There are so many touchstones that I come across in my research. Small poems, articles, images or videos that connect me to my story.
In the spirit of my promise to not make my every blog post lengthy, I want to share more of these poignant and emotive links to a past that somehow I am irrevocably joined to – if not through story, some unexplained connection. Since I had few (and not close) family members directly involved in the Great War, I cannot explain my deep affinity for such an horrific event. Originally the era fitted one story but my new WIP and the novel planned after that are all turning out to be closely involved with WW1. Perhaps it was the week I spent in 2012 visiting the battlefields and surrounding war museums that connected me, not so much to the war as to the stories of the men who fought and to the people of the Somme who endured the war raging over their countryside and through their towns and villages.
Now, deep in the writing of a turning point scene, set during the Second Battle of Villers Bretonneux, the image above depicts the night battle that saved the town. Though it nearly destroyed it too, the battle and the Australian battalions’ efforts changed the face of the war.
This image is blu-tacked to my computer and takes me right there, into the mist and smoke and desperate fight lit up by shellfire. Combined with the haunting and heartbreaking music of Karl Jenkins “Benedictus” that I’ve been playing while I write the aftermath scenes, I rarely fail to tear up. #am writing #amlovingwriting
[Night attack by 13th Brigade on Villers–Bretonneux, Will Longstaff. [Oil on canvas AWM ART03028] Australian War Memorial]
As a writer of historical fiction, many an hour I’ve spent to great result in the State Library of Victoria, PROV and various local and overseas’ libraries. So it was dismaying for me to read a recent blog post on research, on a major, international writing website, that alleged researching your novel in a library is an “old school” approach. Excusez moi!
Many research rarities can only be found in physical libraries, especially unpublished manuscripts, obscure, old and out-of-print books, pamphlets, annuals etc. It is often in these that true gems can be found – through authentic, first-hand accounts and records, in the language and tone of the era. Many such items that I’ve utilised in my research cannot be bought or found online. So for me, Libraries Rule for Research. (Of course, Wikipedia, Trove and the internet are invaluable resources, and usually my first point of reference, and often the way I source some hard to find references. But it’s madness to count out the usually necessary attendance in a bricks and mortar library required for certain aspects of research.)
My first YA historical novel idea originated while rummaging in an antiquarian bookshop, where I turned up a small volume that had been published as a result of a much longer PhD written in the 50s. The moment I opened it, I thought, ‘there’s a story here’.
So it was one of the highlights of my research and writing life recently to visit the National Library of Australia in Canberra on a fact finding/checking mission and finally have the chance to view the full manuscript of that original PhD. A copy, yes, but the text in its entirety. Oh, the prickles of anticipation as I carefully leafed through the precious pages. I know the place of subject so well in my mind, it almost came to life in front of me.
What an amazing place is our National Library! One of inestimable resources within its totally 21st century, digital age, tech savvy environs, and a fabulous example of research the modern way. I pre-ordered all my materials online from Melbourne on the Sunday and arrived on the Tuesday to find them all ready and waiting for me. I then had opportunity to source further material for two other novels and access and download several academic papers and articles I’d not seen or known of previously through the database.
I wondered if it was just me who felt a buzz of expectation in the air, despite the quiet of the surroundings and studious attitude of my fellow readers. I don’t think so from the avid looks on the faces poring over piles of books, magazines and exciting packets of papers. Still it did not equal the hum in the Special Collections room where readers and researchers dipped into cardboard boxes offering up manuscripts, maps, collections of letters and all kinds of ephemera – present and past. (Yes, I was guilty of a little sticky-beaking on my way past – strictly in the name of research for this post, of course!)
I found an unexpected treasure trove myself, sharing my PhD manuscript box: a bounty of letters, cards and periodicals belonging to a politician from the exact era of my current WIP. Imagine my delight when I brought them out and found letters dated 1916, written by a politician discussing the conscription referendum. A serendipitous bounty!
