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.

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Getting the facts right and/or those pesky hashtags

Hashtag_example

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.

How fiction/historical fiction can save historical fact

Barquentine City of Sydney – formerly steamer City-of-Sydney_SLV_Green, Source: State Library of Victoria Author: Allan C. Green 1878 – 1954

From oblivion is what I mean. One of my main aims in being a writer is to preserve little known facts and make them sing in my fiction. I might have touched on this before but there were two facts (above all others) that I wanted to preserve in Tomaree and that was to do with the US servicemen based in Australia. But let me start at the beginning.

Tomaree is inspired not just by a real life love story but by a fascinating time in Australian history when approximately half a million US serviceman were stationed in Australia during World War II. There are a lot of facts in Tomaree – details of the Fly Point camp, the way Nelson Bay used to be in 1942 (just a jumble of small shops) details of campaigns in the Pacific and much more. But the two facts, that may seem trivial, but I wanted to include are: 1. that the American serviceman hated all our loose change. They couldn’t abide it heavy and jingling in their pockets – the threepenny, halfpenny, pennies etc. As related to me by a Nelson Bay Resident, the soldiers would dig their hands in their pockets offer up the change to the nearest small child and say, “Here kid, buy yourself an icecream.”

No. 2 is that wherever the soldiers were stationed in Australia, it was common for local residents to send a small boy (never a girl from what I read in a history book on the subject) into the street looking for a Yank to invite him home to tea. My Amercan Signals Officer is approached by such a small boy but has to refuse because he already has a dinner invitation. I feel very privileged to have the means to keep these sort of little known but important facts alive for the reading public of today. It’s what motivates me to seek out historical fact (like many historical fiction authors I’m guessing) and weave it into my fiction.

In a strange way too, fiction also preserves historical facts for readers. For some time now I’ve been researching Sydney in the 1920s. There are actually not many non fiction books available on the subject. Frustrated, I turned my attention to fiction but wondered where all the female fiction writers were who were writing at that time. There didn’t seem to be many listed in anthologies and literary records. At first I thought there was simply no significant female authors writing during the first two decades of the last century. I have since read Dale Spender’s Writing a New World and discovered that is not the case. They have been deliberately left out of literary collections and reviews – but that’s another blog. In this one I want to highlight how I have found historical fact in fiction.

As mentioned I turned my attention to fiction to help me research the 1920s and luckily discovered Ethel Turner’s daughter Jean Curlewis. Last month I read her third novel Beach Beyond set near Palm Beach and written in 1923. This week I have just finished her first novel written in 1921 – The Ship That Never Set Sail. Here is what I have been looking for the last six months – a real, vibrant Sydney – the Sydney of 90 years ago!

Here she is writing about Darling Harbour:

“They were gazing right down on to the littered decks of ships – they could almost have dropped pebbles into the holds – they caught intimate glimpses of donkey-engines and capstans and flying bridges and fo’c’stle hatches at a proximity impossible at the Quay. The huge funnels towered up right beside them. They could count the cases and barrels and mysterious bulging sacks and great green clusters of bananas scattered on the wharves – gaze down into the dull green water, deep-hued as a peacock’s tail with a film of oil from some passing steamer. All the vast detail of the fifth port of the Empire was spread beneath their eyes: “the beauty and mystery of the ships”; all Darling Harbour stretching like a river between its vessel-teeming banks into the very heart of the city.” Marvellous and better than any history book!

There are also descriptions of White City, now long vanished, a ball on board a warship, something called a gypsy tea, the Blue Mountains when it was smaller and quieter with barely any cars on the road, and Pittwater. A wharf at Newport is mentioned and a pier “that ran out from a green garden full of white pigeons, scented verbena and mauve blue Love-in-a-Mist.” This is very near where I used to live but of course the garden is long gone. I’m so thankful to have found Jean Curlewis. Her words have been helping me to recreate in my mind another Sydney. I hope to track down more lost authors, to read, review and discover the Australia they lived in.

