hoping to work towards building a team of oral historians that can interview people and compile a list of their memories of the local area (as well as details of their life of course) that can be donated to the local studies unit of their closest library. Memoirs and local histories are being written right now but I’m sure that there are wonderful, elderly people out there who are slipping through the net. I’m posting this blog to Starving in a Garret as well so please check there for progress on this project.

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2012: My reading year or fiction vs. poetry vs. non-fiction vs. memoir

LargeWBatduskThe last week of the year or in my case, the last day of the year is often a time of looking back and saying what was the best book, the best photograph, the best film etc . My favourite photograph of 2012? Easy peasy. A quick scroll down my camera roll on my iphone and there we go – the image above, Warners Bay, Lake Macquarie at dusk. Last year’s was trees again – my current gravatar. My son took my favourite photo of my grandchild. My favourite film was the French film The Intouchables. My favourite book – well that’s an entirely different matter and one that I can’t make a quick response to.

Firstly though I thought I’d start by doing an update on my blog from October. It’s the one with a picture of 14 books on it.  The blog was entitled “What I’m Currently Reading”. I have since dispensed with most of the books, some summarily in the manner of a reader in a top publishing house with an enormous submissions pile –Singleton’s Mill being one of those. The White Peacock by D.H. Lawrence didn’t suit my purposes but from Sons and Lovers I was able to glean a line or two of discussion for one of my character’s – Clary, a young doctor and also enough details for my main character Phyllis to decide not to read it:

“Today Clary came to the main lounge where I was having afternoon tea armed with two books. He offered me Sons & Lovers. I opened the first page & came to the opening lines about Hell Row, colliers & gin pits, whatever they were. The book was dreary & long-winded by the looks of it.”

She choses the Buchan instead. I’m with her on that as I also decided not to read the Lawrence.  But here’s my review of The Thirty Nine Steps . Around the same time I officially abandoned Fifty Shades of Grey.

For insight into nurses’ lives during WWI and general conditions of Australian servicewomen caught in the frontlines, I would highly recommend Nightingales in the Mud by Marianne Barker. Although I only read the section on the Aussie girls in Serbia it seemed to me excellently researched and well written.

The River Baptists I thoroughly enjoyed and now have another Belinda Castles on my shelf to read . I also enjoyed Early One Morning, Robert Ryan’s very painstakingly researched book on two famous operatives of WWII. I really admired Jan Bennett’s book The Facing Island when I finally let myself settle between the pages and get used to the fact  that I was reading the words of a dying woman. However, I decided not to read the very much alive Ivana Lowell’s Why Not Say What Happened? memoir. Why? Now that’s a good question!

It seems I really don’t enjoy memoirs unless they are by a woman who has served in Serbia during WWI or an  elderly man from 200 years ago (Jean-Jacques Rousseau) and then they do get read! Why Not Say What Happened wasn’t set in Serbia so was dispensed as quickly as Singleton’s Mill – just not interested, although I thought I might be when I borrowed it. Reveries of the Solitary Walker on the other hand was a gem!

Moving through the pile, the Florence Scovel Shinn and the Dessaix essays are still on my bookshelf to read but during the last two blogs some other books have snuck in and demanded my attention and I’m very pleased they did; a book of poetry in particular beating a few of the fiction titles to the post. Peter Bakowski’s Beneath Our Armour is a wonderful example of simple, clear and precise poetry where every single word counts and after reading the collection I decided I definitely need to read more poetry to feed my fiction writing, if that makes sense.

The other four books that skipped the queue are:
Pandora’s Bottle by Joanne Sydney Lessner which I read on my iphone.
The Music of Chance by Paul Auster, a 1001 book that had to be read quickly for a BookCrossing virtual book bag.
The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples by Shirley Hazzard – an excellent book bought from Maclean’s bookshop at Hamilton.
And an Erotica anthology by Skive Magazine, lighthearted and a lot of fun unlike that other book!

So it seems I need to read more poetry, memoirs of Serbia beat other memoirs simply by subject matter. The non-fiction I choose to read depends pretty much entirely on the setting and time frame of my WIP and lastly fiction wins hands down! No suprises there, really. And my favourite book and most respected read of 2012?

Nikki Gemmell’s With My Body. Beautiful writing on a powerful theme! Highly recommended.