So after falling a little in love with the NLA, I was extra delighted to have been asked, just the week before my visit, if I would permit the NLA’s PANDORA Web Archive to archive my blog From Hook to Book for posterity.
“PANDORA, Australia’s Web Archive, is a growing collection of Australian online publications, established initially by the National Library of Australia in 1996, and now built in collaboration with nine other Australian libraries and cultural collecting organisations.”
The name, PANDORA, is an acronym for: Preserving and Accessing Networked Documentary Resources of Australia.
I feel particularly honoured to have From Hook to Book included in the archive, considering Pandora state in their manifesto, they “select those (websites) that they consider are of significance and to have long-term research value”.
So now it’s time to return to a more regular blogging schedule – inspired – after taking time-out over recent months to prioritise my WIP. I can’t let posterity down.
From the instant the wheels of the London train began to cross the twenty-four arches of the Ribblehead viaduct, it seemed everything Mary had ever known fell behind and no one seemed even to care. Every thud served a stab to her heart like each span were crumbling, blocking her way back. When they reached the far side of the bridge, it struck her that every moment passing instantly becomes a memory. Worse, she became only a memory to it too and all trace of the reality either side knew—gone.
It seems a lifetime ago since I first wrote those words into my adult historical novel. They spoke of a place I’d never seen, but one I had a great affinity for through both my characters’ journey south from Glasgow to London early in 1914 and following in the footsteps of, or close to, my grandmother and great-grandparents when they journeyed to Australia, just prior to World War One, from their tiny pit village in Scotland to the Wonthaggi State Coal Mine in Australia.
That journey is the impetus for my novel. Though the plot and characters are entirely fictitious, it is a small nod to my forebears and my heritage. A story born of whispers when I first visited the reconstructed State Coal Mine site in Wonthaggi back in 2008.
So it was my utter thrill to return to Scotland recently and take the steam rail journey on the Yorkshire Dalesman from Skipton to Carlisle and cross the Ribblehead Viaduct and see for myself this amazing landscape and piece of history. The views, I suspect, are not so very different from the vista a century ago when my family travelled the same rails.
We were lucky to experience a fabulous blue sky day and witness the etchings of clouds on the hillsides and valley floors. I wasn’t the only one catching flitters of coal grit and straining for a look (photo opp) out the window. Our fellow travellers appeared seized with a like excitement and thrill. For me it held a deeply personal resonance and I found my eyes prickling at the double whammy of life meeting art, and the timeliness. I’m sure my ancestors experienced an even greater excitement, perhaps fear, heading for a new land, rather than a delicious bistro lunch and glass of vino.
The viaduct was built between 1870 to 1874 by over one-hundred navvies (manual labourers) who set up camps and shanty towns on the land around the site, which is now a scheduled archaeological monument. Over one-hundred men died during in its construction through accidents and illness and lie alongside an equal number of their women and children in nearby cemeteries.
The viaduct is 400 metres long and sits 32 metres at its highest point. It is breathtaking to see and a credit to the workmanship and hardship endured by those who built it. And to those who dared travel its breadth and beyond.
Once again it reminded me of the courage and exertions of our forebears and how very, very lucky I am to all these years later to have had the opportunity to experience the same journey and tiny part of the history for myself.
If you’d like a small taste of a similar journey crossing the viaduct, please check out the Youtube video below.
Today I am delighted to welcome Sean McMullen back to From Hook to Book to celebrate the launch of his latest fantasy novel The Burning Sea, the first of six books in The Warlock’s Childseries, co-authored by Paul Collins and published by Ford Street Publishing.
Fans will be thrilled to learn that they won’t have to wait long for the following five books in the series, one due to be released each month April through September.
Congratulations again, Sean, and thank you very much also for sharing some of your research methodology and tips below, as well as a few traps that I recognise all too well.