Charting the progress of your manuscript

progress sheetAs you can see from the above I’m old school! Well, at least as far as keeping a record of my writing progress goes. Paris Next Week is my seventh manuscript. Yes, I love bashing my head against a brick wall! The first three manuscripts I can’t actually remember keeping a record of each page written. I’m pretty sure it all started with Tomaree. I was, by that time (early 2002) becoming more organised and setting goals. The main goal was – a page a day! A page a day is of course a manuscript in a year but as you can see from the very battered piece of paper covering the last three months, I’m only averaging slightly half that. I am, though, happy with my progress.

Of course there are many programs now that a writer can use to chart their progress and keep all their notes organised. I won’t discuss them all here as I don’t use them, lol. Here is my project management tool below:

notebook

It’s a notebook! Yep! In I keep very scattered notes but as I write I generally circle what I need to research further. I keep this with me at all times. When I’m reading research material I often jot notes down quickly. If a line from a character starts reverberating in my head, such as the simple words: “Money follows you.” from the wealthy Lilith, I jot that down too. Any more than a sentence though and I’ll have the laptop out pronto.

The main purpose of this post though is advice that covers all forms of record keeping and that is be generous! It really does help keep you motivated. I found this out by Tomaree and it’s my common practice now. Don’t worry if you’ve only written a few lines (generally you’ll find at the start of a new scene or chapter) put down half a page! If you look closely at the sheet above, you’ll see lots of 1/2 pages. You’ll find too that even being generous when you do a page count, reconciled with what you’ve written, you’ll still be missing a few pages – page breaks of course!

My sheet is very simple. It’s just the date, the title of the chapter and the amount of pages. From above you can see that I wrote 10 1/2 pages this March, only 2 1/2 pages in April, 10 1/2 in May and I have so far written another 10 1/2 this month. April I was on holidays painting doors and architraves in my house and my Mum came to stay. I was also checking over my Darlinghurst research. In May the next chapter required a bit of research in France and I’m currently researching crime scene practices in the 1920s regarding the discovery of a dead body.

By keeping this simple record you can actually see your month by month progress and highlight the months, where perhaps you have fallen behind. If I’m doing a lot of research, I will often note that research on the days I’m not writing. After all, it is progress too! If you don’t keep a record of each page written, give it a try. Don’t forget to record those half pages, keep at your writing and watch the pages mount up!

 

Playing Musical Chairs With Sydney Suburbs

`Greenoaks',_Darling_Point,_1895

Greenoaks, Darling Point 1895. Source: Federation House Wikispaces

I can do this! I’m a novelist! But why? Now that’s a good question but I’d better start at the beginning. As I might have mentioned, I had barely done any research when I began writing my manuscript Paris Next Week last August. I needed two Sydney suburbs fairly close to the inner city so I chose Elizabeth Bay for Louie Galbraith and Darling Point for my main character, Sarah Montague. I actually can’t remember why but with this decision I had put my main character further away from Sydney and all that was happening there.

This wasn’t a problem until I started moving my characters around the city and also became better acquainted with them. It turns out that Louie’s family are richer than the Montagues and she therefore has a more generous allowance than Sarah. She also has a chauffeur at her disposal. Sarah is forced to sometimes catch the tram (poor darling) and often walks to some of her meetings with her best friend. This is a bit of a stretch if she was walking from Darling Point – an hour as opposed to the more realistic thirty minutes from Elizabeth Bay.

Recently I have been investigating the mansions of both suburbs. Libby Watters at the Woollahra Local History Centre has been a wonderful help. With a map and a list of Darling Point mansions she supplied, I have discovered that Darllng Point is the grander suburb, with several outstanding properties such as the fairytale Greenoaks above. It’s one of four spectacular castle like houses in the suburb, including the amazing mansion called The Swifts. I grabbed this for Louie’s home only the other week and with this decision and the chauffeur, I decided to swap the girls’ suburbs. Once I had the extra wealth and the suburb, AND the castle here is the paragraph that came from all the manoeuvring. It is Sarah pondering on Louie’s house I’ve called Eastbourne (The Swifts in disguise) :

“It has crenellations everywhere, ready for battle with little chimneys shaped like turrets and a portico that could shelter a whole wedding party in a thunderstorm.  It is an amazing house masquerading as a castle in Scotland and the magnificence of it has always shadowed Louie in a way. It’s strange that I should only have just realised this but it is what I’ve been thinking since our talk at Darlinghurst.

