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.

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 

Catching up with your characters after a long break

Passenger Liner 1925

Passenger liner 1925 Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

I’m in a whimsical mood so this is a whimsical post. I’m working out strategies – the best way to reconnect with my characters after a long break. Maybe some of these may help you if you are in the same “boat” and writing an historical novel. This is not the desperation of What to do when you can’t write. No, nothing like that. It’s more like one of us has been on holidays. Say, me. I’m back in town leaving my calling card Debbie Robson, Writer from the 21st century.

There it is on the silver platter. It’s the first, I notice this morning, but will probably soon be buried under an abundance of fancy calling cards because my character is young, very pretty and from one of the wealthiest families in Sydney. And she’s available. Well, her mother and father think she is.

I’m thinking maybe a cooee might help. I have a strong voice that carries. I could cooee across the sandstone mountain range. Way down below are tree ferns, a tinkling waterfall. Look, there are my characters walking along the opposite ridge. Their figures are outlined against the setting sun like an old fashioned travel poster. Soon they will heading back for dinner at The Carrington in Katoomba.

How about a letter? That threatened species that is disappearing as fast as good quality writing paper. “I’m writing to let you know that your best friend Louie is safe and well, in Paris. With Christopher’s help she booked a berth on the SS Osterley. Yes, she’s not even in Sydney. Don’t worry, Sarah. I’ll take care of her.”

In reality (well in the novel) Sarah will be distressed and concerned for her friend and I will leave her in that state for at least a week. Oh, the cruelty of novelists! But don’t worry the manuscript is not called Paris Next Week for nothing.

Actually I’ve decided I’m going to flee as well. I think I’ll catch up with Louie first. Right now I’m on this God awful cruise liner with screaming kids everywhere. Beside me are people with iPhones, iPads and Notebooks taking photos of nothing. I bribe a steward and free of baggage and misconceptions, I step into the small tender that is bobbing in the waves. We are leaving the stacked monstrosity behind. Sunlight is dancing on the water and ahead is the Osterley, dark hulled and very long, quite alien to my eyes. As we get closer I can see women in cloche hats and pencil thin dresses leaning on the rails to call out to me. I smile and call back, thrilled to be leaving the 21st century behind.

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.