First a little background: Sean sold his first stories in the late 1980s and has become one of Australia’s top science fiction and fantasy authors. In the late 90s he established himself in the American market, and his work has been translated into Polish, French, Japanese and other languages.The settings for Sean’s work range from the Roman Empire, through Medieval Europe, to cities of the distant future. His work is a mixture of romance, invention and adventure, while populated by strange but dynamic characters. His novelette Eight Miles was runner-up in the 2011 Hugo Awards and his next novelette Ninety Thousand Horses won the Analog Readers’ Award in 2013.
There is no lower rank than cabin boy on the warship Invincible. But Dantar knows he is important, because anyone who threatens his life gets turned into a pile of ashes. His older sister Velza is a shapecasting warrior, in a world where only men fight. Until now. Together they must solve the mystery of broken magic and escape the dragon.
Now, over to Sean.
Just after World War Two the Soviets were developing an atomic bomb. Their spies stole a sample of enriched uranium from the Americans and analysed it. It was not as pure as the Soviets’ uranium, and a minister boasted about this to an abducted German scientist. He replied that the Americans had only refined their uranium enough to get an explosion. The more pure Soviet uranium would give exactly the same explosion. They had gone to a lot of extra trouble and expense for nothing.
Sound familiar? Have you ever begun some research that should have taken ten minutes then spent the entire day reading something interesting? When you are doing research you need to know when to stop.
There are three types of research. The first is just writing from your background. The second is learning all about a subject by reading lots and lots. The third is just checking details. Why is all this important? When Paul Collins asked me to collaborate on the series The Warlock’s Child, I had four months to add seventy thousand words to the existing file. This meant no time for spurious research.
Much of our series is set aboard ships. I have helped out on yachts, and an ancestor of mine served on the Bounty, so I knew a bit about life on sailing ships. This meant I could write nearly all the shipboard material without any extra research. Depend as much as you can on this sort of research. It’s already done.
I did quite a lot of the second type of research, because I needed to know how ships fought before they had cannons. This is getting the background right, and you can do it with textbooks. You need to do this before you start writing. Our series was a fantasy involving medieval warfare at sea, which I did not know much about. Why use textbooks, when writing fantasy? I once assessed an unpublished novel with a supposedly medieval setting that also had steam trains and machine guns, and where people said things like “Hey you guys, let’s get outa here!” in moments of stress. Even fantasy needs a convincing backdrop.
The third type of research is the most dangerous, and takes discipline. How long does a sailing ship take to travel a hundred miles? How far can an arrow fly? You can check facts like there on the internet, but you will be tempted to keep reading. Resist that temptation. Why learn enough to write a PhD on archery, when all you wanted to know in the first place was how far to stand from a castle wall to be out of bowshot?
If your name is Suzanna Clarke and you are taking ten years to write Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, no problem, take all the time you like to do your research. I have to be careful how much research I let myself do, because my schedules are measured in months.
The Warlock’s Child series (readers 10+)
If you’d like to check out some of Sean’s other works, you can visit his website here and co-author Paul Collins here.
Certain indisputable beliefs were planted in the minds of all television-watching children of the fifties and sixties raised on a diet of cowboy and wild west movies. And of course John Wayne.
Settlers rode horses, carried guns, could shoot an indian off a hillside half-a-mile away and pick off their dinner prey with a single shot.
And that’s what I believed about hunting and shooting in colonial days. But it seems our forebears in Van Diemen’s Land – circa 1830 – were not blessed with the sharp shooters of the American wild west. They could neither afford nor had access to rifles or shotguns, their single option being to purchase the cast-off Brown Bess muskets of the British military. Even the military themselves could not afford to upgrade to the easier loading, more accurate rifled guns.
Muskets proved useless though to hunt wary kangaroos, wallabies and emus. The timid creatures, unused to white man and his weapons, were quite safe from the inaccurate Brown Bess, even if they had been curious enough to stick around and see what the noisy, long, hit and miss sticks were about.