She loves the house and grounds. I know she does but she also fears what the house represents. I can’t blame her! I’m thankful I don’t live there because I’m sure I would feel the same way and I think that’s why we always played at Highcliffe when we could. Not just because we loved clambering up and down the switchback stairs to the garden. We used to get to the bottom and look up. And although Highcliffe looks the most impressive from that view, it still manages to look friendly rather than imposing. Whereas Eastbourne does imposing AND grand exceedingly well. What daughter could look up to that? And what sort of man does the house call to? The wrong sort of man, I’m sure. The sort that says to himself, “Ah, here is money to burn.””

The suburbs are now aligned and all is right with the world of my characters. At least for the time being!

 

I can’t keep up with my characters!

SwainsLast week my two young women, Sarah and Louie, were walking down Pitt Street in Sydney in 1924 way before I was ready for them to even leave their houses! If you look carefully at the image above you will see hashes. Yep that’s where I’m missing information. They are catching trams, going into little cafes for cups of tea, having lunch etc before I’m even organised.

I want to stop right in front of them with my notebook and say, “Excuse me, if you could just tell me which tram you caught this morning. Or even if there is a tram from Elizabeth Bay. I also need the name of the cafe you are going to. How much is a pot of tea in February 1924 would be helpful too. And what’s with this marocain stuff? Why does everybody seem to be wearing it? I mean what does it look like? And do you know, girls, that your dresses are great but your shoes! Don’t get me started on the awfulness of shoes in the Twenties. I will do you both a favour and avoid mentioning them.”

There is so much to hunt down and check. For instance I still don’t have Louie’s last name but there is a suggestion already that her family is wealthier that Sarah’s. Sarah’s father, Henry Montague, works in Pitt Street in finance I think but at this stage I’m not sure what he does exactly.

There’s an interesting Swiss German with a yacht but I have no idea how he is going to make his way into the novel. By boat you are probably thinking to yourself. Tempting but how to work that in. Have Sarah in a dinghy in Rushcutters Bay drifting aimlessly? There is the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia nearby so may be, but another research point to check – was the club there in 1924?

In the scene I am working on now, Sarah and Toby Linden are walking in Hyde Park, enjoying the green shade away from the busy streets of Sydney. But wait…No they are not! After looking for some images of Hyde Park around that time I discovered this:

Hyde Park 1925

Construction of St James Station

Hyde Park was dug up for the new underground railway in 1919 and wasn’t beginning to look like the Hyde Park we know and love until 1926. My characters are determined on a romantic walk (well sort of) and a park must be found. Botanical Gardens? Hold on, I’ll just go and check!

Vera Atkins won’t leave me alone!

Special Operations Executive

Special Operations Executive

Yes, I do mean Vera Atkins of Special Operations Executive Section F fame. I first heard of the SOE agents probably around fifteen years ago when I began researching WWII for my novel Tomaree. I have been fascinated with the amazing women of SOE ever since.

About 18 months ago on goodreads I read about a book entitled A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and missing agents of WWII by Sarah Helm. I marked the book to read and thought that someday, when I had a bit of time, I would read it. After all, I am currently researching Sydney in the 1920s and when I am not reading books on that subject I am participating in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 so Vera would definitely have to wait!

Well it seems she wouldn’t wait! As a writer I do not ignore that funny hunch, the information that appears unrelated to my research but falls into my lap and even photographs that I can’t ignore. They do often turn out to be important in some way. But, let’s face it, how can female WWII agents and the woman that recruited and mentored them, have anything to do with my current manuscript? I have no idea but I can’t put the book down!

It seems inconceivable now the circumstances that these agents operated under – constantly having to move from place to place and fully aware that they may be captured at any time. Of approximately 400 men and women of F section that were couriers, radio operators and organisers, over 100 did not return.  39 SOE women were sent undercover, 13 did not return – a loss of one in three which is tragic. 

I can’t wait to find out how Vera Atkins (travelling to Germany after the war) eventually uncovered the fate of all but one of the missing F Section agents, all the while remaining a mystery herself that Sarah Helm must uncover.

Stay tuned for a review of A Life in Secrets.