Right now I’m in Brisbane, working in a vaguely feverish kind of way on the first draft of The Sultan’s Eyes.
Apparently my hair sticks up in all the videos. But that won’t surprise anyone who knows me.
Right now I’m in Brisbane, working in a vaguely feverish kind of way on the first draft of The Sultan’s Eyes.
Apparently my hair sticks up in all the videos. But that won’t surprise anyone who knows me.
Last month I visited the Somme battlefields to do some research for a work in progress, War Songs. It’s a manuscript I began some years ago, and need to rewrite. One day.
War Songs is the story of an ambulance driver and a nurse in a Casualty Clearing Station on the Somme from 1916 to 1918, the years of the great battles on that stretch of the Western Front, and since I was in France I took the train north to Amiens to get a better feel for the country and the memories it holds.
Amiens Cathedral is one of the wonders of the Gothic world, as vast and glorious as Notre Dame in Paris, but without the crowds.
It was an appropriate place to start my journey, to stop and reflect and light a candle, with memorials to many of the forces that defended the town, including the Anzac force which stopped the German advance at Villers-Bretonneux in April 1918.
During the war, the cathedral was piled high with sandbags to protect the precious stained glass windows, the carved choir, and the ethereal stonework. The town and the cathedral were bombed, and again during World War 2, but saved from the utter destruction suffered by many of the smaller towns in Picardy and Flanders which, to this day, have never really recovered.
One such town is Albert, a few kilometres east of Amiens. I have set most of War Songs in an encampment outside Albert, a town through which so many soldiers and ambulances passed on their way to the front line. It was also famous for its cathedral – or basilica – the spire of which is topped with a golden statue of the Virgin holding the infant Jesus aloft. The spire was hit by a shell in 1916, and the statue spent most of the rest of the war dangling precariously. The soldiers believed that if she ever fell, the Germans would win the war. The Australians, of course, had many nicknames for the Holy Mother, including Fanny Durack – one of our Olympic swimmers.
The statue did fall eventually, blasted off its pedestal, although that didn’t seem to affect the outcome of the war. Albert itself was slowly beaten into dust by shells and bombs, and taken by the German Army in its Big Push of 1918. The basilica and the statue were rebuilt in the 1920s, and it remains – as it was then – a landmark visible across the battlefields, so you can always see where you are, and how near you are to Albert.
I hiked to the outskirts of Albert, to two small cemeteries. One was Bapaume Post, once on the frontline. Here, as in so many other sites, I was the only visitor, walking silently between the rows of graves, pausing every so often to ponder the eighteen year-old Tyneside Irishmen, the 45 year-old stretcher bearer, the four friends buried with their headstones close together, the rows and rows of human beings who share the same final day. 1 July, 1916. 23 July, 1916. 24 April, 1918. 4 July, 1918.
From here you can look back towards town, or out across what was once a contaminated mess of barbed wire, smashed vehicles, pulverised dirt, cast-off boxes and bottles and tins, and too many small wooden crosses or nondescript mounds of earth.
|Cross of sacrifice|
Like Gallipoli, the countryside is dotted with cemeteries, each with row upon row of simple white headstones, and edged with close-trimmed lawn and flowers, and the last few poppies of the season. Your eyes can trace the positions of the front lines and key battles by the placement of the cemeteries and memorials that mark the skyline – the high ground. Always the high ground.
|Cemetery behind Thiepval memorial|
You can also see, especially in autumn or winter, the marks of war scattered in the fields: the shattered white clay coming through the topsoil in circles (shell craters) or lines (trenches) or surreal blotches (all hell broke loose here). The earth still bears scars, nearly a hundred years on. Each year, even now, the farmers find more shell casings, belt buckles, water bottles, and – yes – bones. The locals call it “the memory of the earth”, or “Somme harvest”.
|View from Australian memorial, Villers-Bretonneux|
One day, I was very fortunate to have the services of Olivier Dirson from Chemins d’Histoire, a softly-spoken French battlefield guide. Olivier took me to Heilly, the site of a casualty clearing station by the railway line, its presence marked only by a small cemetery. It was just as I had imagined the setting of War Songs, but immeasurably sadder in real life. We travelled to Villers-Bretonneux, where the Australians checked the German advance, and where the school, famously, was rebuilt with funds raised by Victorian schoolchildren; to the mine crater at La Boiselle; to the old trenches at Beaumont-Hamel; to Pozières and the site of the windmill, which, according to Bean, “marks a ridge more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other spot on earth”.
From Pozières you can gaze across the few hundred metres to Mouquet Farm and a few hundred metres further to Theipval – to Lutyens’ magnificent Memorial to the Missing.
All these place-names, learned in school and on many Anzac Days, read in countless books.