Muskets work best at a range of no more than twenty yards (18.28 metres). Beyond that the hunter would be lucky to hit his target. Too close and there wouldn’t be much left to salvage for the cooking pot.
Settlers, convicts and bushrangers used snares to catch rabbits, which were populous already in Van Diemen’s Land by the 1820s. To go after larger game, they used dogs aka imported hunting hounds. Even the first settlers on the island, the aborigines, quickly converted their own hunting strategies to include the skill and speed of dogs.
Native herbivores, having lived a previously dogless existence, bar the thylacine who it’s believed went in for a more ambush than pursuit attack, were no match for the speed and power of the dogs. The open grasslands of Van Diemen’s Land provided a perfect environment for the chase and few places to hide.
An interview with Dr Leo Laden (antique gun authority and owner of the Colonial Arms Museum in Perth) provided me with a detailed explanation on loading, firing and the range of the Brown Bess for my novel. Thanks to him, I’m pretty confident I could load a Brown Bess. Hitting a target, I’m not so sure about. But it seems even well trained soldiers were more lucky than reliable at hitting their targets in the Brown Bess era. Dr Laden explained how, to his disappointment, modern day movie reenactments of colonial life and war more often pursue effect rather than authenticity. I’m confident though, with his guidance, that I’ve got my story portrayal right at least.
Don’t you love writing in the days of the internet? Articles, experts, videos only a Google search away. Who have you interviewed lately? I’d love to know what you are researching?
If you’d like to see the Brown Bess in action, click on the youtube video link below.
During the 1800s the population of Victorian England were quite literally eating, wearing, sleeping and washing themselves to death with arsenic.
While researching rat poison, strictly for my novel, of course, I came across some startling facts. Arsenic was used as a common green colourant, creating the gorgeous Scheeles green, Emerald and Paris green dyes. Arsenic dyes went into everything from wallpaper, clothing, jellies, sweets, artificial flowers, soaps and candles, as well as children’s toys.
Ladies swooned in their bright crinoline gowns, never suspecting their dresses were poisoning them and the cause of their aches and pains. A person could become ill just sleeping in his bed surrounded by fashionable green wallpapering, breathing in the paper dust and vapours.
With the ready availability of the impossible to taste, smell, detect, common household grains or bottles of liquid arsenic, there were plenty of deliberate poisonings too. Symptoms of arsenic poisoning imitated common gastric complaints and ailments: stomach pains, cramping muscles and sweating, and it is thought that many murder victims went to their graves under the guise of food poisoning or intestinal diseases. Desperate murderers of the day often sought to claim the “life insurance” held by many householders to afford them a decent burial when the time came. For some, that time came sooner than expected.
It was the late 1800s before synthetic dyes began to replace arsenic greens, and quite some years after their poisonous nature was first discovered. Makers of millions of yards of wallpaper and other manufacturers held out insisting that their products caused no harm, until science could irrefutably prove that arsenic was poisonous in such applications and not just through ingestion by mouth. By the 1900s forensic science could detect arsenic in the deceased and it passed out of popularity with poisoners too.
Now to the writing month that was October
Books Read: 1 x YA novel (no time to read – see “houses moved”)
Words Written: 12000
Words Edited: 20000
Convict Slang Learned:
Knuckle – to pick pockets
Horney – a constable
Glim stick – a candlestick
Houses Moved 1
I was gobsmacked to see this guy moving house in Fuzhou, China back in 2006. It was incredible how much he had stacked on such a small cart. We were lucky to have a large moving van and a couple of energetic professionals to assist us in relocating our worldly goods.
Source: Convict slang A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language (Author James Hardy Vaux 1812)
bolter – one who runs away or leaves a place suddenly
crap’d – hanged
qock’d – forgetful, absent in mind
DID YOU KNOW?
