Beginning the long journey of writing a new novel

Paris Next WeekYes, I know, I’ve just finished my manuscript The Grey Silk Purse and have made my first submission but I’m nervous. As a diversionary tactic I’m researching a new novel. I even have a title – Paris Next Week.

I’m at the absolute beginning which is always exciting. I have a vague idea about the plot and I have the two main locations – Sydney and Paris in the 1920s. I’ve just picked up my first book to read. It is Women, the Arts, and the 1920s in Paris and New York edited by Kenneth W. Wheeler and Virginia Lee Lussier and even after a quick glance it looks like the perfect ticket. The ship hasn’t docked yet but I already have a list of books to take on the voyage and some of these books may even help determine aspects of characterisation and plot.

That’s the fun of researching. You read to learn about something new. It may be Serbia in 1917, Port Stephens in 1942, England in the middle ages and as you find out more information you often stumble across an amazing fact that alters your writing completely.

Originally at the very start of The Grey Silk Purse I had a vague idea that my main character would be a nurse in Salonika, although something nagged at me that this profession wouldn’t suit my Miss Summerville. I began reading about the Australian nurses working there during WWI and discovered that other Australian nurses were working in Serbia, of all places! When the Australian troops were sent to France a lot of our girls were sent to the little known Macedonian Front. I began to read about Serbia in earnest and very quickly stumbled upon the wonderful Olive Kelso King who drove an ambulance. That was more like it. This is what my girl would have been doing!

Through reading I discovered not only the beautiful and very important location Lake Ostrovo for my novel but what my character did during the last year of the war. I read six memoirs of women involved in the Scottish Women’s Hospital and I drew from their knowledge to set the scenes for the most crucial chapters in the book – the why and wherefore of life in a field hospital. I can’t imagine the completed manuscript without all these facts now common knowledge to me. I don’t reveal them all of course but they are crucial to a lot of decisions I made (or my character makes) during the course of her war work.

I now have an even greater admiration for the women who were involved in this terrible conflict. We often talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We can now see that returned soldiers from all major offensives were victims but how did the women cope? We know the men either ended up in asylums or drank excessively after both world wars but what happened to the VADs, the ambulance drivers and the nurses when they returned to civilisation? That question is the driving force of the novel and it’s one I really couldn’t have asked without at least the basic facts behind me. So happy research reading. You’ll never know what you may stumble upon!

Doing a TV interview

It was fantastic. I’m not quite sure how Channel Ten Sydney came to approach the Adelaide BC group but bookcrosser Newk put up the information at BCAUS, the yahoo BookCrossing group, that the station was looking for bookcrossers. Yours truly, never backward in coming forward, put up her hand and also contacted the station.

Eve Neylon the segment producer was wonderful and the online intro the station put together to explain BookCrossing to the general public was one of the best examples I’ve seen. BookCrossing really is a parallel universe. It is a tricky thing to explain in a few minutes but the bottom line is that www.bookcrossing.com is about sharing books. If you love books and want to share books with others, read reviews of your favourite books, meetup with people to discuss books and even receive books in the mail from faraway places then BookCrossing is definitely for you.

For me discovering the site has literally changed my life. I have not only been to 4 conventions: Adelaide, SA in 2006, London in 2008, Greece in 2008 and the Sydney Unconvention in 2010 but it has also inspired me to write my second published novel Crossing Paths: the BookCrossing Novel.

One of the questions my interviewer Paul Henry was going to ask me was how did I get into BookCrossing. Well, a week before Christmas in 2003 I saw an ad in an Australian Publications mag about the site and immediately I was intrigued. I couldn’t wait to get home and sus it all out!

After an hour or two going over the site (it is a very comprehensive with a lot to take in) I immediately realised “This is so me.” I love books and I love synchronicity and BookCrossing is about both. After a little while I also realised that BookCrossing was also a book – a book that I could write. I remember working out that amazingly people can be tracked through BookCrossing. And you could also anticipate where people might be travelling to next, by the books on their “virtual” bookshelf.

I also remember, within a day of discovering BookCrossing, studying my “real” bookshelf to try and work out what books my character would take with her and how many. I initially decided on 10 but then lowered it to eight to allow for books she might pick up on the way. Also important was where she was going to release the books and so began my journey of writing a book inspired by an online bookclub, the doorstopper that I managed to hold up in my TV interview, as you can see for yourself. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PAqoC94Sis

Doing the interview was a wonderful insight into how segments are produced. Eve was very thorough. First interviewing me by phone, keeping in touch by email, phoning me again to confirm the appointment, asking more questions and a day or so before emailing me with background information that the interviewer would be reading to prepare themselves (Paul Henry as it turned out) for the segment and questions they would be asking to give me a chance to put together my best answers.

