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 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.

The Next Big Thing – The Grey Silk Purse

The Grey Silk Purse Notebooks

Here are four of my six notebooks for my current work in progress.

1) What is the working title of your current/next book?
My current work in progress is entitled The Grey Silk Purse and is set in 1917/1918 Serbia and Mayfield, Newcastle in 1920/1930.

2) Where did the idea come from?
Several years ago whilst doing book talks for Tomaree, a bookseller showed me a card advertising a New Year’s Eve party at the Trades Hall, Newcastle for 1930 run by The New Moon Dance Club. Whilst searching for more info about the mysterious club I came across a November, 1922 ad: “Lost yesterday Lady’s handbag between Elizabeth & Henry Streets, Tighes Hill along Port Waratah tramline or left in 6.42pm Port Waratah tram from Newcastle, contains 6 pounds, metal season railway ticket, keys etc. Finder handsomely rewarded on return to Miss Summerville, Room 5, Carrrington Chambers, Watt Street.”
I kept the name Miss Summerville but couldn’t find Carrington Chambers. Somehow I made the jump from there to my current project.

3) What genre does your book fall under?
Historical fiction

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Strangely I have no idea for this one. I cast Crossing Paths though. The main characters were played (in my head) by Rose Byrne, John Cusack, Rupert Penryn-Jones, Miriam Margoyles and Helen Mirren (in an uncharacteristically timid role).

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
It is January 1920 and Miss Summerville living in a beautiful house in Mayfield, Newcastle begins a diary detailing how, after a long illness, she has woken up and can’t remember the last two years of her life.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I hope to finish the manuscript very soon. (I’m on the second last draft now.) I’m determined to find an agent and a mainstream publisher and that is my goal for 2013.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft?
Much longer than Tomaree. Approximately two and a half years.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
The Winter of the World by Carol Ann Lee
The Soldier’s Song by Alan Monaghan
Armistice by Nick Stafford

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Heroic Australian women from both world wars, including Olive Kelso King, Alice Kitchen, Vivien Bullwinkel and Nancy Wake.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
Hopefully the wonderful Scottish Women’s Hospitals who ran 14 field hospitals during WWI. Many of their doctors, nurses and orderlies were Australian, including Stella Miles Franklin who worked at the Ostrovo Unit in Serbia, the unit featured in The Grey Silk Purse.
I’m now tagging three people to keep this meme going. They are:
Matthew Glenn Ward @ Matthew Glenn Ward
Anthony Wood @ Want For Words
Janna G. Noelle @ The Rules of Engagement
Happy writing!