It’s easy to do, easy to write: I stand on the remains of the Windmill and look towards Mouquet Farm. But in that field, the AIF suffered more than 23,000 casualties between 23 July and 5 September 1916 - just over six weeks.
Like Lone Pine, the distances between the sites of these horrific battles is sometimes just a short stroll. Just like the Nek, in places the opposing trenches were only a grenade lob apart. And yet … and yet men were expected to climb out of those trenches and run across that thin stretch of shell-pocked ground towards the machine guns, the wire, the other men. And yet they tried. Over and over.
The numbers, the facts, are literally incomprehensible. 30,000 British casualties, just to take Mouquet Farm, a small red-roofed building on a hill. The number of names listed on the Thiepval Memorial: 73,367. And that’s only the names of the British Empire and South African people who served here in these few miles of the Front and whose graves are unknown. Most of them died in the first few months of the Battle of the Somme.
Medical staff were among them: there were many RAMC headstones in the cemeteries I visited. 3000 nurses – women – died in the war. Stretcher bearers and orderlies were amongst the casualties far too often (including my great-grandfather who returned from Flanders, gassed, and ill for the rest of his life).
The brain dodges around these numbers, tries to think about them logically, then flinches away: there is no way to properly understand them. 74,000 missing. That’s the entire population of Darwin. Or New Plymouth.
Numbers too big to comprehend. But they hold enormous meaning: individually and collectively.
Then. Now. Always.
It was supposed to be the war to end all wars.
|La Boiselle, above Lochnagar crater|
I have gathered memories, images and notes of so many favourite things during my time in Paris, most of them to do with my research project, Tragédie; others accidental or incidental. Here are a few of the other things I noticed along the way.
A fold-up motorbike, still in the steel container in which it was parachuted into Occupied France.
Also at the Musée d’Armée, best window frames ever.
I had been worried about Napoleon: he seems seriously out of fashion here nowadays, which seems a little unfair, given the education and legal systems and all that. But also I’d seen photos of his tomb, and it seemed very small. I know he was only little, but a weensy casket seems a bit sad.
I needn’t have worried. It’s as big as a bus.
But here is the thing that really stopped me in my tracks:
Paris is as beautiful and wild as ever. Men no longer urinate in the streets (though they still keep that time-honoured tradition in Marseille, we noticed). There are a million more tourists than last time I visited: you can’t even get into Notre Dame without waiting in a 200 metre queue. But it still feels like a spiritual home to me.
For the first time, I walked further down the island and visited Sainte-Chapelle, an ancient jewel-box in stained glass. I gasped. Really.
And also for the first time, I visted Versailles. Twice. It was all just as opulent and dazzling as you imagine, but the most poignant, in a way, was Marie-Antionette’s little hamlet that she had built so she could play at being a milkmaid or simply get away from the rest of the Court. And there, having a lovely time, was a pukeko. Who knew? I always thought they were Antipodean.
There are so many museums in Paris, and I only visited those related to my research, but they included some gems, such as the Musée Carnavalet, the museum of the history of Paris:
The Musée Cluny, museum of the Middle Ages:
And in the National Archives I saw documents such as Marie-Antoinette’s last letter, the proceedings of the Parlement as they discussed the matter of Jeanne d’Arc, and the Edict of Nantes. Right there in front of me. The actual Edict of freaking Nantes. Revoked or otherwise. Consider me flabbergasted.
The Archives has a strangely moving exhibition called Fiches. It is focused on the different types of files the state or authorities hold on people, and in particular since the advent of the photograph: ID cards, mugshots, registers of varying kinds. I was just walking through on my way elsewhere in the building and got caught by the sight of ID cards for Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein (who famously stayed in France throughout both wars in spite of being American and Jewish), Man Ray, Josephine Baker, Samuel Beckett and Jean Cocteau, whose file has ANARCHISTE stamped in red across it. Then I was sucked right in, by agonising images of young Jewish people in 1938 smiling at the camera – just before JUIF is stamped on their file, of forged papers used by the Resistance and Allied airmen, of photos of nuns and criminals and apprentices and men going off to the trenches and Verdun.
Speaking of which, I’m headed north to the Somme now, to do some research for a different project, War Songs, which is a manuscript that’s been sitting in the drawer for years and which I will have to get to – one day.
This week I’ve been on planet opera.
It’s a pretty wild place, let me tell you.
The idea was simple – gather together in one room a whole bunch of aspiring librettists, and throw at them the combined wisdom, imagination, experience, suffering, creativity, skill and humour of some of the finest minds (and voices) in the business. For a week.