We only had three minutes and because the station decided on producing a small online intro to BookCrossing, that freed Paul up to ask different questions. He asked one or two on the list but the rest were dictated by his curiousity and the way the conversation went. Although he did interrupt a bit I’m glad he did because that’s how we managed to cover quite a lot in in such a short timespan.

I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to do the interview. It was such an enjoyable experience. I was lucky to have my friend Gina drive down with me from Newcastle and she was allowed to sit offscreen and watch the segment. Everyone was so friendly – the makeup girls, Lana, Eve, Paul and Kath. Thank you Channel 10! It was fun!

Reading John Berger at Brisbane Airport or the importance of place in fiction

ImageYes, that’s what I was doing in April and I think the author would have approved of the strange juxtaposition. After all in his novel Here is Where We Meet: a story of Crossing Paths, John Berger did just that. He chose fascinating or unusual places, sometimes associated with the people he was writing about or sometimes not, to place those people in context. And it works. His mother has never been to Lisbon yet her ghost is wandering around the city as if she was born there. And because of this juxtaposition his mother seems more real than perhaps she otherwise would have been, placed in her historical and geographical location of 1930s East London.

Place is obviously very important to Berger and he actually has his namesake John say:

“So time doesn’t count and place does?”

For me reading that line was a charged moment. Place is what I hang all my novels on. I simply cannot write without a landscape to put my people in. I generally write about the first half of the last century and if I manage to chose a landscape that no longer exists – then more the better!

I can still recall coming across a place called Burragorang Valley. Pictures from the 20s and 30s showed a rather beautiful place with guest houses, rolling countryside, creeks and valleys. It was obviously very popular and I wondered why the hell I hadn’t heard about it before. A little more research uncovered the fact that well…it had been flooded! Completely flooded to build Warragamba Dam, the new big water supply for Sydney. I was almost jumping up and down with excitement. This loss suited the novel completely and I think Berger would have approved.

In Here is Where We Meet, Berger places Audrey a young woman he once had an affair with – in not just London of the 1940s but a particular place within that world – Coram Fields. They see the trees of the place as they gaze out the window after making love. Luckily it is still a green area today.

Elsewhere in the novel there is the wonderful setting of Krakow. Against the landscape of the old Jewish quarter in this Polish city, Berger brings the character of Ken, another ghost, alive. I’m not sure if his youthful friend Ken ever went to that part of Europe but the location adds a strong dimension to his portrayal. As John the narrator says simply: “Ken was born in New Zealand and died there. I  sit on the bench opposite him.”

Airports by comparison are like a grey canvas that – for the most part – do not echo with associations. But we can add things to them. Like what we are reading at a cafe before flying home. We can add with deft strokes where we are going or where we came from.  Or at least try to be as successful as Berger is in depicting the atmosphere of a particular place.

Below are the links to the three books I bought back in March and wrote about in my blog of the 18th. All three are imbued with a powerful sense of place.

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan 
Waiting for Leah by Arnost Lustig
The Quartet by Francois Emmanuel

Lost in Time

People don’t change over the years but the environment they live in does. When Ishobel Ross, a cook from the Isle of Skye, arrives in London in July 1916 it is amazing how much she gets up to in the city without a car! She is sightseeing – taking in the theatre, a trip to Aldershot, shopping at Selfridges, visits to St Pauls, Marble Arch, and tea at Fullers. The list goes on and I’m exhausted reading it. Finally on the 29th she writes “Got word today (from the Scottish Women’s Hospitals) to report at Victoria Station on Tuesday morning.”

Got word? How? Obviously not by SMS or mobile call but I’m left pondering the alternative. Did the SWH ring Ishobel at her hotel? Send a telegram? From my research into the Twenties in Sydney it is amazing to someone from the 21st century how often they got mail in the early part of the last century: twice in the metropolitan area and for a time a delivery on Saturday which beggars belief. Telegrams too seem to arrive very quickly, including the dreaded ones from the War Office – “We regret to inform you…”

Did the SWH send a boy running through the streets of London with a message? Who knows? There is, of course no way of knowing now. As they say “you had to be there.”  And taking that line of thought I can imagine a 22nd century historian possibly stumbling over emails, letters, the odd diary, containing such lines as: “Met this great guy last night. Too good to be true so I googled him.”

Google may be around for another 100 years. Or it may be lost in time in the way of “got word” and “shanks pony” – a term my Mine Manager/diarist great-great grandfather Richard Pope frequently used in the 1880s. “Took ‘shanks pony’ into Silverton from Broken Hill.” A special breed of horse you are wondering? No, it means to walk. So there you are, you were way off course just as I maybe off course when I speculate on Ishobel’s “got word”.

The past is another country. They definitely do things differently there.