Horses in convict Tasmania were a rarity. The high cost of owning a horse was prohibitive and usually only wealthy settlers, senior officials and military officers rode or owned the animals.
Just one of the interesting snippets I’ve learned while researching my current WIP. I read heaps and did lots of research before even starting to write my story, but some of the everyday work/life details, I just merrily wrote in thinking that I would verify the details later. Horses and dogs seemed a given, but then I discovered – no, not so. It’s amazing how changing some of these small details can require significant changes to a chapter. We don’t just write ‘the man rode his horse’. We incorporate the imagery of that horse ride into the scene, which means that all the subsequent references, sounds of harness clinking, flicking a fly with the reins, smell of horse sweat have to go too. Of course, I would always rather discover such errors myself in draft stage rather than have someone pick up my mistake in a published book. Still it amazed me to discover that a horse, something I saw as part of ordinary, working day life in Australia, even in convict times, was such a rarity due to our immense isolation from mother England and the expense of shipping livestock so prohibitive. Nothing is certain in historical fiction until it’s cross-checked and verified. Even though fiction, it needs to be right.
Source: Convict slang A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language (Author James Hardy Vaux 1812)
Got to love it when you get to make old-fashioned toffee in the name of research.
This batch is a tad bitter because I was trying to make it as if I couldn’t adjust the heat on the gas, since the toffee in my story is being made a very, very time long ago, under less than ideal conditions, in my new YA historical.
And since I must suffer for my art, I had to eat it too. It was actually very delicious toffee. But don’t tell anyone, because a writer’s life is supposed to be full of bitter pills.
What fun/scary/fabulous things have you done lately for your art?
The first time I was asked: “What is the big question in your novel?” I responded with a blank look.
BIG question??? Hmm! Hadn’t really thought about a BIG question. I was just writing what I hoped was a cracker of a story and following my main character’s journey through a testing and changing time for women during the era of The Great War.
“Wrong. No! You must be writing to answer a question,” insisted my uni research tutor.
Turned out, I was actually asking and exploring quite a few questions, but it took me some considerable effort to seek them out and, even more so, to articulate them and find the core question.
Being an historical novel, I thought, at first, that my questions would be very different to those that might be posed in a contemporary story. I considered them to be all about a woman’s right to happiness and did they have any rights to it, over duty, in the era of 1912 – 1920? I thought the question not relevant to young women in western society today, who often have so many choices.
Eventually I worked the major question in my novel through to:
At what point do we question the rightness and rationale of what we’ve been taught? (Or should we?)
Of course, this turned out to be a timeless question, relevant to as many women/people in the world today as much as a century ago. A right of passage and a question that – in some form – has been explored and debated in books the world over – through every genre.
I remember having a debate with my Writing for Children tutor, several years ago, when I wrote a glowing review on the picture book Bunyips Don’t by Sally Odgers and illustrated by Kim Gamble. My tutor maintained how could the book end with a celebration when Young Bunyip had moved to the sunny side of the swamp with new friends leaving old Bunyip alone? To her, Young Bunyip was bucking his heritage and a selfish creature for deserting Old Bunyip. I argued that Young Bunyip tried to encourage miserable Old Bunyip, living in the dank and dark, that he could dance and play (be happy) on the sunny side of the swamp and to come with him. Old Bunyip chose not to just because Bunyips Don’t dance and play and live on the sunny side. He chose to live the same old unhappy life rather than make a choice to change. In the end, my tutor was more convinced but still struggled with Young Bunyip “abandoning” his heritage and his kind’s way of life.
Doesn’t enjoyment and love for a book often come down to reader perspective?
If I hadn’t been going to uni, would I have ultimately learned as much just in the writing of my novel and formulated the same BIG question? Perhaps!
But the scope of my Master’s degree insisted I explore and articulate the social context and big question of my novel leading me to discover and thrill to what I discovered were the many layers to my story. Many intentional but some that I found had emerged organically too.