I applied because my brain exploded at the idea of creating an opera as well as a novel based on the life of Mademoiselle de Maupin. And because with all my current research into Baroque and Sappho leading to Tosca and gender performance archetypes and how they play out in opera, literature and life, something big is slowly taking shape in my mind, fragments are connecting or sparking or swirling. Hopefully it’s the rest of my PhD. Dunno yet.
And because, clearly, I haven’t got enough going on.
Just a few of the things I learned, some of which apply to any written work, some of which we all know but it doesn’t hurt to have them beaten into our skulls one more time:
So I won’t tell you what happened. Just what it means for me today, knowing this will change over time.
Been thinking lately about fragments, about glimpses of lives and fragments of memory, and how to capture that in prose – specifically, in Tragédie – how to convey confusion, and memories being sometimes out of reach, sometimes conflicting. That’s not a lack of narrative, just a different way of writing it and reading it, but rethinking the meaning of narrative helped that project enormously. Or will, when I have time to reflect.
I also realised, though, that the idea of squeezing La Maupin’s life as a biographical narrative, into an opera was absurd. She may have died at 33 but she had more adventures than The Three Musketeers put together, and my version of her is also a recitative on guilt, sin, redemption and celebrity. So I’m left wondering what to do with that idea. And that’s good.
The concept I was left with was a meditation on opera, on gender, on performance of opera and gender in life and on stage, and on celebrity. A riff on Baroque, on costume and how it defines us. On sex and sin. With a little Lully and Purcell thrown in. And swordfighting. Or the sounds of swordfighting.
Sure. Still a bit of distilling to do.
Some soundbites from various presenters over the week:
Also, as with most forms of writing, it’s almost impossible to get work produced. But that’s never stopped me before.
I could go on, but I won’t.
Respect to Chambermade Opera and the VWC, the fine people at CAL who funded the workshop, the twelve bewildered composers who came to listen to our pitches, and our cast of gurus: Deborah Cheetham, Moya Henderson, Judith Rodriguez, Alison Croggan, Ida Dueland Hansen, Stephen Armstong, Margaret Cameron, David Young, Caroline Lee, and Deborah Kayser who sang our homework. (See! Read that list and weep with envy.)
Will now attempt to float back to earth.
I’ve wasted years of my life.
Happily I’m in good company.
A US writer – let’s call her M* – whose book for younger readers is just out, has advised a group of young aspiring writers not to bother with such feeble-minded tasks as research when writing historical fiction:
M said she didn’t know enough and had to write about what she didn’t know. ”To write a book about the past [as she has done], there is a saying that you read only two books and then close your eyes,” she said. That was all the research required.
You spend an awful lot of time with people when you’re writing.
Not real people. They get in the way. Unreal people. Imagined people.
And not all of them are the cheerful, supportive, well-balanced type.
That’s not so hard when you’re writing a downright evil villain who, although they must have hidden depths and some kind of comprehensible motivation, is a blackguard and a scoundrel. They are quite fun to write, although you might not invite them over for a cup of tea.
That’s why we all secretly admit to loving characters like Deadwood‘s wicked Al Swearengen more than dour Seth Bullock, even though we know we should really be on the side of the sheriff and not the brothel-owning murderer and his fabulously Jacobean swearing.
But what about your favourite characters, the people you spend months exploring and expanding? What about their weak moments, their shameful days, the incidents that might crop up later on facebook or the tabloids or a seventeenth century police report? How do you write your hero or heroine into a corner from which they can never escape, into a pitiable state, into an embarrassing scene from which nobody emerges with honour?
And how can you not?
I never quite expected the words “Camus” and “Paraparaumu” to appear in the same story, but trust Bookslut to get there first.
An interesting post from Elizabeth Bachner on being transported by the legendary Margaret Mahy all the way from Manhattan to Paraparaumu, as an adult reader of a young adult novel. Margaret Mahy can do that to you.
Bachner has been scouring The Ultimate Teen Book Guide: More than 700 Great Books, and spends some time discussing the nature of best books – the books to which you return, no matter what age you were when you read them:
It makes me expect some new book [which will] thrill me, and heal me, and mutually love me, and make me safe. It reminds me that being full-grown doesn’t mean I have to be stolid, untransformable, bored, or dead. Beginning and ending things does not have to be teenage.
She touches on the question of whether the YA novel’s success in a crossover market is because it allows time travel by the reader back to their own adolescence or simply across genre. Or simply about finding a bloody good read.
I was wondering the same thing this morning, as it happens, having downloaded the new Scott Westerfeld, Behemoth, a ripping steampunk yarn set in World War One. Sure, I can put it down as research of my own, but the truth is that the first book in the trilogy, Leviathan, sucked me in good and proper as a reader of any age, so that I felt I had to get the ebook immediately instead of waiting to be able to locate a hardback in the shops.
My critical author brain reads it out of one eye, my breathless twelve year-old self reads it with the other.