So last week, I walked the ramp to the RMIT graduation stage with a huge grin on my face and grasped my degree, very pleased and proud to be a Master of Creative Media (Creative Writing) with Distinction.
Now – onward to get my novel published. And discover the BIG question in my new manuscript/s.
Often I hear writers asked, did your idea spring from plot, character or setting? Not, what question are you asking. So I’m asking you: Do you write with a BIG question in mind?
And people do. Incredibly generously. No matter where I go, if I ask a question and say I’m writing a book, mouths and doors open. Even when we barely speak the same language.
My recent research revealed that the location of French farmhouses, at least in the Somme area of France, aren’t like our Aussie farmhouses situated out in the middle of paddocks, far from town, but are located within the village, often on the main street.
Big buildings with high wooden doors and entries, or perhaps steel for the more modern, can line the street, like in the photo here. Beyond the walls and doorways are the yard in the middle and the farmhouse at the back. When asked why farmhouses weren’t on the farm land, my guide explained that it’s safer in the village (in numbers) unlike being isolated out on the land alone. In a country invaded often over the centuries, this made a lot of sense.
The farmyards’ location and set-out is integral to an important meeting of two central characters in my story and when I learned of their true location, I realised I’d set up their meeting all wrong. Only trouble was, since my guide wasn’t a farmer, how did I find out what lay behind the closed doors and gates of French farmyards to even begin to imagine their set out or setup? Many haven’t changed layout much over the century since the war, but, of course, most are much more modern in technology and living arrangements today.
Skulking along the main road of a small village seemed the closest I could get to seeing inside, snapping surreptitious photos through the odd door or gate left ajar. Until… My sidekick and I came across the huge house (pictured) next door to a “farmhouse”. When Jackie, as we came to know him, stepped out the farm gate to retrieve something from his car, we bade him ‘Bon jour,’ and when he responded in-kind, I took the opportunity to ask him how old was the house as a lead in to asking about the farm.
He said he’d pop back and ask the owner of the “chateau” who was inside. Minutes later he returned and asked us to come in and meet the owner. Before we knew it, we were shaking hands with Jacques, Jean Claude and Jackie and explaining my interest as a writer in both the chateau and the farm. To my bemusement, Jean Claude started filming me while I interviewed Jacques. I feared, he may have misunderstood and thought me famous. The word writer seems to carry such weight. I started to explain that I was your garden variety writer, not discovered yet, but knew my words not understood by Jean Claude’s grin and failure to put down the camera, so we both continued to enjoy the moment.
Next thing, Annik, Jacque’s wife arrived and she very graciously took us off to show us through the lower floor of their delightful chateau. I was both awestruck and embarrassed, not having meant to impose so much on their kindness and generosity of spirit. My time with Annik stretched my French to surprising lengths and I found long forgotten phrases and words in my efforts to communicate with her. How could I forget, la fenêtre, the window and other such descriptions around the house from Form One French class? Sr Austin would be proud of me.
Annik and Jacques allowed me to take photos and answered all my questions. I also got to see through the disused farmhouse and imagine how it might have been when one of my characters lived there so very long ago. She may not live next to the chateau but I’m hoping it’s going to find a small role in the book too.
The meeting reminded me how often and how much people are happy to share their knowledge, expertise and sometimes important parts of their lives with me, indulging my writer’s curiosity with an openness of spirit I delight in and very much appreciate. I’ve spoken to rodeo clowns, sailors, itinerent workers, coal miners and now chateau owners to bring authenticity to my stories. Each time I feel they’ve given me a gift. They certainly enrich my stories.
Publication is a tough gig, but the writing life is pretty damn cool.
"All writing journeys begin with an idea – the hook that tempts the reader in. The premise that begins the journey and takes the writer all the way from the hook through to the finished book." Chris Bell
My debut historical novel “No Small Shame” will be published by Ventura Press (Impact Press imprint) April 2020.