I don’t even pretend when reading some books – for example, Harry Potter. If I think about the words on the page too much, I wish for a more heavy-handed editor. So I don’t think about it. It’s not hard. The story and characters inevitably carry me away from my adult self.
Mind you, my adolescent self largely had to get by without young adult novels and spent a great deal of time angsting with Camus too.
So maybe we’re just catching up on lost opportunities.
Currently engrossed in books and articles on 17th century Paris, including:
~ Theatres (there were piss buckets in the corners so you didn’t have to miss a moment)
~ Opera (everyone sang along with their favourite songs)
~ Costume (male and female attire was only just beginning to diverge, so cross-dressing wasn’t quite so noticeable)
~ Fencing and duels (a golden age of fencing theory, although students quite often died during training).
I have borrowed a Paris atlas from around the turn of the (last) century, illustrated and with fabulous early photographs in which women with black lace head-dresses and long cloaks wander the boulevards and wait patiently for a break in the traffic – all horses and fine carriages.
I feel sure that one small pale boy staring sadly into the camera is called Marcel.
Many people have been asking me how I researched the historical events on which the three Swashbuckler books are based. What did I do? Well…
Read novels set in the period. In my case I had already read lots of inspiring nautical adventures such as Patrick O’Brian and CS Forester, but I have read many more since I started the research.
I also had to read all the older and current maritime novels and adventures aimed at children, even if they’re bad: firstly to make sure I wasn’t replicating anything, and secondly to get the hang of the vocabulary and feel of the reading age (9 – 12).
Read history texts until my eyes fell out. Looked at maps, original (or facsimile) manuscripts, engravings, paintings, newspapers and pamphlets – anything. Read other stuff – tangential but interesting histories – because you never know what you might find. I didn’t know about the uprising against the French invasion of Malta when I first started writing book one: I just stumbled across it, and found it so fascinating that it became central to the plot of the trilogy.
Once the narrative and the sense of time and place is clear, there’s an awful lot of referencing, fact-checking and map-staring that has to happen. This can be particularly difficult if you’re stupid enough to set three books on the other side of the world, and live in a city without a vast collection of references on Malta. The internet helps a great deal, of course, and through it I found brainy people in Malta who could answer dumb questions for me.
But the web can also mislead. Many websites (like my own) are written by enthusiastic amateur historians – even Wikipedia. This is a great and wonderful thing, unless you’re relying on them for absolute accuracy. They will sometimes be wrong. So will the professionals, even in books. I read about four different locations for the church in Mdina where the uprising took place, for example, some not even in Mdina at all. I couldn’t be sure until I stood outside it.
I keep a spreadsheet of real life action tracked alongside fictional action, which includes things like seasonal changes (which wind will be prevailing, for example) and actual events. Sometimes I needed to track the action and characters hour by hour – other times it’s week by week. This is particularly important in books two and three where the characters get more caught up in real life events on Malta, as well as lots of fictional events.
I didn’t keep proper records of where I’d found certain items of information (I got bored with keeping card files, which is what I usually do) and as a result drove myself completely mad looking up things all over again.
4. Stand there
I didn’t feel that everything was right until I could stand in the limestone dust of Malta and feel the sun on the back of my neck and stare at the sea and just – know.
From now on I am always going to base my books somewhere fabulous so I have to go visit. Often.
5. Check everything again
Redrafting can be as much about checking and refining information as it is about language and character. You end up taking out a lot of those historical details that seemed so critical at the beginning, and I spent a lot of time working on how to convey information without it feeling like a history lesson. Looking back, I think I got better at it by halfway through book two.
Even though the narrator, Lily’s, voice is really rather modern, I tried to check the etymology of every phrase and significant word to avoid glaring anachronism. I double and triple-checked maps, dates, language, clothing, food, ship details – everything. I hope. No doubt there’s something stupid stuck in there somewhere.
This is how editing works. The manuscript is edited, then I check it, then it is finalised by the in-house editor, and then typeset (beautifully) and I check the pages again, then they are proof-read, then the editor looks through them one last time.
In the early stages, I can still fix things that I’ve realised aren’t quite right, say if I’ve woken up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because I’m unable to remember which arm Nelson lost. Editors can ask clever questions like “Why is the candle burning when it’s broad daylight?” (Answer: Because the author is an idiot).
I’m a (magazine) editor by trade, so I do this stuff for a living and my work ought to be flawless – and there’s still a bloody typo on page 89. No, don’t look.
Sandra Gulland, who wrote a successful trilogy on Josephine B, has a great website, and she records some of her less reliable research methods, all of which I also did:
I spent too much money on books;
I collected tacky memorabilia;
I travelled long distances to go to museum shows;
I grew teary-eyed on the cobblestones of Paris…